Stretching the Boundaries of Love: No Unclean People
John 13:31-35, Acts 11:1-18
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another (John 13:34-35).
As I have loved you. How did Jesus love us? This is the question today and it is explored in our reading from Chapter 11 from The Book of Acts attributed to the Gospel writer Luke. It’s a question that has many answers. Theologian/writer Suzanne Gutherie says, you do it “by befriending and eating with outcasts and sinners, collaborators and prostitutes, the unclean, the impure, the unloved. By stretching the boundaries of his own love.”
The challenge or the command, the call, is to create ever-widening circles of love because this is how God breaks through, how God continues to speak, how God works in the world through us.
This news is good news to those on the margins, those hungry for food or justice, those imprisoned or bullied or attacked, those who are hated because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their religion. It is good news for those we have deemed not worthy or unclean, those we call enemies.
But how is it good news for us if we are not any of these? It is and it isn’t. Jesus’ radical table fellowship is a scandal. Inclusiveness when truly practiced is scandalous and dangerous. Always has been which is why some have called this story in Acts 11 a story about Peter getting “called on the carpet” for breaking purity laws by eating with impure people, non-Jews, Gentiles.
In the wake of the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were Jews well versed in dietary laws that included whom they were to eat and drink with. They knew whom they were to welcome and whom they should exclude. And most importantly they believed, even after many lessons and post resurrection appearances to the contrary, that the Good New Jesus left was exclusively for them.
In the text of Acts 11: 1-18 we have a retelling, sort of Reader’s Digest or Cliff notes, of what happened in Acts 10 about Peter’s vision of heaven opening up and Peter being invited to a feast in the home of the Roman soldier Cornelius. Under the law, Cornelius’ kitchen would be unclean so Peter should not eat there. “When Peter came up to Jerusalem those who were of Jewish birth took issue with him. ‘You have been visiting men who are uncircumcised,’ they said ‘and sitting at the table with them.’” Or as it is translated in the Message, “When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: ‘What do you think you are doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name.”
Martin Marty says the problem the early church was having with Peter was not about preaching to Gentiles, or even baptism but about commensality, about who we share our table with, whom we allow close enough to change us. Peter assures his fellow disciples that this meal was sanctioned by God because he had received a vision calling him to minister to all people, reminding them that we should not exclude who God has invited.
Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. Peter, the one who is charged with being the rock from whence the church will be built, has a vision of inclusivity. “ If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God? And then they praised God saying, “then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Or as it is written in the Message: “So I ask you if God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God? They quieted down, “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to life!”
Matters of inclusion are still volatile in the church. I like the way Mary Donovan Turners asks the question, “Does including the new or different mean that we are letting go of the values that have always defined us? Or do the values that define us compel us to be more inclusive and open?”
The story reminds us that change is threatening to the establishment and doesn’t always come from the top. Peter’s public sharing of his personal experience of God is a vital part of the ongoing proclamation of the Good News. Public confession or witness should be a hallmark of the church.
So back to the question of how do we love one another now in light of God the gift giver or the one who breaks through for all? Who loves all of us— clean and unclean? What transformation of the heart is needed to go beyond our traditions, laws and rituals that exclude for us to receive the blessing offered in Peter’s vision? Peter had to be transformed in the way he understood God and what God was doing. How are you being transformed by God to be agents of hospitality or grace?
I have given this command to love one another some thought—did some digging around to see who amongst us was following this call. Because it is the beginning of holy week for our Orthodox Christian sisters and brothers I begin with the scandalous foot washing that the Pope did a few weeks back on Maundy Thursday when the Western Church celebrated its holy week.
Pope Francis went to a nearby refugee camp in Italy and chose three Muslims from Mali, Syria, and Pakistan; three Eritrean Coptic Christians, four Catholics from Nigeria, one Italian Catholic; and one Hindu from India to wash their feet. He knelt down before each of these refugees and washed and kissed their feet. He kissed the feet of 8 men and 4 women. He imitated Jesus’ symbolic gesture of servitude. The same act that Peter had trouble with during that Last Supper.
Outspoken anti-immigrant leader Pam Geller was outraged by his action and said, “What do you get when you oppress, subjugate, and slaughter members of the Pope’s flock—your feet washed.” Inclusive love has always been scandalous. I wonder what she is saying now about his going to Greece and rescuing Muslim Syrian refugees?
A few weeks back in Israel, the novel Borderlife was removed from the Israeli curriculum because it was about the love between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. Israel’s Education Ministry with backing from the Parliament feared it might encourage relationships between Jews and Arabs or that “intimate relationships between Jews and non Jews threatens their separate identity.” Sounds like purity laws revisited to me. The magazine Time Out Tel Aviv responded by publishing a video showing Arabs and Jews kissing. This three-minute video—6 couples of Jews and Arabs, couples, friends, strangers, gay and straight refuse to be enemies.
In another expression of inclusivity, this time of acknowledgement of history, Jewish Voice for Peace in the US created a Haggadah for the Passover Seder that includes prayers and stories about Palestinians. It is a beautiful testament of the Jewish faith living out its prophetic role to educate and celebrate inclusive freedom for all. I was particularly struck by the breaking of the Middle Matzah passage: “We acknowledge the break that occurred in Palestinian life and culture with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 when hundreds of villages were destroyed…This damage cannot be undone—but repair and return are possible.” And it goes on to remember that on the eve of Passover the people of Haifa were expelled from their homes and lands: “As we remember the Palestinians who were made refugees by Zionist ethnic cleansing during Passover 1948 let us also remember the millions of refugees who today fill overcrowded boats fleeing state sponsored violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Let us recommit to building a world where people can stay in their homes, and where refugees are welcome, everywhere.”
Is this not the ethic of hospitality that Peter’s vision pointed to? Is this not welcome the stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt reinterpreted for now?
As thousands of pilgrims will make their way to Holy Sepluchre this week for Holy Week, we can give thanks to King Abdullah II of Jordan for providing funds for its restoration as an expression of its support for Christians. The King issued a royal benefaction to provide for the restoration of Jesus’ tomb in the church. It will be a Muslim sovereign and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who will foot the bill for the restoration. The restoration is needed because of the “progressive alteration of the mortar from the breath of pilgrims and candle smoke.” The Patriarch Theophilos III who is head of the largest Christian community in the world warmly welcomed the announcement. There are various other motivations that most likely have contributed to the King’s decision but it includes the recognition of the Pact of Umar, the agreement reached in 637, when the Arabs conquered Jerusalem. On that occasion Caliph Umar, Muhammad’s second successor, respected the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and left it as a Christian place of worship instead of turning it into a mosque. In a time when Caliphs are desecrating Christian sites in Iraq and Syria this reaffirming of the Pact of Umar has more than symbolic meaning.
In this age of unprecedented divisiveness in America’s political landscape and rampant extremism there is a renewed call for Christian to embody their solidarity like the way Dr. Larycia Hawkins did at Wheaton College when she put on a head scarf in solidarity with her Muslim sisters who were experiencing Islamaphobia. The result of her action and the declaration that we all worship the same God led to her dismissal reminding us that living out the Gospel call for inclusivity is still dangerous.
Love one another as I have loved you. Not just some but all. There are no unclean people. This is love’s challenge for this is how God loves. This is how we stay human. This is how we create the Beloved Community; make real another world on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Loren McGrail serves with the YWCA of Palestine. She is the Communications and Advocacy Officer for the YWCA. She works on reports, Action Alerts and newsletters in English and helps coordinate advocacy goals.