Story blogs

A story about learning to see things differently

In a blog post last Thursday – “God is not a vending machine” – a Facebook friend commented

I admit that I would have liked it to be a vending machine. Or a merit-based reward system. Where there would be clear prices and instructions. You do enough, you’ll get that in return. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

God is not a vending machine

No, it’s not, and in the long run, I think that’s a good thing. But in the short term, no matter how strongly I believe the human-divine relationship is not transactional, there are times when I wish it were. Or at least predictable or reliable. Just when you think you’ve at least partially figured things out, the rules change. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Today’s lectionary reading from the Book of Acts is a classic example. It is an important and strange story that, in many ways, is central to the understanding of the early Christian community of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Acts, of course, speaks of the early communities of Jesus and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine to Rome and beyond.

Often lost in the middle of the stories, that’s how disorienting and belief-defying it all must have been. Great debates have raged about what exactly this new belief system is. Is this a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules of the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; converted men, for example, should be circumcised.

Or is this new set of beliefs something entirely new, perhaps a challenge and a direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to the evidence of the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about the destination of his message and teaching. Jesus was a Jew and at times he made it clear that his message was for the “House of Israel”, while at other times he presented it to everyone, including the non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as an alpha disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after a long prayer session on the roof of a friend’s house in Joppa. where he stays. And then the weirdest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter.

In a trance, I had a vision. There was something like a great sheet descending from the sky, lowered by its four corners; and he approached me. Looking at it closely, I saw four-legged animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the sky. I also heard a voice saying to me: “Get up, Pierre; kill and eat.

The leaf is full of all sorts of animals which, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

But I said, “Not at all, Lord; for nothing profane or impure ever entered my mouth.

Peter knows the rules through and through; moreover, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required to be in good relationship with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship to the divine, the rulebook is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven: “What God has made pure you must not call profane.

Imagine Peter’s dismay and confusion. Imagine the dismay and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with Gentiles and spreading the good news to them. Because after the voice from heaven basically said to Peter “You know everything in the Torah about what not to eat to be in good relationship with God, which defined the diet of “a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? No big deal. You can eat whatever you want”, Peter is further informed that the human equivalent of the unclean animals – the Gentiles – will now be the recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought it was reserved for Jews.

There is this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who asked very good questions: go to his house and help him. The following chapters of Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his family are converted to the message of Christ, begin to speak in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, the more conservative Jews are appalled, and finally there is a great council in Jerusalem to decide what is happening. But Pandora’s box was opened never to be closed again. The old rulebook is out, and everyone’s guessing where it’s going to end.

Don’t you just hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the old rules? Just when you think you have understood all that is relevant and necessary, everything changes. We have been in the midst of such a period politically and socially in this country for some time now. Experts and talking heads are regularly reduced to “I don’t know” and “Fuck me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the coming weeks or months.

Public attitudes about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and changed faster than anyone could have anticipated. People talk about the rights of transgender people. More millennials check “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” show little interest and find no place in traditional religious structures. Sheets of heaven filled with female priests, less than conservative popes, LGBTQ people, Muslims and all types of people anyone might be uncomfortable with are lowered before the eyes of those who thought know what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?

Peter’s vision was a challenge to see things differently, to see his reality through traditional, familiar lenses set aside and to see with new eyes. If what tradition says is impure is actually clean, then everything is being reset. People of faith are, in our confusing and disorienting times, invited to see differently, to step out of often entrenched categories, to see others as real human beings just like us.

In some circles this is called “evolving faith”. We are called to see differently, so that the human being before us is not black, poor, female, gay, disabled, conservative, rich, Muslim, male, straight, ugly, liberal, old, Christian, obese, or attractive. , but rather a person whose needs, hopes and dreams are real and independent of us. It’s a task come see the world as it is.