You say, “Tomato”; I say, “Tomato.” We look, say and do things differently. This should come as no surprise. The diversity of the world is not a new reality or a new struggle within the Church in America or anywhere else. The early Church wrestled with its cultural identity and their identity in Christ. The latter was and is not something to be added or customized to fit other identities.
Paul says it plainly to the Galatians and again to the Colossians: “ As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[i]
Poet Jessica Goodfellow captures best our response to oneness, to wholeness in her poem “The Invention of Fractions”:
God created the whole numbers:
the first born, the seventh seal,
Ten Commandments etched in stone,
the Twelve Tribes of Israel—
ten we’ve already lost—
forty days and forty nights,
Saul’s thousand and David’s ten thousand.
‘Be of one heart and one mind’—
the whole numbers, the counting numbers.
It took humankind to need less than this;
to invent fractions, percentages, decimals.
Only humankind could need the concepts
of splintering and dividing,
of things lost or broken,
of settling for the part instead of the whole.
Only humankind could find the whole numbers,
infinite as they are, to be wanting;
though given limitless supply,
we still had no way
to measure what we keep
in our many chambered hearts.
G. K. Chesterton says rightly, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” We simply have not tried hard enough, tried long enough, made our efforts strong enough at answering Jesus’ prayer for oneness. And saying it is too hard or it will not work is not enough.
Stanley Hauerwas pushes back saying, “We shall have to break our habit of having church in such a way that people are deceived into thinking that they can be Christians and remain strangers.” And I agree with him along with bell hooks who says, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” With the eyes of Paul and Peter, I come to church every Sunday with my own personal party hat.
In Acts 10, Peter has had a vision and in Acts 11, he is now gathered with the leaders in Jerusalem for a church meeting. Gossip spreads faster than sermons; persons are talking about the non- Jewish people who are now Christians. Forget that they have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior, what matters most is whether we accept them. So, they will receive eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, but we have to decide if we want to live in community with them now. Jesus has shared his broken body with them but we need to vote on whether or not, we will sit at the Lord’s table with them. Because though they want to be like Christ, I also want them to be just like me.
So, Peter shares with the leaders the vision that he receives and the sight of the Holy Spirit falling on his hearers, the same as him. And God is not only speaking to Peter but sharing this partnership opportunity with Cornelius in Caesarea. So, God has to first make sure that Peter can see straight. Because as Soren Kierkegaard noted, “Once you label me, you negate me.” And Peter understands now what Evelyn Underhill teaches that, “My growth depends on my walls coming down.”
No insiders and outsiders, they have come to investigate Peter but he now asks them the question: “If God gave them the exact same gift when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?”[ii] Because we are supposed to be God’s welcome mat, what message would we be sending?
And though you have a position description for the kind of Christians you are looking for, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”[iii] As the Spirit said Peter, so I say to you. For all the fingers that point out how we are not alike; Jesus’ hands pinned down to the cross and the Holy Spirit that called Peter and Cornelius together says, “It makes no difference.”
[i] Galatians 3.28, NRSV
[ii] Acts 11.17, The Message
[iii] Acts 11.12, NRSV