The story of Peter defending himself before the believers in Jerusalem is critical to our Christian faith. It helped open the door to including believers who did not (or could not) adopt a lifestyle consistent with Jewish purity laws.
Aside from that, we don't trouble ourselves with the particulars of the tale. As most Christians don't live according to any faith-based dietary laws, it can be hard for us to imagine what useful wisdom we might gain from this passage. And yet, these days, most of us pay a lot of attention to what we eat, don't we? We spend many hours researching what is good to eat and what is bad to eat. We look up expert advice to help us put together a personal diet that is healthy for both our bodies and spirits. We have all sorts of ideas about what makes a certain type of food or diet ethically proper, and many of us avoid whole categories of food on moral grounds.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, ethicist Mary Eberstadt published an article titled, "Is Food the New Sex?"[i] In this article, Eberstadt describes how increasingly Americans "...care to some limited degree about what other people do about sex; but it seldom occurs to [them] to extend [their] opinions to a moral judgment. In fact, [they think] such an extension would be wrong in a different way - because it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done. On the other hand, [they are] genuinely certain that [their] opinions about food are not only nutritionally correct, but also, in some deep, meaningful sense, morally correct - i.e., [they feel] that others ought to do something like what [they do]."
She goes on to note that, "For many people, schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith." And, indeed, she wonders, "Do today's influential dietary ways of life in effect replace religion?" Given our present "religious" fervor about food and diets, we need to pay more attention to a story about food and faith.
Now, to be clear, Peter does not claim before his critics that they should all abandon their dietary practices and eat whatever is set before them. He simply follows the connection between the foods that had been called unclean, and the Gentile peoples who had been considered unclean: "At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us." Peter's argument might seem weak to us, but it's enough to convince his critics. This shows the power of the idea that what a person ate defined who a person was.
In many ways, it appears we are back in that sort of situation. With so many strong opinions about healthy diets, economic and ecological ethics, and even with the great diversity of cultures that are embodied in the foods that are so widely available now. We also find our identities tied to our food.
Don't agree with me? Just bring up pizza with a New Yorker and a Chicagoan. Talk to people from different parts of the south about their favorite barbecue. Check with someone from Ireland how they like French-fried potatoes in the United States. Ask a Cuban American and a Chinese American about the proper way to make a pot of rice.
When I think about a food that helps define who I am, I think of a Korean savory food that my mother cooked for our family. They're called bindaetteok - small fried pancakes made out of water-soaked and ground mung beans. Originally, they contained only these ground beans and some cabbage. Historically, in Korea, poor people (especially in northern parts of the country) would eat these because they didn't have enough rice and meat or fish. Hence, they were often called bindaebyeong - literally "poor person's pancake." In our home, where we could afford meat and other seasonings, my mother made them with bits of pork and onions. And instead of plain cabbage, she included chopped up spicy fermented cabbage - kimchi - so that there would be enough flavor for my father's southern palate.
Growing up in this country, I often felt that I was treated by others like a perpetual foreigner. This feeling would be especially strong when I would introduce people to Korean foods like bindaetteok. Often, I could see the look of distaste on the person's face. It felt like more than the food was being rejected.
In contrast, I have experienced profound moments of instant connection with others who also grew up eating the foods I knew from home. I've learned that instant bonds can form over food. Deep knowing and kinship can form in just one conversation about food! And these bonds are not limited to people who grew up familiar with Korean recipes. A dish like bindaetteok doesn't just bind me together with Koreans. It's a food that reminds me that my family was once poor. That they had to gather scraps together to fry small bean cakes to get them through their daily poverty. It helps me see my own ancestors in people all around the world who, even today, struggle to find enough to eat. The fact that it looks or smells or tastes strange to so many people here also serves as a constant reminder that I am part of a larger migrant community. One that has always been crossing borders to find new homes and lives.
It's amazing, isn't it, the power of food? Power to shape our identities; to connect us to our histories, and to others who share similar journeys? I think that's why, in our reading from Acts, we hear so much about food. In fact, this is the second time that Peter's dream about food is told. Peter's dream was a powerfully transformative experience for him, and a sign and guide for all of us. It forced him to overcome the barriers that his diet had always set up between himself and others who were not Jewish. It asks us to consider how we can cross similar boundaries that exist between ourselves and others.
When Peter was confronted by Jesus-followers in Jerusalem about his association with non-Jewish believers, they really ask him nothing about the worthiness of the non-Jewish believers. Instead, they focus on the one thing that matters: "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" In response, Peter doesn't make a reasoned argument about the need for openness or about the all-encompassing grace of God. He simply relates a dream about food that revealed the truth to him: "The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us."
What could this mean for us? What if the role of food in the story was not simply to serve as an allegory for divisions and distinctions? Perhaps sharing food - accepting and sharing things that are deeply meaningful to different cultural origins and ethical perspectives, to different regions and households - maybe it could play a critical role in binding us together as a spiritual community. Food has the power to connect us to stories and history; and it can bind us together with others. The foods we love best can evoke a sense of home and love that few other things can.
If we really committed to sharing these things with each other, we might end up radically transforming what it means to be in a "church" with one another. Offering and receiving the foods closest to our hearts - this might transform each person eating with us into a sister or brother. These days we too often eat alone. We're too busy to stop and share the richness of our spiritual heritages with one another. On top of that, so much of our food is produced by an industrialized system that caters to our individuality, and that wastes (by many estimates) fully half of the food produced while still many millions experience constant hunger. Peter is not the only follower of Jesus who has a need for new dreams about food.
Can we find a new spirituality of food that can promote a sense of family, peace, and sharing?
Can we approach eating in ways that help us to communicate our deepest longings, and our pride in our identities?
Can we accept and hear those longings and stories from others?
How might our ways of sharing food help us to know and value histories and identities that have been marginalized?
How can we pay more attention to our food and our eating, so that others might not go hungry?
How can we be attentive to the call of God's Spirit who, giving us a deeper understanding of our food, asked us "not to make a distinction between them and us"?
I don't have all the answers, but I do have a suggestion about where to start. Make time to go and learn about the foods that speak to your heart and sense of identity. Ask your families about recipes and the people who used them. Then create the space and the time to share it with others, around your own tables and in your communities. Not just with your family, but with those who might never have experienced that food before. Share the stories you've learned. And keep your heart and mind open to recognizing your own journey in the stories of others as they share them with you around the table. Acknowledge and treasure the connections you create by your sharing.
And finally, if you're offered the chance to share in a gathering or meal where someone is willing to share their special, spiritual food with you, or anything else where they've put forth the effort to provide you with the precious hospitality, follow the example of our forbearer, Peter. Don't "make a distinction between them and us." Say "Yes" to the invitation!
Let us pray.
Holy God, like a loving mother you constantly sustain us by your grace and your Holy Spirit. You are the source of all good things. You have blessed us with the gift of food with all its rich flavors and the stories and cultures that shape the fruit from creation that we receive at out tables. Help us to perceive your loving care in the food we eat. Make us ready to share that love with others and make us good stewards of the earth's bounty, so that those who hunger can be feed. By our faithful sharing, make us all members of your household and siblings of our brother, Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.