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Peter and the Pagans


Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, August 30, 2015

Hunger is common to all men, but not all men satisfy their hunger with the same food.  When it comes to individual, family, and even national identities, food separates us from those who are not of ‘us’.  The table, with its established rituals and rules, offers social inclusion and all the pleasures of membership even as it excludes those who do not share in its tastes or customs.  It follows that what you eat largely determines who you will eat with.  For instance, as a fat-eschewing, sugar-abstaining, meat-abjuring vegetarian (although, I do eat the occasional egg as a kind of good-will gesture), I find very little by way of food commonality at the typical Adventist pot-luck.  Nor, it seems, can I relish what most other Adventists (or Americans, for that matter) would define as ‘good food’.  Thus, sadly, I do not share many meals with other Adventists.  Yet, we are, of course, fellow believers, Christians and brothers and sisters in Christ.

I wonder sometimes about just how brotherly and sisterly we can be if we do not share the same food preferences.  Homogeneity, despite the popular call for ever more ‘diversity’, does bring certain benefits.  Folks who are more alike than different tend to enjoy each other’s company more than those who are always feeling like outsiders to each other.  There are risks to enlarging the ‘fold’ to include people who do not eat like we do, just as it can be rather straining to spend time with people who hate your politics or your choice of wine (I, of course, know nothing of wine, but here I find yet one more reason not to drink it). 

We’ve all been more or less brainwashed to go about ‘celebrating diversity’, but in reality, once the peeping and piping has ended, we still prefer our diversity to remain pretty much cosmetic.  I am reminded of the ‘mom and pop’ Chinese restaurants found in many Scottish towns: everything on the menu was purportedly Chinese, but everything also tasted exactly like ‘fish and chips’. More to the point, I have observed that the ‘diversity’ vendors are usually just as intolerant as their homogeneity touting forbearers—just in different ways and towards different groups.

When that sheet full of unclean beasts (and snakes) descended from heaven to meet Peter’s immediate need for food, the poor man felt, of a sudden, as if he could no longer ‘be himself’.  God’s direct command, ‘kill and eat’ threatened to erase Peter’s identify as a Jewish Christian.  Note too, how the narrator is careful to tell us that at the very moment that God presented Peter with this stock-yard of taboo animals, the kind of food that Peter had always eaten was being prepared for him down in the kitchen (Acts 10. 10).  It is the same as if any of us were to be offered a plate of food that we loathed when the food we loved (and knew as ‘healthier’) was about to be handed to us.  And, of course, Peter staunchly refuses to do what God asked him to do: “No Lord… for I have never eaten anything unclean (10.14).  Food— never underestimate it. 

When Cornelius the ‘unclean’ Roman came to Peter’s door, the vision gets repeated in the real.  Note how the Roman Centurion who, after all, feared the same God that Peter preached, bows down before Peter ‘at his feet’.  Cornelius could worship the same God as Peter, but the two of them could not sit down and share a meal.  This was not only because Romans ate like Romans and Jews ate like Jews; it was also because Jews ate like God taught them to and Romans ate, merely, like their parents did.  Cornelius bows to Peter as an outsider wanting in, and Peter’s perplexity as to the meaning of his vision ends, for, in that moment, Peter knows that they are both the same: “Stand up!  I myself am also a man”. 

Ellen White writes of a ‘common bond of humanity’ that unites us all.  God showed Peter that the kingdom of Heaven was more than ‘food or drink’; that Christian culture, even in its most enlightened iterations, must never be allowed to blind us to that essential humanity that must inform our every glance even as we sit and eat with folks who do not eat like we do or who, shockingly, eat as God has taught us not to.  Thus, in this context, I do not celebrate diversity nearly as much as I celebrate homogeneity—the sameness of our shared humanity.  You may ‘kill and eat’ your food, and I may be a prissy vegan, but, today, we will eat together (and forbear our differences) because we are both sinful men made ‘clean’ by God (Acts 10.15).  


Dr. Karl G. Wilcox is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas.


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