My God is better than your God!
Have you ever said something like that? Taunted someone like a child would because of religion? How about if we said, The United Church is better than the Wesleyans! What about saying Mount Royal is better than Central!
Sounds childish, doesn’t it? Childish, but unfortunately so true... No, no, not true, just human nature. Comparison is something we fall prey to far too often...
2000 years ago these same comparisons were being made – remember how Jewish people felt about Samaritans? Well, there was someone they hated even more... the Gentiles... the non Jewish, well, usually Roman people who were always causing problems and did not understand how important faith was for the chosen people.
So, keep that in mind, and listen again to the opening of our passage from Acts....
“Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.”
Gentiles! Accepting the Word of God? Who can believe such a thing – especially when the quick list of Gentiles is also a list of those people who at one time or another had conquered Jerusalem: Romans, Egyptians, Philistines, and Assyrians? Gentiles were the type of people who God did not like very much; and basically that list included everyone else.
Gentiles were also the people who didn’t bother to follow any of the simple rules that God laid out for being a good and faithful follower; rules like washing your hands and not eating shellfish. We all know exactly what God wants us to do, right?
Well – ok – there is the real problem... the real problem is that we are quite certain WE know what God wants.
When I was younger I was convinced God was a really really old guy on a cloud with white hair and beard… not quite Santa Clause, more like Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings.
For some reason it never registers on us, but the Bible lists hundreds of words or phrases to describe God... none of them, by the way, says anything about the old man in the clouds...
God is a Creator; God is the Alpha and Omega – the Beginning and the End. And the list goes on… invisible, powerful, glorified, loving, like a mother hen, like a clap of thunder, like a father, even the sound of silence.
If you think about it, the real problem is that we have no physical description of God: No where are we told, God is 6’4’’, God is a woman, or God has the appearance of a regal 65 year old… Instead, we are told what God acts like; or how God behaves… and the list is kind of vague and way too long, so we edit.
God would never drink sherry for communion. God would support Capitalism. God is against Abortion. God is on the side of the Allies not the Axis. God is heterosexual – you get the picture… the danger is that we start to define God as being very, very much like we are.
Which is how Peter and the rest of them felt; God was not only Jewish, God was really Jewish.
They thought that Jesus, as the Messiah, came to save the Jews... end of story...
And you could easily tell who was in and who was out, who was a Jew and who was not, by looking at what they eat. Jewish people keep the kosher food laws, and Roman people do not... easy, right?
Of course, one of the things we should know about God after all this time is that God loves to challenge us, and God challenges Peter with a vision: God sets a picnic up and asks Peter to eat; but the problem is that it is food that has never touched his lips; food that would make him ritually unclean; food that would make him just like those Romans…
I want to suggest to you that this is one of the great turning points of the faith. You see, at this moment Christianity moved from being a religion of God’s chosen people, to the religion of everybody... This was God erasing the line in the sand and saying, my love is for everyone, even the people over there.
We might think that God does not like people who belong to another language or racial division; French, Spanish, black, Chinese. It might be a class distinction, God only likes rich people, or educated people, or working class people. Perhaps we would put those with mental illness, or depressed people outside of the line. What about life style, does God really love those who drink, gamble, smoke or drive SUV’s? And we all know that Sexuality plays a big role – God doesn’t want anything to do with the divorced, the unwed pregnant, homosexuals and perhaps even single people… The one I struggle with the most is religion; some people would put Islam out of God’s reach. Others, like me, are more subtle: God does not, in my opinion, listen to the prayers of fundamentalists – or at least that’s what I think on a bad day.
The point is that we all have someone; from our sister in law Susie, to the Ayatollah of Iran who we think is not worthy of God’s love, who is unclean in that ritual sort of way, and who we would not want to have anything to do with.
But what if God set up a picnic for us both? What if we were forced to eat together?
Peter, when he was explaining himself to the other apostles, had this to say in verse: 11:17 “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"
It is a phrase that catches me up short – who am I, that I could hinder God? If I do not like someone, if I am against some policy or other – does that mean that God sits on my side of the fence? But what are we to do since all of us suffer from a similarly narrow point of view when it comes to our likes and dislikes?
How about if we ask ourselves one simple question: what is the commandment that Jesus left us with? We are to love one another.
Now, if I am to truly love the people around me I have to accept that no matter what I think of them, I am not right – and God loves them anyway. Not only that, but God might think they are more right about things than I am, and God loves me anyway.
When we pray our prayer of confession it is this that should be right up there at the front of the list – I have not loved everyone, or perhaps even anyone yet today, the way that God would have me love them. And trust me, of this I am repentant; because what an incredibly wonderful world God has given us – filled with beauty and creativity and diversity – I know that everyone I meet is a person who can make my life a better one, and so I try, I really try.After all, Jesus tried to tell us: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”