Walking into Walls: Stepping into New Reality
Reflection on Acts 11:1–18…. Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
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. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Reflection ….. How many times do you walk into a wall before you turn around and look for a doorway? If you are me the answer would be, three, at least. There is the first time, “Ouch, what is that wall doing here?” Second time, “That wall is still here?” Third time, “Alright. I give up. This is getting me nowhere. I better turn around and find a doorway. “
Perhaps that is why three times Peter bumps into his God given sheet full of “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air” before he turns around and finds a doorway into a new reality, a reality in which nothing is profane or unclean, not beasts of prey nor reptiles, not lepers nor gentiles, because `What God has made clean, (we) must not call profane. There is no distinction between them and us.” But this new reality is as hard to swallow as lizards. No wonder Peter must bump into it three times!
Even when we intellectually agree that “What God has made we must not call profane,” still we dig our heels into dirt when the Spirit instructs us “to go with (Peter and a group of foreigners who are not one of us) and make no distinction between them and us.” What? Immediately I walk into another wall as my mind skips somersaults around the strangers. Are they taller or smaller? trustworthy or fraudulent? deserving or corrupt? conservatives or liberals? citizen or alien? And even when I manage to zipper my mouth to conceal my contempt, my leaping mind recoils, “By no means Lord, I do not associate with those people.”
Then the Spirit breathes the breath of God on the tall and small, trustworthy and fraudulent, deserving and corrupt, the conservative and liberal, the citizen and alien. Smack. There is that wall again. Nothing and no one is left out? Nothing and no one is undeserving? Nothing and no one is profane?
Breathing the breath of God on Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free, straight and gay, old and young, righteous and sinner, conservative and liberal, citizen and alien, and every one of this motley crew we call humankind, it seems the Spirit of God has no prejudice. Everything that lives and breathes and finds its being in the interconnected web of all that is comes to life by the One breath of the One God. No one and nothing is profane.
Be assured, this is not carte blanc, anything goes get out of jail free. The demand for value and respect for every breathing being is ontological, in other words, it has to do with the fundamental nature of being, the essence of existence in which all breathing beings participate.
This ontological reality is distinct from individual beings’ particular behavioral reality. I experienced this in spades while designing and overseeing a treatment program for Native American youth between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two who were adjudicated for sex offenses. It did not take long to realize several things; the offending behavior of these boys was a recapitulation of behavior offended against them, the boys were consistently treated as if they were their behavior, not only labeled sex offenders but also identifying them selves as such and consequently experiencing them selves as having no ontological value.
Four dimensions for a treatment program emerged; in their own time and own way each participant would admit their offending behavior to their program group, receive feedback from peers and staff that their behavior was unacceptable and they are good and valuable beings. The tipping point in their healing was when a participant could affirm, “I am good and worthy. What I did was wrong. What _____ did to me was wrong and I am a good person. I deserve respect and will treat others with respect” the process of restoring their place with their family and community began.
The very nature of our existence demands value of and respect for our essential being. “What God has made clean we must not call profane.” We must not dishonor, disparage, disgrace or make distinctions between us and them. Rather, we are meant to appreciate, acclaim and approve the fundamental value of every breathing being, including our selves.
A woman whom I will call Espera was born in San Pedro Sula in Honduras, a city distinguished as the “murder capital of the world.” Espera’s husband was murdered. She has two sons and a babe in arms. Her eldest son, thirteen years old, is approached by the cartel, enticing him with drugs to earn money for his desperate mother. Knowing her son will be swept into this web of violence and addiction, Espera starts walking north from San Pedro, hoping against hope to find asylum in the US. Along the way she finds a marginal sense of safety traveling with others evading treats and stumbling toward hope. In a heart wrenching moment Espera says good bye to her sons as she sends then across the southern US border. She has broken her heart, broken the law and sent her sons to break the law as well.
In legal terms it is just to condemn Espera’s behavior, but how are we to respond to the ontological terms presented in Peter’s three times encounter with God? “Do not make a distinction between them and us?”
I offer no simple answer to this dilemma. There are laws devised by humankind and there are laws delivered by the Spirit of God. Both have value and both have their place. This is what I believe. It is incumbent upon each of us to hold these laws together, to draw our heads into our heart and listen for the sure and certain direction of the windy Spirit of God because with Peter we must ask ourselves, “Who am I that I could hinder God?”