What makes a group, a group?
It’s almost always some factor held in common. A mom’s club is defined by their parental status. The motorcyclists cruising up and down the Tail of the Dragon around here are bound together by their bikes. My dad’s close friends call their group “CFS” – “Can’t Fix Stupid.” But their common bond is not stupidity, unless you call waking up at 6am on a Saturday to play golf, “stupid.”
Sometimes, in a slight variation, groups are made a group by what they commonly abstain from. Vegetarians steer clear of meat. AA groups support each other in not using alcohol.
Either way, a group is made a group by a common bond, whether it’s something held together or something withheld together. Often groups will make these bonds even stronger by attaching a visible sign to them. Veterans will get tattoos to represent their branch of the military. Once upon a time my friends and I drew black Xes on our hands to show that we were “Straightedge” – a much cooler way (or so I thought) to say that we didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs.
We do this in religious circles, too. Orthodox Jews might wear a skullcap or scarf. Some Islam women dress in a distinctively modest way, covering their heads and sometimes faces. We Christians often wear cross necklaces. All of these are ways to tell others that we’re part of a particular group.
And likewise, in religious circles, our group is defined by what we share in common. This can be more specific than just a belief in God or Jesus Christ; it can include what we will or will not eat or drink, or what kind of music we use in worship, or what translation of the Bible we prefer, or what kinds of pastors we have…
Etc., etc., etc.
In Peter’s day that “etc., etc., etc.” included a few distinctive common bonds for those who called themselves Jews. Two of these show up in today’s Scripture: what they ate and the visible sign they took on their bodies.
Leviticus 11 lays out in careful detail which animals are clean (and therefore, okay to eat) and which are unclean (and very much not okay to eat). The Israelites were God’s holy people, so they were to keep in line with that holiness by paying careful attention to what went into their bodies.
This particularity of diet would have a double-effect in binding them together as a group. Yes, they all ate the same stuff and that shared that in common. But unlike the modern dinner table – where vegetarians and carnivores might peacefully share a meal, for example – the first-century dinner table was an intimate space. To eat with someone was to convey complete acceptance of that person. To eat with someone who ate differently… well, unthinkable.
Another basic common bond between faithful Jews was the practice of circumcision. In Genesis 17 this is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, that all males are to be circumcised. Any who aren’t are to be cut off from his people because they have broken the covenant.
In some ways this particular marker of a common bond is less than visible; the area of circumcision is not exactly one that’s publicly displayed. But it is one that is very clear: you either are circumcised, or you’re not. Anyone who sees a man naked knows: he’s a Jew or he’s a Gentile; he’s in or he’s out.
These are among the more important things that make Jewish believers a group. First and foremost, of course, is their faith in the one God. But what they ate and the mark on their bodies would have been essential components of that faith community. They would have been part of the core common bond holding them together.
And then Peter has a vision.
In Acts 10 Peter is hungry. It was normal to fast during prayer, so it’s possible that he’s been fasting and is very hungry. While he’s waiting on supper he falls asleep.
Then he has this weird dream. He dreams of food – understandable given his hunger – but he dreams about food that he’s not supposed to eat. There’s an indiscriminate collection of animals in front of him: “all kinds” of four-footed creatures, reptiles, birds of the air. Leviticus 11 clearly lays out what’s okay to eat and what’s not. Any faithful first-century Jew would take a step back from this blanket of “all kinds” of animals wriggling around together.
And then a voice: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Peter doesn’t take his Jewish obligations lightly, so he objects three times. But three times the voice insists: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Peter wakes up, and just as he is wiping the confused sleep from his eyes the Spirit gives him a heads up: three men are going to come looking for you; go with them. And they do. And he does.
They take him to a man named Cornelius, who is not a Jew. Which means he is a Gentile. Which means he has not been circumcised. Which means he is not part of Peter’s group. But Peter goes in to him anyway; the dream has had an effect on him. It seems that God has muddled the waters on what is clean and what is unclean.
Peter looks for what the Spirit is doing with this Gentile, and here is what he finds: God has answered Cornelius’ prayers by having him send for Peter to preach him the Good News. And Peter preaches it, staring with this wonderful line: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). This is a mind-blowing, life-changing moment. It’s the redefinition of what makes a group a group. No longer will their common bond be what’s on their dinner tables or marks on their skins. From here on out, their most common of all common bond will the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ has left in their hearts.
Now Peter just has to explain that to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem.
Can you imagine their hesitancy? These have been the defining principles of their group for thousands of years. And Peter is coming in to say, “Hey! God is doing something new, y’all!” I picture blank stares and crickets chirping after Peter’s progress report from his trip to Joppa. I can almost hear them asking, dumbfounded and on the verge of anger, “Um, can you explain that again?” We might need to hear this twice, too. And so it’s given to us, the readers of Acts, twice: first the actual event in Acts 10, and then Peter’s detailed retelling in Acts 11. For us and for the Jewish believers, this kind of revolutionary change needs to be told and heard twice.
But eventually they come to the conclusion that we must also: praising God. “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Our church universal was built on this radical redefinition of what makes our group, a group. It’s not what we wear, or what we eat, or how we worship, or who we hang out with, or how much money we have. This is the one thing, our one common bond: the gift of the Holy Spirit given from Jesus Christ.
And we know this… but over time, we can forget.
A friend of mine did a study for school years back on this phenomenon that happens in congregations where churches tend to maintain the same group personalities over many years. For generations a church might be friendly or mean, liberal or conservative, potluck-loving or mission-trip-taking. This is interesting because over time, people come and go, right? Church membership is fluid because people die or move or simply leave. But a church that expects people to dress nicely for worship might maintain that expectation even as the membership changes.
His basic conclusion – as I remember it – was that like attracts like. So even though over a ten year period there might be a 15% change in the makeup of a church, any new people are drawn in because they liked what they saw, and they wanted to be a part of a church that expected everyone to dress up nice for church.
And then, before you know it, their most common bond – the thing that makes their group, a group – becomes the way they dress for church.
This danger is present for any congregation. It’s a danger even when the bond is over relatively good things.
At Andrews UMC we have a pretty good time together. Many of us really like each other. We have things in common that give us lots to talk about. We are parents and grandparents, we are children that are growing up and we are grown children. We are locals and transplants. We are rich and poor and somewhere in between.
We like to do a lot of the same things, and those things are fun to share in common. We are golfers and softball players and hikers. We are sowers and gardeners and painters and readers. We are cooks and musicians and socialites.
All of these things are fun to have in common, right? And it’s great to have those things to bond over.
But they are not what binds us together.
We are not a group because we’re cooks. We are not a group because we’re parents. We are not a group because we are middle class. We are not a group because we like a certain kind of music.
What makes our group a group is this, and this alone: the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us by Jesus Christ. Anyone who has that gift is a part of our group. And anyone who wants to have this gift can be a part of our group. That is what binds us together.
And if we are bound together in the Spirit, then our group becomes pretty diverse, right? Then our group might include “all kinds” of people, just like Peter’s blanket filled with “all kinds” of food. And folks who visit might wonder, “How in the world do all those different kinds of people get along so well?” And to answer them, maybe we’d build on Peter’s answer in Acts 11:17:
“If God gave us all the same gift when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who are we to hinder God?”