In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (the first one, not the sequel that just came out), there is a culture clash. Toula, a daughter of a Greek family who is expected to marry a Greek man and raise lots of nice Greek children, strikes out on her own. She goes to college to learn computers and she works in the family’s travel agency, and she meets a nice man that she falls in love with. When this man, Ian, asks Toula to marry him, she says yes. The only problem is, he’s not Greek. And this is a huge problem for her family. But Ian loves Toula so much that he does what is necessary to be accepted by her family. And some of these scenes are priceless: from Ian being baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church, to Ian’s parents trying to explain to Toula’s mother what a Bundt cake is, to Toula’s family getting Ian’s mother’s name wrong on the wedding invitations, and many more such comic scenes, this is a culture clash that is both humorous and very real. In case you’re wondering, my family has experienced similar culture clashes in the time leading up to my brother marrying a woman from a Greek family even until now. We laugh a lot at this movie now, because we have experienced this and we understand.
I imagine the culture clash going on in our lesson from Acts today to be on a similar scale to the culture clash in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Now, if this story sounds familiar to you, Congratulations! That means you were at our first midweek Lenten service this year where Elsie told us a portion of the story in chapter 10. Today’s lesson is both a summary of what happened between Peter and Cornelius and an account of the reaction of the church community when they found out what had happened. So, for just a moment, I want to take you back to chapter 10 and fill in a few details that Luke left out in his summary today. This will serve as a review for those of you who were here in Lent, and for those of you who weren’t, this is some necessary information.
The first thing that is important to say is that Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism called the Way. Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were Jewish. They observed Jewish laws, and even though Jesus often critiqued how Jewish laws were followed, he was still an observant Jewish person. We often forget this because Christianity has, in the last 2000 years, turned largely into a non-Jewish religion, so it is important that we remind ourselves that the birth of our belief system took place within first-century Judaism. Peter was an observant Jewish person, and as such, he followed the dietary laws laid down in Leviticus. Pigs were not okay to eat, for example, because God had declared them unclean in the Law. This was not simply a dietary lifestyle, it was a matter of Peter’s basic Jewish identity. Gentiles, those who were not Jewish, ate food that was not clean because they didn’t have the law ordained by God. By extension, then, Gentile people were considered unclean. Observant Jewish people simply did not eat with Gentiles.
On the other hand, there was Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion, part of the force that was occupying Judea. But, Cornelius was also what was called a God-fearer. God-fearers were those Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith, but who could not or would not convert. Usually for the males, this was because conversion meant being circumcised, which, besides being painful, would result in censure from their superiors. And yes, they would have been found out one way or another. Cornelius is described as being a “devout man who feared God” and who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God”. So, while he may have been a good man, he was still considered to be an unclean Gentile and something separate from the Jewish people.
So you can see that we have a setup for a pretty big culture clash. And the only thing that can overcome that culture clash and bring these two very different people together? Enter the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit first sends a vision to Cornelius, where an angel tells him to send for Peter. Then the Holy Spirit sends a vision to Peter, and this is the vision that gets remembered: a large sheet full of animals, both clean and unclean, and a voice telling him to get up, kill, and eat. When Peter protests that he has never eaten anything unclean, the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And just to make sure Peter gets the point, this happens three times. When the vision leaves him, there are the messengers from Cornelius, asking Peter to come to him.
The thing is, when Peter comes to Cornelius, he’s still not certain about this whole thing. But when Cornelius tells him that he, too, has had a vision, Peter starts preaching. And then the Holy Spirit shows up again—interrupting what Peter is saying—and falls upon these “unclean” Gentiles. And Peter finally gets it, and says, “OK, God, you win. I can’t withhold baptism from these folks. Let’s get them baptized and let’s have a party.”
Now the interesting thing is this: the people back in Jerusalem don’t seem to be objecting to the fact that the Gentiles were baptized. The people back in Jerusalem are objecting to the fact that Peter and the people with him ate with the Gentiles. Now remember, this is a huge identity issue for them. If they start eating like Gentiles do, not only are they breaking God’s law, they are denying that they are God’s chosen people, their identity will become blurred, and they will fade into a people that once existed but exist no longer. The only way that this can become acceptable for them is for Peter to tell them what happened, so that they agree that this was indeed God’s action and they cannot stand against it. Now, this is not to say that through Peter’s encounter with Cornelius all of the issues surrounding the inclusion of Gentiles into the Way will be solved; we see more issues come up in chapter 15. But this story marks a significant change in the identity of the people belonging to this movement: God is bringing Gentiles as well as Jews to “the repentance that leads to life”. This is going to result in huge changes, not only for the Gentiles who are becoming followers of Jesus, but also for the Jews, who will be struggling to accept people who have customs that they have been told all their lives are very wrong.
So, why do we read this story today when we are largely beyond the whole Jewish-Gentile issue? Well, it is because there are always outsiders to any group that we belong to, and that should not be the case. Luke, both in his Gospel and in Acts, talks about this a lot in who we welcome to eat with us. When we eat food with someone, it means even today that we consider them our equal. So, most of the time we ask ourselves who we are not inviting to our table here at Hope, and how we can become better about doing that. But actually, in today’s story, we see the opposite dynamic at work. Peter does not invite Cornelius to eat with him. Cornelius is the one who invites Peter to stay with him for several days, and Peter eats with Cornelius. I would have liked to have been at that table. Did Peter and those who were with him eat food that was unclean? Or, as a God-fearer, would Cornelius have known something about Jewish dietary requirements and made an effort to have food that Peter and the rest could eat? In either case, the meals shared would have been strange and awkward for both parties. But the point is, they shared meals together.
So, today I’d like us to think about both of these questions: Who are we not inviting to our table, and whose table are we being invited to and we are refusing the invitation? And I’d like to share a story and an observation with you. Many of you who have been here for a while remember Pastor Holly, the previous pastor at Union Presbyterian Church. Pastor Holly came from Texas. In Texas, it is customary for people from the congregation to invite one another out to lunch after worship on Sundays. And I remember this from the time that I lived in Texas as well: rare was the Sunday when I didn’t have an invitation for a post-worship meal from someone in my congregation. That’s not the custom here in Wyoming, and that’s okay: there’s no right or wrong about that. However, something that Pastor Holly pointed out and I have since observed here in Powell is this: the people who are transplants to Wyoming and the people who have lived all of their lives in Wyoming tend to run in different circles. Now I’m not saying that this is true in every case. But generally speaking, the people who have lived in Wyoming the longest don’t cross that boundary to break bread with people who originally come from somewhere else.
There are bigger walls in the wider church that need to be broken down, yes. The walls between straight people and LGBTQ, the walls between black and white, white and Hispanic, white and Native American, the walls between Christian and Muslim, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, though, in this peaceful little town with not much diversity, those walls are harder for us to see. So I’d like us to start by thinking about our social circles, and about what those walls are that we can break down. If you find that my observation about natives and transplants holds true for you, think about who you can invite to your home or out for a meal this week who belongs to the other group. Sit down with that person today in fellowship—I think it’s time that we mix up who sits at which tables, anyway!—and get to know someone better who you usually don’t speak to. Let’s start with these walls that may be existing among us first before we think about where God might be calling us to break down walls on a grander scale.
When we break down walls by eating with someone who we hadn’t thought of eating with before, we will change. As I mentioned earlier, simply eating with a different person may not resolve all the issues that we might have with one another, but it is a start. And God will work a mighty change through us as we get to know one another better. I know, I said the word change, didn’t I? Change can be scary, but oh, you never know what good God is going to do through that change! Today, I’d like to leave the last word for us to think about from Gus, the very Greek father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
In the end, we’re all fruit—fruit that God loves and God wants to bring together, despite our differences. So let’s spread that love and let the Holy Spirit work through us to bring down those walls. Amen.