I think I’ve told this story a while ago but it’s worth sharing again. In the mid-90’s I was a pastor for a small, rural church west of Reedsburg. Every summer I would take kids to Iowa for a church camp experience. One year a boy named Cody came along. He was about 7 or 8 years old. He had never been out of the state of Wisconsin before this trip.
When we arrived at camp, the kids got their cabin assignments and got settled in. There was then time to roam around and meet other kids while registration was still occurring. It had been a good hour since we had arrived and all of a sudden Cody comes to find me. As he’s approaching me, he looks white as a ghost—really shook up. And I ask him, “Cody, what’s wrong?” And he says to me, “Tammy, no one here likes the Green Bay Packers.”
For Cody, this discovery made Iowa feel like foreign territory. He tried to find others who were like him—and for Cody this meant finding other Packer fans. When he could not find a Packer fan, his identity was shaken.
The good news is that Cody made it through the week of camp. But he had to work hard to make friends with people who he thought was different from him. He was challenged with one of our most basic struggles as humans—how do we move beyond dividing our world into “us” and “them.”
This passage from Acts 10 speaks to this, I believe, and it is where we find the heart of the Gospel. It’s in this chapter that we encounter God’s vision for all humanity and how Jesus embodied that vision with his life, death, and resurrection. Here in this chapter, Peter goes through a seismic shift in his perception of God and in his understanding of what it means to be human.
This vision excites me but it also challenges me to the core of my being.
So with the help of James Alison from his lecture series “Jesus the Forgiving Victim” I’d like to dig deeper into this story with you.
Alison lays the groundwork for understanding this passage by first talking about our anthropological problem—something we all struggle with. He shares that as humans, our problem is that we are extremely dependent on identifying an “evil other” over against whom we can unite. We see this played out frequently—in families, in communities, and our world. In fact this makes front page news all the time. According to Alison, the quickest shortcut for group formation is one in which we try and answer the question “Who am I supposed to be not like?” As we answer this, we experience an instant sense of belonging as we create “us and them” categories and this feels good.
When I was growing up, I remember clearly being taught that we were not like Catholics.
And we were not like people who didn’t have jobs. And we certainly were not like people who were lazy.
Might we think of ways we define ourselves as not being like others? We could probably come up with some. Thomas Merton, the catholic theologian, described our human propensity this way: We are often tempted to pray the prayer, “Thank God, I am not like other people” which gives us a deep satisfaction as we admire the distance between us and them.
In this story in Acts, we see clearly the “us and them” going on. Peter and the Jewish community were nothing like the Gentiles. Peter was bound by the purity code of his religion that kept him absolutely separate from Gentiles. Gentiles were the outsiders, second-class citizens in the eyes of Peter and the Jewish followers.
So let’s watch now what happens to Peter’s identity as he is carried through these visions.
Through the work of God’s Spirit both Cornelius and Peter are given visions. Peter is then instructed to go to Cornelius’ house. Peter’s entering Cornelius’ house would have been considered absolutely scandalous—it broke all the purity laws to which he was bound. But Peter steps over these rules and into unchartered territory. “Us and them” is getting very blurry. He is no longer who he thinks he is. For in the midst of a Gentile household he utters the following (which James Allison says we should underline about three hundred times with all the highlighters and colored markers that we can muster): Peter says—“God has shown me that I should not call any human common or unclean.” He is no longer to consider any human repugnant, repulsive, or morally inferior. Can we even understand how mind-blowing this statement would have been to Peter? James Allison describes this experience that Peter was having as an anthropological earthquake.
So how does Peter get to this place? What changes for him? Somehow the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has given him a new view of God and a new view of humanity. Peter connected with this new reality that he is forgiven—meaning he is able to let go of victimizing the other as a way of creating and maintaining togetherness. It is becoming clear to Peter that Jesus, the shamed one, the cursed one, is in fact the source of honor and forgiveness. Jesus, the forgiving victim, has opened up a way for all to be reconciled. He is inaugurating a new way of being together and Peter is recognizing this.
Okay, now we just need to stop here for a second. What we have just heard described is much more difficult, and produces way more of a shake-up, than seems to be indicated from St. Luke’s account—the one we attribute to be the author of the Book of Acts. The reason is that we are all far more run by our own systems of purity than we realize. Peter had his own system, we certainly have ours.
But what we see here is that Jesus inaugurated a way of being together in which these purity rules are dismantled. “That means that there is no group, or nation, ethnicity or gender or any other identity that we typically create in binary fashion (slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female, black or white, straight or gay, and so on) that is not able to be brought into the gathering.”
So then, can we appreciate the magnitude of this anthropological earthquake that Peter and others are experiencing? Here are two groups who find themselves face to face in an extraordinary situation where they are transformed by God’s truth that there is no barrier between them. It’s mind blowing. Yes, we should highlight this statement from Peter three hundred times!
Wouldn’t it be interesting if Peter had kept a blog? To report all that he was feeling, thinking? Alison suggests that Peter has to be experiencing a collapse of identity through this. He is discovering that the Gentile—Peter’s former “other” is now inside the same thing as Peter is, on the same terms as Peter is, which Peter realizes he does not control. And this means that Peter is never going to be the same again. Peter is seeing a new “we” be formed. It is no longer us against them. But it is Us + Them= We. And this, I believe, is what God hopes for all of us.
Like Peter, we are all invited to enter into this process of growth and self-discovery by finding similarity with those we have defined as “other”. Now we can imagine that this is no easy process. In fact this will most likely feel very painful and destabilizing. Yet Alison would share that “what feels like a loss is in fact not a loss. It is the pain of being given a new identity, of discovering who I really am, of becoming ‘you are my people’ rather than ‘not my people.’”
I shared earlier that for me this story conveys the heart of the gospel. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and gives to all of us the hope of reconciliation. And our work as followers is to be living out this way of reconciliation in all of our relationships—to examine ourselves and ask who have we labeled as “other”? This could be a neighbor, a co-worker, a family member. We are then challenged to discover a similarity with those we have labeled as “other”. And as we do this, we start to understand that there is no over against in God. We are held together in a new way.
One last idea from Alison as we wrestle with this new way of being together. In his talks, he asks people to imagine heaven. Now apart from clouds, and harps, and winged creatures, people tend to talk about a place where there are lots of people they loved but have since died—lots of people “like us.” But Alison wonders “might there be more?” He wonders “Might the sheer excitement and dynamism of heaven be enriched by the zest which flows from discovering equality of heart with all those I have defined as other? Those of who I was frightened of or disapproved?”
Do you remember the story of Jesus on the cross with a thief hanging next to him? It is in that story that Jesus says to the thief “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Alison asks “how many of us have even begun to imagine what it is like to find the company of such a person forever delightful?”
Us + Them = We