and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
In the verse above from Acts, Peter is speaking directly about the Jewish law regarding socialization with gentiles. To be non-Jewish in ancient Israel was to be considered “unclean” or “profane”. To walk into the home of a gentile as Peter does in Acts chapter 10, was unheard of.
It wasn’t just taboo or awkward, but it was unlawful. Peter was breaking God’s law – as he had known it in the past.
And I could talk all day about how the Word (which includes the Torah and the Jewish laws) is living and breathing. Or how we interpret it and wrestle with it, how this wrestling is also living and breathing and changing. I could go on and on about how this is a perfect example of some of those kinds of changes. This is a great example of seeking inclusion over exclusion, of the Word searching for love and relationship over judgement and in-grouping.
But I’m sure our adult education last Sunday was filled with those kinds of conversations. So instead, I am just going to talk about this idea of “clean”, because…well why not?
The truth is, Peter is talking about a very specific kind of cleanliness. Peter is talking about a cleanliness that comes from following God’s law as he understood it as a Jewish man in ancient Israel. But when I was rereading this text in preparation for Sunday’s class, I kept thinking about the ways we judge others by whether or not they appear “clean”, in a very literal sense.
Last summer I was an adult leader on my internship church’s youth mission trip to LA. We spent a very early morning serving at a soup kitchen. As I leaned forward to spoon some of the melon chunks I was serving on to the trays of the guests coming through, I recognized my own serious issue around cleanliness.
People who are experiencing homelessness, often did not have access to showers or soap, and so even from across the tray and the sneeze guard, I felt uncomfortable at how “unclean” they appeared to be. I was trying so hard not to, but I found myself expending a lot of energy just trying not to show my discomfort.
We had been up at 4am to get to the kitchen in time to prep. This was my third night on the trip with so little sleep. All in all – it was a rough morning to begin with. Then adding my discomfort and my attempts to hide it – I felt exhausted. This was not something I am proud of. Because secretly, in my tired state, I found myself feeling thankful. I was thankful that I was behind the bar and not on the other side of it. It didn’t occur to me to associate with the person with a tray more than “Good morning” and “watermelon or honeydew?”
Until I saw one of our youth who was assigned to the eating area. It was his job to help direct people to seats, to help bus trays that got left, and he brought an incredible joy to every moment of his task. He greeted each person as they sat down with a huge smile. He even sat next to a few people and visited while they ate. This young man engaged, he associated, he couldn’t care less about clean or unclean.
For him, clean or unclean was not an issue – he was freed from the discomfort I was feeling, and able to really create these momentary relationships with the people around him. This young man inspired me. He inspired me to lean in a bit more. To give thanks that I had a shower, and to give thanks for the person across from me who didn’t. I was inspired to smile more, to engage more, to create momentary relationships with each person I served.
I think sometimes we can get so caught up in our own comfort, or lack there of, that we forget about the Gospel. We forget that God gives us love and mercy. And sometimes we forget that God calls us to share that love and mercy. God calls us to love, God calls us to share, and God calls us to be in relationship. And as Peter discovered, the relationships God calls us to are not always to those who are like us, who are “clean”. God calls us to those who might make us uncomfortable, who may be “unclean”. To these God calls us to care for, to lose our judgement over, and to sit with.
Have you experienced the kind of discomfort I felt in serving? Are there people in your life that you might initially think of as “unclean”? How can you better build relationship with them? Who is God calling you to today?