Acts 10: 9-16
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
One day I was travelling in train and was privy to a conversation between two people, one from Uttar Pradesh and the other from Rajasthan. They were all set to eat their food packets. While they were sharing the conversation commenced “In North India, our food habits are really healthy. These Madrasis eat anything. If I see a Madrasi eating, my hunger vanishes; these people just don’t know how to eat. Kaise bhi haat dubo ke khaate hai (They eat very sloppily with dripping hands in the food)” Thankfully I did not reveal my identity. I went to the upper berth to eat my food, with dripping hands and lovely food.
Let me add another incident. After my undergrad college days, I joined the course of Masters in Social Work at Karve Institute of Social Service, Pune. From a very urban, elite college, I was suddenly exposed to students from Rural background. I did not like associating myself with them. When they spoke in Marathi or Hindi, I made it a point to speak in English. There was one incident I very shamefully remember. All my friends decided to eat their food by sitting on the floor. I just could not even think to associate with them. So when they all sat together, I sat at a distance on a chair, giving the excuse that I have back pain. Keeping this stories in mind and realizing the politics of food let us go further.
I have always felt curious as to what this vision of Peter meant. Why was such a vision necessary? It is interesting that the vision to Cornelius is a very simple and encouraging one. Angel says that his prayer and charity is accepted by God. But the champion of faith, Peter whose sermon transforms 3000 people, gets a very confusing vision, a very disturbing one. Now I really relate to Peter. The dude is like me. Whenever he wishes to pray like me He either sleeps or feels hungry. When Jesus asked him to pray along with him at the garden of Gethsemane, he could not control his sleep. Now when he is going to the roof to pray, he is feeling hungry. And this is where he sees the vision which is inexplicably bizarre and an abomination to a Jew. When he is hungry he sees the vision of food which he cannot imagine to eat. This was the vision he saw.
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 11-15)
Now before we go further, this is not a conversion story of Cornelius, like it is the conversion story of Jews in Acts 2 where 3000 people join the Church or like a conversion story of Samaritans in Acts 8, where they receive the gospel due to the work of Deacon Philip and the laying on of hands of Peter and John. Neither is it a story of conversion story like that of Paul, found in Acts 9. Then what is it? Cornelius has been accepted by God. There is an obstacle for his entry and that is the defender of faith, the apostle Peter. God knows that more than Cornelius, conversion experience is necessary for Peter. And bang on, the best way to shake him out of his ethnic blindfold is to help him overcome the basic root of all discrimination. The politics of food. As a Jew, Peter was very conscious of the law of food, what is Kosher and non-kosher. So God is challenging this very binary of us and them in this disturbing vision of reptiles, four footed animals and birds. In his hunger, he was commanded to kill and eat where Peter refuses to eat anything unclean. Now here is the catch. God helps Peter to revision and reimagine the inclusiveness of the creation as God has created all pure and clean. It is an invitation that calls Peter to welcome Gentiles to come and join the Table of the Lord, where all the clean and so called unclean would join in community and Body of Christ. Let me help you understand how difficult this was. If even by mistake a Jew rubbed shoulder with a gentile, he is supposed to burn the robe he is wearing a take a ritual bath. It is in such a context that Peter sees the vision and is challenged to accept Cornelius in his fold. It is Peter who gets converted from his exclusive Jew centred thinking to a creation perspective where all humans are valued equally.
I am extremely delighted that God challenged food and its politics to overcome the inherent division and exclusion. In my tenure in North East India, I saw that the mainline Indians used the habit of Nagas and Manipuris of eating dog meat as a way of ridiculing them. It made us feel superior to them and gave the picture of them as savages. This exclusionary politics of food is very dangerous. As someone pointed out, progressive newspapers like The Hindu made the canteen pure veg, so as to appease or not to offend the vegetarians. One is free to have their own choices of food. We can sanctify and defend it. But when we sanction it as the only way of functioning, food that brings people together, also sadly can divide and further discriminate people. Food politics is a very rife topic in contemporary India as Beef is being banned in states. The mob lynching at Dadri of Mr Mohammed has shaken the very fabric of the Indian Secular credentials.The incident was that Mr Mohammed was suspected to have purchased Beef and the mob reached his family and lynched him. His son is in very critical condition. As someone rightly tweeted, Mr Mohammed had 2 kgs of Mutton and 2kgs of Beef in his fridge. 2 Kgs of Mutton= Rs 350 and 2 kgs Beef= Life of a person. Our personal religious belief in the sanctity of cow is to be respected. But the food habits of different community are different. Jains do not eat onion. Does that mean we ban onion? Muslims are prohibited from eating pork. There are many communities that have a thriving food culture that consist of pork.
We as a society need to grow up from the group ego centricism that is thriving in all communities. No one can be exempted from this madness. We all are playing our cards of identity of being different. As religious and ethnic communities we always strive to judge others by making our standard of morality and behavior as the norm. Judging gives us power and control. It gives us a feeling of superiority and security. Ego always needs to be in control. Ego always defines itself by negation and contraction. “I’m not like that one who eats dog.” “I’m not superstitious or ignorant like them” “I’m not a communist”. So as we are just interested in what we are not, it becomes easy to put others down and feel superior. But one who is based on the identity of God defines themselves by expansion and inclusion. “Yes I am like everybody else, capable of the same good and same bad. They are all my brothers and sisters.” God is calling us to that level of inclusion and oneness which we have never taken seriously. Salvation is a gift to all is the message. God plays no favorites is what Peter realizes in Acts 10:34.
Let us not think that we are insulated from such tendency. We too are divisive in our nature and politics. Let us also confess to our divisive nature and practices. Let us finally end the meditation from a profound thought by Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr. Let me quote him that shows the all accessibility of God, where we cannot privatize or control him.
I quote “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Jewish revelation of the name of God. As we Christians spell and pronounce it, the word is Yahweh. In Hebrew, it is the sacred Tetragrammaton YHVH (yod, he, vay, and he). I am told that those are the only consonants in the Hebrew alphabet that are not articulated with lips and tongue. Rather, they are breathed, with the tongue relaxed and lips apart. YHVH was considered a literally unspeakable word for Jews, and any attempt to know what they were talking about was “in vain.” As the commandment said: “Do not utter the name of God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). All attempts to fully think God are in vain. From God’s side, the divine identity was kept mysterious and unavailable to the mind. When Moses asked for the divinity’s name, he received only the phrase that translates “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
This unspeakability has long been recognized, but now we know it goes even deeper: formally the name of God was not, could not be spoken at all—only breathed. Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. Therefore, the one thing we do every moment of our lives is to speak the name of God. This makes the name of God our first and last word as we enter and leave the world.
I have taught this to people in many countries, and it changes their faith and prayer lives in substantial ways. I remind people that there is no Islamic, Christian, or Jewish way of breathing. There is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing. There is no rich or poor, gay or straight way of breathing. The playing field is utterly leveled. It is all one and the same air, and this divine wind “blows where it will” (John 3:8). No one can control this Spirit.
When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly—breathe. Exactly as some teachers of prayer say, “Stay with the breath, attend to your breath”—the same breath that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils by this Yahweh (Genesis 2:7); the very breath “spirit” that Jesus handed over with trust on the cross (John 19:30) and then breathed on us as shalom, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit all at once (John 20:21-23). And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing—and yet everything?”
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church