The Southern United States is known for “Southern hospitality” and those of us from this region of the US pride ourselves on our gentility, kindness, and family traditions.
That being said, we Southerners also have a strong strain of tribalism in our culture. In fact, whether you know it or not, we Southerners have a bit of a strong suspicion of strangers in our midst. And we have a Southern “code” in our language to weed out those who “don’t belong.” If you’ve ever visited the South and been asked “Where you from, darling?” then you’ve just begun the process of being labeled a “stranger” or “safe.” And if it progresses to “I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t believe I know your daddy. Who are your people?” well, then you are on the edge of being labeled “He ain’t from around here” and that label cuts you out of the “insiders.”
Truth is most cultures have something like this in their heritage.
And reality is this has been a strong “defense mechanism” that stretches back through human history. So much so, that God directed the newly formed nation of Israel in His commandments and law to
“…love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
But the nation of Israel, by the time of Christ, had become such a closed off society that they actively promoted their exclusive nature to the point that they were suspicious of even people of their own lineage, especially if that lineage had any “mixed blood” in it. This made the Jews of Jesus’ day an exclusive society where if you weren’t part of the purebloods you’re loyalty and even the value of your soul was questioned. It was almost as bad as being a muggle!
So, when we get to our Scripture Lesson today, we see an amazing event! In Acts 10:1-16 St. Peter is about to confront his own blindness to the scope of God’s grace and His salvation for all mankind.
You see, there is a Roman centurion named Cornelius (a centurion is a commander in the Roman military and a professional soldier) who is a devoted lover of the God of the Jews. Amazing! A Gentile (not of any Jewish heritage) AND a commander in the occupying Army of the Jewish nation is a faithful adherent to the spiritual disciplines of Jewish prayer. In fact, the scriptures says Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.” Acts 10:2
While Cornelius, the Roman Centurion and lover of God, was praying the 9th hour prayers, God sends an angel to him to tell him to send for a man named “Peter” who is in the city of Joppa and have him come and tell Cornelius and his family Good News!
The next day in Joppa, St. Peter is going up to the rooftop to pray the 6th hour prayers when he becomes hungry. As the folks in the house are preparing the meal, St. Peter begins to see a vision of a great sheet being lowered from heaven by its corners, and in the sheet all manner of “unclean” animals (“unclean” referred to the animals in the Law that Jews were forbidden to eat, like pigs). A Voice from heaven tells Peter to get up, kill one of the animals and eat it! But Peter protested that he would never eat anything that “is common or unclean.” (Acts 10:14) This happened three times and each time the Voice tells Peter “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” (Acts 10:15)
Today, what barriers are in your heart and head separating you from those around you? To be sure, we must always be discerning about the company we keep. None of this is to imply that discernment is now unnecessary. But the message to Peter is clear: That which makes you think another is “inferior” to you or is unwelcome or not allowed to be a part of your faith is simply a symptom of your own spiritual poverty. You aren’t “protecting” your culture or tribe. You are, either consciously or unconsciously, determining the borders of love and grace. And that border isn’t as wide and large as God’s borders, so you find yourself at odds with God’s love and grace. Not a very wise place to be, if you asked me.
St.Peter is learning a valuable lesson that is about to change forever the spiritual fate of all those “Gentiles” outside the Jewish tribe. And it seems it is a lesson we have to keep learning over and over again.