by Linda Ryan
I’m undoubtedly not the only person who ever sat in a high school or college class and thought, “What am I doing here? I’ll never use this stuff when I get out of school.” I know I had that thought in algebra, geography, civics, and more than a few college classes which were allegedly supposed to round out my education. Oddly enough, on occasion, I have had to use algebra, or had to use geography in some manner, not to mention having the knowledge I got in civics to understand at least some of what is going on in the world. It’s funny, sometimes you learn something that you figure you’ll never need only to find out that’s exactly what you need at some point later on.
Peter, the pious disciple of the resurrected Jesus, found that out as he was doing his prayers on the roof of the house. In a vision, he saw a sheet full of animals, reptiles, and birds of all kinds being lowered from heaven. Not just sheep and cows and goats, but all kinds of things, most of which had never passed the lips of Peter or any observant Jew. The voice from heaven spoke to Peter and said, “Get up, kill and eat.” Peter was astounded. His response was that he had never eaten anything that was unclean and the response that God sent back rocked him more than just a bit. The words of God, in essence, were “Do not call anything unclean that I have called clean,” It probably shocked Peter to the very core of his being. He was used to following the rules, and Judaism definitely had rules about what was clean and what was not clean, what could be eaten and what could not. This vision repeated itself three times, using a holy number to emphasize the point. This was important, and God was letting Peter know that importance.
Sometimes when you learn something, a reason to apply that knowledge comes quickly to serve as a reinforcement of the value of that particular lesson. Peter got six visitors from Caesarea who wanted him to come with them. The people were Gentiles, seen by Jews as unclean and therefore not people with whom Peter and others would normally mingle. A voice told Peter not to make distinctions between himself and the Gentiles, much as the voice from heaven with the sheet had said about the contents of the sheet. Peter remembered the lesson and went.
In 12-step programs there’s a saying, “Insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results.” That has come up in my life over and over again. Lessons appears in front of me, and I’m supposed to learn it. Then I’m supposed to apply it to my daily life. It sounds very simple, but sometimes it can be a real pain. I seem to be one of those people who has trouble learning lessons, especially those dealing in the practical realm. In a way I’m a Peter, a person who hears the same lesson they get it, and then suddenly finds out they haven’t learned a darned thing. They still make the same mistake over and over again. Peter heard Jesus give the same lesson over and over in the course of his ministry but, like most of the disciples, Peter didn’t get it until he came face-to-face with something that made the lessons click.
The same thing goes with some of the church lessons that I’ve been exposed to over my life. I’ve been exposed to “Love your neighbor,” but I still find it difficult to love the people behind me who let their water run onto my yard and in a place where I have to mow the result of their watering. When it’s over hundred degrees, it’s a big deal. It’s hard to love people who hurt animals, or people, or maybe not even see the people at all which is probably the worst. It’s hard to love the people that are in a “I’ve got mine, too bad about you” way of thinking, or people who only see their point of view as valid. It’s not really all that different than it was 100, 500, or a millennium or more ago.
Too often it ends up with us judging who we believe to be clean and who is definitely not. We go back in American history less than 100 years ago where white men were 100% human while women and those slaves brought from Africa were considered to be 3/5 of a human being. They didn’t measure up. White privilege carried the day. Look around now and see examples of Confederate history being removed from church windows, city centers, and eliminated as memorials or even names of places. We do this in order to avoid offending others, yet in many parts of the United States has not really changed very much. The value of one’s life for an African Americans life or Native American life or Hispanic life or Asian life is less valued than that of Caucasian males. White on black or male on female crime usually ends up being judged in favor of the privileged rather than who was truly in the right and who wasn’t.
We try to rub out history that points out the cause and result of a particular lesson we should have learned, but we reenact parts of that history every day without need for symbols like flags or statues or markers. We even have names for it — racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and a hundred other names for lessons we haven’t learned yet. We want to wipe out the history so we can feel better about it, like it wasn’t our fault. Maybe it wasn’t; an awful lot of things happened long before any of us were born, but we should have learned the lesson by now that simply saying something didn’t happen isn’t enough. It revises history but leaves a gaping wound behind, and the judgement of “clean” and “unclean” continues, just with different words.
Peter learned the lesson of the value of even those people and animals that many would deem unclean or worthless or even disgusting are part of God’s world, put here by God for a reason, and for us to learn to love and care for. No history revision, simply taking lessons to heart and acting sincerely on them.
It’s time to learn the lesson and get on with applying it. It isn’t easy; we are all born with prejudices, but we are also given the strength, wisdom, and grace to overcome them. We have the lessons of Jesus to guide us, and the Spirit to urge us on. We also have the vision of God’s kingdom on earth to hold high. We’ve heard the lessons, now let’s apply them.