Sunday, May 02, 2010

Fifth Sunday in Easter

Acts 11
Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

Hello, I’m a Mac.
And I’m a PC.

You know the ads: music box sounding piano music fills the background while Mac and PC have a conversation that somehow never ends well for PC. These celebrated and widely imitated ads are a stark example of what people in the business would call “appealing to your tribe.”

Tribes, you see, are a leading trend in marketing, the best way advertisers have found to break through the noise and reach potential customers. The theory goes like this: Rather than look at age bracket or location when looking for an audience, focus instead on interests or commonly held values.

It sounds almost self-evident, largely because it is. Where older ads might find a clever or compelling way to push a product, tribe-based advertising appeals to core beliefs. Mac guy is obviously self-satisfied, a little smug, and he genuinely seems to feel sorry for PC and the limitations of his operating system. Members of the Mac tribe get it, and the rest of us don’t. But that’s okay, because the ads are more about reinforcing a sense of uniqueness than winning new customers. Apple wants to honour their tribe and make sure they buy next year’s model.

The idea of tribes doesn’t sound new at all: it sounds ancient, largely because it is. Our ancient near-eastern forbears were tribal people, the twelve tribes that made up ancient Israel and the many tribes that inhabited the surrounding countryside.

And tribal religion, the origin of many of the world’s great religions, began in an effort to draw distinctions between the various peoples that inhabited the same land. Customs became laws and laws became religious precepts as each tribe attempted to build a fence around themselves and remain unique. Issues of clean and unclean began as an effort to safeguard the tribe, to ensure that the uncertain people over the hill remained there and did not dilute or contaminate what made our tribe unique.

These instincts remained long after people moved about in tribal groups. That movement from custom to law to precept proved a powerful force for cohesion and group identity, allowing each generation to pass on essential values to safeguard the whole. Restricting diet and regulating contact with outsiders reinforced the entire program.

It is tempting then to do a thought experiment regarding the beginning of Christianity. What if the movement was limited to those who met Jesus? Or limited to those who were first Jewish, as the earliest believers were? Or limited to non-Romans, those out of power or somehow oppressed? We will never know, of course. But it is certain that our Acts reading is a hinge moment at the beginning of the Christian religion, and ensured that a local movement would one day become global.

The hinge moment begins with two visions. The first vision is the angel of the Lord appearing to Cornelius, a centurion from Italy, and instructing him to find Peter. The second vision is Peter’s: a trance-like vision of a lowering blanket, laden with creatures forbidden to Peter and the rest of the Jewish people. The Lord speaks to Peter and says “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

Peter protests. In his trance-like state, he argues with the Lord and says, “I cannot, Lord, for nothing unclean has passed my lips.” But this God will not take ‘no’ for an answer: “What I have made clean, Peter, you must not call unclean.” At that very moment Cornelius’ people find Peter and beg him to follow.

The next day Peter meets Cornelius and a group of like-minded people. Peter reminds them that it is contrary to the law for him to enter the home of Cornelius, or sit at his table, but he is now compelled to visit based on a vision and a voice that said “don’t call unclean what I have made clean.” As each explains further what prompted them to meet, the work of the Spirit takes hold.


A few years ago, I had the privilege to hear Margaret Wheatley, a specialist in organizational behaviour. Many of her insights come from the world of science, both social science and the natural world. As she invited us to a discussion time, she asked the group to try something new: to try, wherever possible, to listen for differences. And then she told us why:

Humans, she argued, are hardwired to look for similarities. We look for patterns, we look for the familiar, and we look for allies. The last one is primary. We are hardwired to look for confederates or like-minded people because primitive people had to be ready for anything. And in being ready for anything, it was always useful to know who shared your approach or your worldview.

So Margaret Wheatley was arguing for growth through following the unexpected. Or following the disagreeable. Only by setting aside our ally-seeking tendencies would we receive new information, or be truly open to the new insight that someone else was bringing to the group.

Peter, then, is an example of listening for differences, opening himself to a new mode of being because the Lord insisted but also because Cornelius made a compelling case. When these two men met face-to-face, Cornelius described his experience:

“Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, 'Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter.”

And here is the paradox in the story of Peter and Cornelius: Peter was willing to set aside the rules of his religion in order to hear another voice, and a message that by its very source was contrary to his own. He followed voice and vision to an experience that would challenge everything he knew. And in doing so, he found a member of his tribe: the tribe of mercy and prayer.

The day held two surprizes for Peter then, the surprize that the old barriers were to fall, and that he would have more in common with this centurion than most of the members of his own religion. Call it the new tribalism, the desire to find fellow travelers, to find people equally committed to compassionate service and the need for prayer, and ignore the traditional differences that hold us apart.

So how do we resolve the paradox? How do we remain open to differences and all the while look for allies? How do embrace our differences while finding those things that draw us together? The answer, I think, is love. Listen as Jesus begins to say goodbye to his disciples:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The old campfire song goes “and they’re know we are Christians by our love.” And for those who sing carefully, the double meaning becomes obvious. Love is that which binds us, one to another, but love is also what compels us to serve others. We have the love of fellowship and we have the love of service. And they will know we are Christians by our love. They, whoever they are, will see us care for each other as we care for people we don’t even know. It is at the heart of what God is calling us to do.

So how do we resolve the paradox? How do we remain open to differences and all the while look for allies? This is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us daily opportunities to learn from differences while seeing commonalties. To increase our bond with one another while we open our doors to more. To remain unique in our mission and ministry while looking for fellow travelers. And to love, first and last to love as we are loved. Amen.


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