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1 John 5:1-6; Acts 11:1-18

I invited a Jewish friend to the church I served in college. Every week, our worship was followed by a light dinner. This Wednesday, the dinner was pizza. With beef. Well, Jon doesn’t eat meat and dairy together. It was a dilemma: we didn’t mean to exclude him, and he didn’t want to be rude. So he picked off the hamburger chunks and ate with us (he’s always this gracious). He made his own choice in the same situation Peter was in, being invited to eat something that was religiously unclean.

This isn’t just about an ancient culture, or someone else’s religion. The modern US probably has the most different diets of anywhere in history. There’s so much in our context that we can eat, we have to impose “rules” just to navigate the grocery store. We need books to tell us Eat This, Not That – and this is just one out of 15 linear feet of diet books at the Virginia Public Library. There are ethnic choices about what to eat, the longstanding squabble between the lutefisk Lutherans and the meatball ones. There are medical reasons to have diets that avoid sodium, fat, or allergens. There are fad diets: low-carb, high-protein, all-grapefruit, or raw foods. There are ethical and self-identity reasons people eat vegetarian, local foods, or all organic.

In this context, it’s complicated to share and receive meals from others. How do people keep or flex their dietary restrictions? It was easy enough for Jon, because he understood his diet rules in a subjective way that allowed him just to eat around part of what he’d been offered. It’s harder for someone with an allergy: how do you nitpick someone’s gift to you? Or it can be a problem if you’re willing to be flexible but know that your system needs to adjust to a new food, such as meat. Maybe the most common way we face this problem is if we’re trying to lose weight over the holidays. Do you turn down the special foods? Try to limit the amounts you eat? Stay home? Bring your own?

This quandary tells us something about hospitality, that it has as much to do with being welcomed as with welcoming. As a host, you can assume that you’ll try to accommodate your guests’ needs, so far as you know them. It’s harder to do that as a guest, because it feels impolite, as if you’re restricting someone else’s hospitality. And it’s not just about food. It could be when you’re staying with your highly political nephew, or your religiously judgmental sister, or that otherwise good friend who’s a rabid White Sox fan.

Peter lived in a world where Jewish identity turned on food (and some other markers). Your dietary laws defined whom you could spend time with. Christianity emerged as a Jewish movement, but it quickly spread beyond that one religion. The question emerged: how Jewish do you have to be, to be a Christian? Do you have to follow dietary rules? Do you have to be circumcised? Jesus’ ministry reached persistently beyond the bounds of sin and propriety, just as the voice states in Peter’s vision: don’t call anything “unclean” if I’ve made it clean.

This is ultimately not about food, or about religion. It’s about people. Christ came to reconcile all people. In Peter’s world, that meant calling everyone to eat (everything) together. In our world, what walls need to come down? What rules need to be broken? Are they about food? Politics? Money? Unwritten dress codes? Standards of behavior? Today’s divisions are between majority white Americans and non-Anglo-Christian immigrants. They’re political disagreements. They’re about sexual identity, understanding military families, imagined disputes between proponents of the environment vs people concerned about jobs.

Where are we unwilling to go? Whose hospitality would we refuse? What would we do if we heard a divine voice that said, “look beyond your boundaries”? What if our difference with others ultimately don’t matter? Because they don’t. Ultimately, the love of God unites us with all God’s people, no matter what. If we really believed that’s true, whom would we have the courage to share with? Whom could we welcome? What would they teach us?

An amazing place to start is right there with food, to go eat with someone else, just because. It’s not just about what we eat, because it’s easy enough to work around whatever rules and preferences we may have. By contrast, we’re far more limited about whom we’ll spend time with. But sharing with each other – letting others share their lives, their questions, and their ideas with us – reveals to us more about God, and it lets us share God’s love with others. So may we see, experience, and reveal God everywhere we go.

Amen

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