A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2010
Text: Acts 11:1-18
At first blush, we might think that hardly anything would be less important to discuss this morning than the matter of clean and unclean foods. Few of us are hung up on what kind of animals are kosher and which are not. A number of you, in fact, are vegetarians or vegans, and have thus presumably dismissed once and for all the question of meat-eating. You might even be viscerally repulsed at even this much talk of animals as food stuffs. (So let’s quickly move on to a comfortable abstraction.)
The story of Peter’s vision, recounted today in Acts, is not really about food, of course. Except that it is. The story is important because it marks the turning point for the acceptance of Gentiles as Christians on a par with Jews as Christians. (That seems odd, doesn’t it?) The problem for the early Church was an inherited division among people according to what they ate, among other things. The story overturns the notion that people are clean and unclean according to whether the foods they eat are clean or unclean. “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” Peter’s vision opens his heart to the possibility that the Holy Spirit can fall on Cornelius the centurion and his household the same way it had fallen upon him and other Jews.
Before jumping to the conclusion that this is a quaint story without much relevance for us, let’s pause to consider the persistent trait of human beings to divide the world into sacred and profane. It certainly is not a tendency solely among ancient Hebrews. People all over the world and from time immemorial have designated places, people, actions, and words “sacred,” and have sought to honor their sacredness by making taboo any careless or disrespectful transgression of the sacred. When I was a child, for example, the Bible in our home, the sacred book, was to have nothing placed on top of it. More seriously, there was a list, however much revised from my grandparents’ list, of things that could not be done on Sunday, the sacred day. The holy name of God and the holy name of Jesus were reserved for serious discourse and prayer. One did not swear with those names nor even use them as exclamations of surprise. Now, lest you think that I am bidding for a return to those ways of respecting the sacred, let me state clearly that my purpose here is only to illustrate how it is that we persist in having a category that we call “sacred”—and along with it comes the notion that to dishonor or obliterate the sacred is to “profane” it, or make it common.
Sacred and profane are a pair of opposites—a polarity—like light and dark, good and evil, comic and tragic, truth and falsehood that, if not inborn in us, are so deeply implanted structures that we seem unable to think in any other way. If, for example, we decide to define everything and everybody as sacred, then nothing is sacred. “Sacred” depends for its existence upon a relationship to the profane, its opposite. Same thing is true for night and day. We can only understand “day” in relation to its opposite, “night.” So if we were to abolish the category of “sacred” and say that everything is “profane,” it would not be profane; it would simply be. For “profane,” like “sacred” depends upon its opposite to have any existence.
The notion of clean and unclean (not just animals!) comes out of this polarity. And my point is that the polarity is not going away. If it does not pop up in one place, it will surface in another. Look, for example, at what happened to the Church of Peter, Paul, Luke, and the rest of the other early Christians. The categories of “clean” and “unclean” within a few short years had been replaced by the categories of “orthodox” and “heretical,” which functioned in much the same way. Some ideas and some people were admissible and good. Other ideas and other people were inadmissible and bad. Even the notion of common table fellowship in the Early Church, which had been the instrument of union among Jews and Gentiles, became the instrument of disunion when Christians started sorting themselves out into “orthodox” and “heretical,” sending each other away from the Table through excommunication.
Now you get the picture. The “clean and unclean” polarity is something that continually dogs the Church. The hot-button issue in our time is not food but sexual orientation. And it is interesting that when our own Kathy Grieb and others sat down to write the Episcopal Church’s response to what the Anglican Communion knows as “the Windsor Report” several years ago, she and they produced a document called “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” grounding much of it in this very story of Peter’s vision. Their point was that in every age God the Holy Spirit reveals that what we have called “profane” or “unclean” is off the mark. We continue to get it wrong by excluding this group or that group. When we listen carefully to discern the leading of the Spirit, we find that frequently we have messed up by failing to imagine that Christ’s saving power is deeper than our poor power to conceive it. And we likewise continue to learn that the Holy Spirit can, in fact, hold us together despite our proclivity for dividing each other into pitched camps of mutual disagreement.
You might get the idea—it would not be the first time someone did—that the upshot of all this is a notion that any distinctions between people are wrong, or that somehow there is no reason to see a difference between “clean” and “unclean,” for example. That is not what we learn from the Jesus of the gospels. It is commonly thought that Jesus treated everybody the same. No, he did not. What he did was to refuse to make distinctions based on age, gender, ethnic origin, or religious pedegree—things like that. But Jesus very clearly expressed in strong terms condemnation of those people who were self-righteous and hypocritical. What Jesus did was to shift the notion of “clean and unclean” from external matters to matters of the heart—attitudes, judgments, and intentions:
He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23)
What do we do with all this? What difference does it make? To become evermore conformed to the pattern of Christ—the process that we call Christian formation—we need to practice careful and thoughtful reflection on what in fact is sacred—clean, and profane—unclean. It is not that these categories have no meaning. It is that we often misapply them and as a result exclude or even demonize persons or whole groups of people. Two or three practices, even more basic than such reflection, are prayer, repentance, and the intelligent study of the Bible. The virtue that we seek to train by doing all this is the virtue of charity, the kind of generosity characterized by a soul open enough to see where we could be wrong and thus how someone different from us might be right, or at least deserving of respect.
Jostein Gaarder’s brilliant novel called Sophie’s World tells the history of Western philosophy in the guise of a mystery tale. I won’t spoil it for you by giving away the plot, but I will tell you that the 15-year-old girl at the center of the story learns how difficult it is to grasp how the human mind works and how easy it is to be prisoners of our own little worlds. As her understanding grows, so does her ability to see how rich and complex the mind is, how intricate the basic questions are. At the same time she begins to understand that the entirety of philosophy is a conversation around one or two basic questions: who am I? what is real? how should we live? It is not so different from the project that St. Stephen and the Incarnation is about, or for that matter, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about: getting us to stretch open our little worlds (they can be little even when loaded up with much intellectual and political baggage) and become something new. To do that is often confusing and always a little scary. But it is a piece of the great transformation that God is about in bringing us to new life. And it is a big part of what we celebrate and call Resurrection.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010