Common English Bible (CEB)
11 The apostles and the brothers and sisters throughout Judea heard that even the Gentiles had welcomed God’s word. 2 When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him.3 They accused him, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”
4 Step-by-step, Peter explained what had happened. 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying when I had a visionary experience. In my vision, I saw something like a large linen sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came all the way down to me. 6 As I stared at it, wondering what it was, I saw four-legged animals—including wild beasts—as well as reptiles and wild birds.[a] 7 I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’ 8 I responded, ‘Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 The voice from heaven spoke a second time, ‘Never consider unclean what God has made pure.’ 10 This happened three times, then everything was pulled back into heaven. 11 At that moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered that man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and your entire household can be saved.’ 15 When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. 16 I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”
18 Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So then God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”
Anyone can cook.
These three words were the basis of a film that came out from Disney and Pixar a few years ago, the film called Ratatouille. The movie focuses on, as many films do, an unlikely hero, a rat named Remy. It was his lot in life to be a rat. He lived with rats, rummaging through garbage and leftovers with his rat brethren, out in the French countryside, and he was miserable. Why? Because he had higher aspirations. He dreamed of one day becoming a cook. He loved food, and he loved to make it, to experiment with it, and enjoy the art of it all.
It was the one thing he loved most in life, and it was the one thing that, quite frankly, didn’t seem like an option for him. I mean, he’s a rat. A. Rat. Small rodents are not usually who you think of when you think of a culinary master. He may have all the practice, he may have read the books, he may have watched the cooking shows, but that didn’t matter. It takes place in a world where magical, intelligent animals are not normal, and therefore, a rat chef is thoroughly beyond the pale for almost anyone. And yet, there he is, a master cook, who dreams of being a French restaurateur. He was inspired by his favorite cook, who’s favorite saying was one that he took to heart—Anyone can cook. And when he said anyone, he meant anyone.
So the story goes on. Through a series of rather strange events, he actually does wind up being a cook, but not in the most conventional way. I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but trust me when I say that his presence in the kitchen was quite controversial, especially for the health inspector! In an a business in which being sanitary can mean your whole business, being a rat cook is a dangerous way to be. However, Remy couldn’t help how he was born, or who he was. He simply knew who he wanted to be, and that, for our hero and his friends, winds up being the crux of the story. Don’t let how you were born decide who you want to be. Only you can decide that.
I’m thankful for that kind of message out there in the world, because it really does make a difference. We live in a world where what circumstances you were born in often make a big difference in the way you live your life, and who you become. The opportunities and paths given to someone born in Bangladesh will be different from someone who was born in Boston. Location, culture, family, ethnicity, and gender are often a great load of predetermining factors when it comes to someone’s journey in life. Often, it can make a significant difference in whom one associates with, what you do, and when it gets right down to it, what you believe in.
It really does strike me how much this debate happens in the New Testament, the matter of Jew and Gentile. It seems to be something that people got quite hung up on at the time, but it’s a good debate to have, because the matter of who’s in and who’s out is still an issue we face today. For instance, I’ve talked before about how it is when you are a kid and you get picked last in gym class. That’s a case of who’s in and who’s out on the most primal level we have, but that’s hardly based on birth and circumstance. But what about when it comes to other things? Think about things like the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR requires that to be a member, you must trace your lineage back to the Revolutionary war, which is a pretty impressive task in and of itself. But what if you manage to trace your lineage back only until just after the war was over? What if your family emigrated to the US afterwards? Well, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
Ok, well, that’s a pretty superficial example. What about something that cuts closer to home? Say, think about CEO’s of major corporations, or even politicians in this country. How many of them started out from the bottom rung of society and climbed up to the top? Surely, there’s a certain percentage that did, but really, most often they were born into a well-to-do family, got into an Ivy League School, made the right connections due to exposure to powerful people, and worked their way up from a higher level to begin with. And that’s in the United States alone. How many billions of people are on this planet, and how many of them get the chance to succeed as well as the ones at the top do? Honestly, not a whole lot.
Inequality is dangerous business, I know. It’s a touchy subject for many, because at some point, most of us have felt the sting of inequality at some point in our lives. We know all too well what inequality can do, if not personally, then with somebody we know. We see it in our neighborhoods, in our community, and in our schools. So it is with so many situations in this world, that some people start from a position of disadvantage and others from a position of advantage. The good news is, this is Easter, our God is one who is no respecter of persons, who doesn’t care where we were born from, or who our family is, or what our genetic makeup is. That doesn’t matter, and that’s good news.
This fifth week of Easter, we see this story that is one of the truest and best explanations of what happened because of the gospel. This takes place in the establishment of the church of Christ. Behind this story is a conflict, that between Jew and Gentile. The logic goes that because Jesus was seen as a Jewish messiah, one necessarily had to be Jewish to be able to be a full member of the community, and that meant adhering to the purity laws—the diet, the circumcision, and all the ritual cleansing that that entails. The thing is, people were coming to understand Christ as their Lord and Savior… and a lot of them weren’t Jewish. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, and for Jews, who held a traditionally ethnic national faith, having outsiders in their ranks was simply unheard of. How are they to remain holy and set apart if these unclean, non-Jewish people want to join in too?
Well, Peter here has a vision. This takes place just after he had dinner with and baptized a gentleman named Cornelius, a gentile. People were in a huff about this, and by people, I mean the people who believed that to be a Christian, one must be a Jew first and foremost. They argued and chewed out Peter for defiling himself by eating with an outsider. At this day and time, who you ate with was a big deal. You know how we say, you are what you eat? It’s kind of that logic, except it’s more “you are who you eat with.” You eat with unclean people, you yourself are unclean.
So Peter had to explain himself, and he does so given that right before he ate with Cornelius, he was given this strange vision of a giant sheet with lots of animals on it. He was then commanded by God to eat what was on the sheet, implying that many of them were ritually unclean. Initially, he refused to do so—he was a good Jew! He wouldn’t’ dream of eating anything that was not pure, unclean. And so, as Peter often is, he is rebuked with words that we are to take to heart today: “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” In hearing this, it was revealed to Peter God’s plan for salvation, that redemption is given to all who seek it, and all who were considered unclean were now, in the eyes of God through the work of Christ, made pure. Thankfully, this was good enough explanation for the rest of the church at the time, because it led to a legacy of passion for equality and justice in the eyes of Christians for those who would seek salvation, redemption, and healing.
We have inherited this legacy of passion, of openness, of hospitality, of justice, and indeed, equality. We, as Methodists and as Christians, have historically pursued avenues for the inclusion and salvation of all who seek out Christ. While we have had a rocky past, with divisions and infighting along the way, we stand today as a United Methodist Church, and in that we believe in liberty, equality, and justice for all—especially when it comes to whom we eat with.
Charles Wesley, one of the founders of our denomination, wrote many hymns in his day, but one of which that remains a true and essential part of our theology is the hymn he wrote called “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast.” It is a grand invitation, much like one that Peter gave to Cornelius and to all who wished to dine and share with them. The words beautiful and poignant. Come, sinners, to the gospel feast; let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind. Sent by my Lord, on you I call; the invitation is to all. Come, all the world! Come sinner, Thou! All things in Christ are ready now.” It’s that very theology that informs our open table. All are welcome to the table who seek the nourishment of the living body and blood of Christ.
It is in this spirit that we Methodists approach the work of God through the Holy Spirit in this world. It is with this attitude, that all are bid to the table of God, the table of plenty, the Gospel feast, that we share in ministry with all the world the commandment of God to go and make disciples of all the world. But every soul is not the same; it’s in diversity that we see our mission field. It’s our job to go, to seek out people who need the good news, and to share in the richness of God’s love with all the world.
What it all comes down to is that our philosophy, as Christians, should always keep the generous Spirit of God in mind in our ministry. Like Remy in Ratatouille, to us, it doesn’t matter what situation you were born in. That doesn’t control your destiny. You do, with God’s help. God has a plan for salvation for the whole world, and that does not exclude anyone. Like anyone can cook, anyone can know Christ. God invites us all to the Gospel Feast, and that, my brothers and sisters, is good news. Amen.