I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. … I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
(Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963)
In Acts chapter 11 we are told that Peter had a dream, and the thrust of these two dreams is remarkably similar!
In a bar in New York there are two guys sitting at opposite ends of the bar eyeing out each other as they sink a few beers. One guy is a Jewish American. The other guy is a Chinese American. After his third beer the Jewish guy takes what’s left of his glass, walks over to the Chinese guy, and pours it over his head saying “That’s for Pearl Harbour. My grandfather was killed at Pearl Harbour.” “Pearl Harbour!” the Chinese guy says. “I’m Chinese. It was the Japanese that bombed Pearl Harbour.” “Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese – all the same to me!” the Jewish guy says. The Chinese guy then takes his beer and pours it over the Jewish guy’s head, saying, “That’s for the Titanic. My great Uncle was killed when the Titanic went down.” “The Titanic” says the Jewish guy,“what have I got to do with the sinking of the Titanic?” “Goldberg, Steinberg, Iceberg – all the same to me!” the man replies.
“Prejudice is the child of Ignorance” said William Hazlitt a couple of centuries ago. For the most part he is surely right, but not in some situations. Having just emerged from two weeks in Israel, I’d have to say that the prejudices that vibrate across that country are deep and complex – not a matter of simple ignorance. When I look at the way battle lines were drawn between different ethnic groups in New Testament times, the situation there is also complex.
The Jews of 1st century Palestine did not mix with the Greeks and the Romans. Why not? Partly because they (the Romans) were an unfriendly foreign power that had invaded their land. Partly because they represented a style of life that the Jews saw as idolatrous and self-seeking and that threatened to corrupt their youth. Partly because Biblical piety demanded that the Jews remain a separate people – distinct in appearance and in lifestyle from their neighbours. And partly, I suppose, because they just looked different.
Visit Israel today and you will likewise find a situation that is complex, yet the reality of prejudicial hatred and violence is everywhere. It was a good learning experience for me – being on the wrong end of prejudice. Being male, middle-class and white, I’m normally well ensconced on the comfortable side of racial tensions. Not so when I went to Israel. It was a first for me to feel looked down upon, to be threatened, kicked and spat upon, though I was always conscious of the fact that I was just a tourist. Others had to live with this every day.
If we had met the Apostle Paul before his conversion – when he was still known as ‘Saul’ – we would have found him hard to get on with. Well … I suppose he would have had no dealings with us. Even so, if we caught a glance from him as he was passing by we would have felt him looking down his nose at us. He wouldn’t have deemed us worthy of his conversation, let along his presence at a meal.
I imagine Peter to be naturally warmer than that. My guess is that Peter would have managed a smile for just about anyone – from his fellow Jews to Samaritan women! Even so, the early Peter would never have consented to sit down to have a meal with us, as he would not stain himself by coming under the same roof as us.
And it’s not a case of simple prejudice based on ignorance. God Himself had given the people of Israel a variety of rituals with which they circumscribed their lives, and the whole point of those rituals was to make themselves different as a people.
To be ‘holy’ always meant to be ‘separate’ or ‘different’. The Jews were self-consciously different. And they wanted to remain different because God wanted them to be different!
It was written: ‘every male among you shall be circumcised’. That made them different.
It was written: you don’t eat pork (Leviticus 11). That made them different too.
Indeed there were lots of things written that were designed to remind you that you, as a child of God, were different from the rest of the world – holy, pious, focused on God.
Of course this sense of thinking that you were different from others easily lends itself to thinking that you were better than others, which is where the critique of Jesus upon the whole system begins. According to the dream in Acts 10 and 11 though it appears that the entire system is to be abandoned! The actions runs as follows:
- Peter has a dream of a great picnic where God is telling him to have a bite of all the things that he isn’t supposed to eat. Peter has this dream three times!
- As he finishes dreaming, representatives of Cornelius the Roman centurion come to his house and ask him to accompany them to meet Cornelius.
- Peter goes with them, enters Cornelius’ house, starts talking, and everybody starts speaking in tongues, reminiscent of the day of Pentecost!
- Peter says, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have”, and so everybody gets baptised.
This is my summary of Acts 11, and Acts 11 is actually just a summary of Acts 10. This is a story that gets repeated over again in the book of Acts, presumably because it is important.
I think I’m right in saying that there is only one other story in the book of Acts that gets this sort of treatment. It’s the story of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus – where he’s thrown of his horse and blinded and where he hears Jesus speaking to him.
Ironically, in both cases, the truth that God brings to the men is roughly the same – that God does have a place in His heart and in His Kingdom for non-Jews.
What we need to understand is that this was the big issue in the first century church. This was why the early Paul (or ‘Saul’) and so many of his pious contemporaries hated the Christians.
It wasn’t just because the Christians thought that Jesus was the Messiah. That might have been a sticking point for some, but within the Jewish faith there were then (as there are now) different beliefs about who was the Messiah.
It wasn’t just about who the Messiah was. It was most fundamentally about the fact that the Christians were dissolving the dividing wall between Jew and non-Jew, and this was seen as a threat to the entire fabric of their faith and their society!
There might well have been room within Jewish society to accept different beliefs about different Messiahs. Look at the literature of 1st century Israel and you will see that different groups had different Messianic expectations. Most people were waiting for a warrior leader. Some were waiting for a priest. If you look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, it seems that the Qumran community, who were a group of Jewish monks, were expecting both!
1st century Judaism might well have been able to absorb within its ranks any number of godly Jews who recognised Jesus as the Messiah, and had not God given Peter this dream, and had not God struck down Saul and turned him into Paul, and had not God very deliberately forced the church to burst the bounds of any narrow ethnic exclusivism, then we might still be a small sect within the larger body of Judaism.
But it was not the will of God that his people should remained defined by any one ethnic group, just as it is not the will of God that we remain defined by any one social group, just as it is not the will of God that we be defined by any homogeneous unit that separates us from our fellow men and women.
On the contrary, as we read about God building the church in the book of Acts what we see is that He was very deliberately building a multi-coloured community where in Christ there was ‘no Jew nor Greek nor Palestinian nor Arab, no rich or poor, no slave or free, no male or female, but where all are one, for all are in Christ as Christ is in all.’
Peter had a dream. Martin Luther King had a dream. Some of us find that this dream continues.
It took us some 2000 odd years, and it is taking the church longer than most, but we seem to be finally discovering that there is indeed no male nor female in Christ, but that women are in fact equally capable of ministry and service as are men. It turns out that “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we did”. By the grace of the Spirit of God some of us have discovered that, and so the dream continues.
For me the biggest personal spiritual breakthrough in the last ten years has been a realisation concerning my brothers and sisters who share a different sexual orientation to mine. By the grace of the Spirit of God I came to see that “many of these people had received the Holy Spirit just as I had”. And so the dream continues.
For many of us here the Spirit of God is still at work expanding our vision and enlarging our hearts, helping us to realise that young people as well as old, uneducated as well as educated, working class as well as middle class, people of all types and colours and backgrounds are all one in Christ Jesus, indeed, that “these people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have”.
It is a dangerous thing to dream. And it is certainly unsettling for the church leadership. Things would be so much easier if God restricted Himself to communicating with us only through the direct study of the Scriptures. Such a God would be a lot easier to contain and to predict. But it seems to be built in to the package, that if we are going to worship a living God, then we are going to have to put up with ongoing surprises.
And the surprises, I believe, keep coming in this same area – that God is continuing to open us up as a community to become the truly multi-coloured family that He always intended us to be. They tend to keep being in the area of pushing us beyond our comfort zones and moving us from ‘me’ to‘we’ and from ‘us and them’ to just ‘us’.
I must admit that spending a couple of weeks in Israel has deepened my perspective on these matters. I’ve now had the experience of being kicked and spat upon because I am different. This is not the way things are supposed to be. This is not the way that things one day will be. And God has very deliberately constructed the church so that it might be a sign to the world now of the fact that things don’t have to be this way.
We are not there yet, but we can keep building and we can keep praying and we can keep dreaming, of that great feast when all peoples will come together and share together in the good things that God has given us, of that day when former slaves and former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of fellowship, of that day when every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May 9, 2004