[A sermon on the Uniform Series text for today, Acts 10:19-33.] Hate has been making the news of late. But hate is not a new problem. It’s as old – well, almost as old – as humanity itself. We might want to say that hate is the first sin – because the first time the word “sin” is actually used in the Bible, it’s when God is talking to Cain about the hate he bears towards his brother Abel, which ultimately leads Cain to murder Abel. The Bible doesn’t say Cain hated Abel, but we do know Cain was angry, and disappointed, and we suppose resentful … and at that point, at the point he is having that response, God warns him that “sin is crouching at the door; it wants you; you have to overcome it.” As we know, Cain doesn’t do that.
This is how John, the author of 1st John, tells the story of Cain: he was a murderer, and in fact “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them” (1 John 3:15). Christians, like the people John is writing to, like us, we are supposed to love our brothers and sisters and neighbors.
Jesus doesn’t use the word hate in the Sermon on the Mount, but if we think about how people feel when they are moved to say “I hate you,” we might recognize hatred in the complex of anger, insult and denunciation Jesus warns against when he says “if you are angry with a brother or sister you will liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council, and if you say ‘you fool’ [that is, you wicked, despicable person worthy of condemnation] you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (that’s Matthew 5:22-23, by the way) Jesus, like John, depicts the indulgence of rage, or hatred, as linked in principle to murder. And if we think about this for a moment, we can probably see why: hatred, fury, the act of denouncing someone as despicable, all spring from an attitude towards that other person of actively wishing they were not alive, not in the way, not doing whatever it is they are doing. They all spring from regarding the other person as not only dispensable, but actually undesirable, from the sense that if they were to disappear, to drop dead, to fall off the face of the earth it would be an improvement. Murderers simply take that attitude the extra step, and try to effect the improvement that hate and rage and contempt have already envisioned.
So hate is old, and deeply engrained in humanity’s repertoire, and the Bible talks about it as something to avoid, sometimes explicitly, and sometimes implicitly by talking about things we associate with hate. In the story this morning, we see the Holy Spirit, in effect, taking the early Christian believers by the hand and walking them through the action steps of overcoming hatred. The story of Peter’s ultimate embrace of Cornelius and Cornelius’ household, the extension of welcome to Gentiles like Cornelius, and the seeking of welcome from Jewish Christians by those Gentiles, is almost a manual, a tutorial for how to overcome hatred.
Let me stop there for a second. Because at least one or two people are probably thinking, but, Peter didn’t hate the Gentiles, the Jewish believers didn’t hate the Romans and the non-Jewish people around them. The Gentiles didn’t hate the Jews.
Really? Didn’t they?
Maybe it depends on what we mean by “hate.” So let’s go ahead and take a minute or two to ask ourselves … what do we mean by hate? What counts as hate?
My trusty dictionary defines “hate” as “to regard with extreme aversion; have great dislike for; detest” – and it also includes the sense of “to be unwilling, dislike” as in “I hate to mow the lawn on a hot day.” So would it be fair to say that Peter, as far as we can tell, harbored extreme aversion or great dislike for Gentiles?
Well, we know that Peter believes it’s “unlawful” for Jews to eat with Gentiles, or really have any close association with them. Peter is mistaken about this, actually … if what he means is that there’s a rule in the Torah against Jews eating with Gentiles or having anything to do with them. But that’s beside the point, since Peter thinks it’s a rule, Jews are supposed keep their distance from Gentiles, not mix with them any more than they have to. You might say that isn’t hate, that’s just … I don’t know, maybe we would have to call it avoidance, or maybe we would call it segregation … and you might say, Peter doesn’t have any feelings about this, he doesn’t feel hatred or anger towards the Gentiles, he just respects that … rule.
But isn’t this a rule to “regard with aversion?” And honestly, can we learn to follow a rule of staying away from people, giving them a good wide berth, not sharing their food – which we have been taught is inedible, the kind of nasty stuff we shouldn’t put in our mouths, from the time we are little – not sharing their habits, not being lured into their disgusting worship that we believe is wicked, can we learn all of that, and not think of those people as disgusting and wrong, people we are right to dislike? How could we not think that? If we had lived by that rule all our lives, how could we not feel all kinds of unpleasant emotions, like annoyance and distrust and fear and loathing and dislike, if “those people” got in our space, or we had to get into theirs?
And then let’s add in the pieces of the actual political and social situation that we know about from our Bible studies and the History channel: that in Palestine, where Peter still is, and has lived all of his life, the Gentiles staff the occupying army, they are the colonial power; the foreigners who run the government, the police force – that is, the army, the courts, the ones who live in the big houses in the modern cities, the ones who might buy your fish in the market – they’d probably send a slave to do it, though – or hire you to do some work around their property … the ones who look down on you, make fun of your language, mock your religion, drag you into court and have you beaten or flogged for looking at them the wrong way, and who can, if they decide they need to make an example of you, nail you to a cross and make you die. The Romans are, literally, the enemy; they are, actually, dangerous, and they are, actually, unjust, at least from time to time.
How do we expect people to feel about people like that?
I think that if we know there is a group of people that we have learned always to think of with a variable mixture of hostility, contempt, apprehension, resentment, and moral approbation, and have been taught that for the sake of our own self-preservation we need to treat those people at all times as if they are wearing a “warning – danger” label, it is fundamentally accurate to say that we hate them. And under the circumstances, we would probably be imprudent not to. So I suspect Peter hated the Gentiles, the Romans, and if we had been him, we would have hated them, too.
But, you might say, the Romans didn’t hate the Jews, they wouldn’t have hated Peter and the other Jewish Christians … right? After all, Cornelius is a “God-fearer,” we are pretty sure that means he goes to a synagogue, he tries to learn from the Jews about the God of Israel … he must feel something other than hatred …
And I will grant you that a Roman soldier like Cornelius probably made an exception for the sake of the interesting Jewish religion; that he stood up against that mix of hostility, contempt, resentment and moral approbation that tends to accumulate among the people who are made responsible for maintaining order in a situation that is always, at least potentially, hostile. He probably had a word of defense when other soldiers, the people who were required to patrol the occupied territories, who came into contact with Jews who crossed the street to stay out of their way, who tried not to make eye contact, who spit on the ground when they walked by, who bore the brunt of interacting with the people they were keeping in line … when those men voiced their opinions about those people, Cornelius probably pointed out that “not all Jews” were criminals and traitors, that Jewish culture and religion had some “real good points,” that at a minimum there were exceptions.
But let’s face it, when people are getting into that kind of conversation, it is because the assumptions of the culture they live in are otherwise. There has evidently been a lot of scholarly research on the topic of how the Romans felt about the Jews [for instance, there is this review by Robert Louis Wilken in First Things, and Richard H. Sherwin’s synopsis of Peter Schafer’s Judeophobia: Attitudes Towards Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) ] and the upshot seems to be that there was, at a minimum, a lot of casual prejudice, and arguably a good deal of what we these days would refer to specifically as anti-Semitism, in the ancient world. So maybe Cornelius doesn’t hate people like Peter, but we can’t assume his family and friends all share his bleeding-heart liberal integrationist sympathies.
And then, of course, there’s the socio-political situation itself, the one in which these different groups have been living from their births. Maybe we don’t have to hate people when we invade their land, impose our government on them, subject them to our laws, and constantly remind them that we are “letting” them have their peculiar religious or cultural ways, but wouldn’t have to do even that, so they’d better mind their p’s and q’s. Maybe we don’t have to hate people we ignore, are ultimately indifferent towards, and on the whole exclude from our way of life, not caring what that exclusion means for them, and not even really thinking about but just assuming that if they want to get ahead in “our” society, they’ll adopt all of our ways and do their best to become one of us – while recognizing that can never completely succeed, since they’re not us. But if we’re honest with ourselves, doesn’t that attitude bespeak aversion and dislike for those people? Maybe we don’t feel like we hate them, maybe we’re just acting as if we hate them. But isn’t that “as if” hate enough?
So … it doesn’t seem unfair to me to think that Peter basically hated Gentiles, and that the Gentiles basically hated the Jews, and that this story in Acts is a story about the Holy Spirit taking these people who basically hate each other by the hand and leading them through the steps they need to take to overcome that mutual hatred.
And mostly what those steps are involves … trusting and obeying God, of course, and then acting on that trust and obedience to begin to treat the people the Holy Spirit brings to your door with an attitude of actual welcome and hospitality.
Of course, these people have credentials: they have been vouched for by the Holy Spirit in visions and instructions – and that is probably necessary, because there is a lot of cultural resistance to overcome in this story. Peter is not in any doubt, by the time he has had his dramatic vision, and then been told in explicit terms by the Spirit that he is to receive the men at his door and go with them without hesitation, Peter is not in any doubt that this is what he has to do. He is clearly being told to set aside his usual sense of aversion and disgust and avoidance.
And the men come to the door with a polite invitation and a lot of reassuring language: Cornelius has a reputation for being a good guy, people speak highly of him, the whole Jewish nation, in fact; and an angelic vision was involved in this invitation … so, they are letting Peter know in no uncertain terms that if he does what they ask, if he comes with them, it will be safe for him to do that.
And then, this group has to travel some distance together. This group of different people, who have a history of hating one another – or if you’re still objecting to that, then, at least, this group of people who have a history of viewing one another with what seems like warranted suspicion, of not having many opportunities to get to know one another or meet one another as fellow human beings, of feeling themselves on the opposite side of many practical issues and divides, of being “the others” to their “us,” of being the nuisances and problems to their “why on earth would they …” – this group of different people with all this baggage, they have to eat some meals together, spend a couple of nights under the same roof, wake up bleary-eyed and morning-faced in front of each other, get sleepy and need to get rest in one another’s company, be helped up the uphill places by one another and be grateful to one another for suggesting they take a break … they have to undertake a common journey, as fellow human beings, become aware of one another’s human strengths and weaknesses and commonalities and personal differences … they cannot avoid seeing one another as people, like themselves in so many ways.
It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. It isn’t true enough that we’re all “the same” under the skin to solve all our problems. We aren’t, really, in lots of ways. But there are a lot of things we do share as human beings, and that common humanity really is a ground for empathy and compassion … essential, indispensable ground. Which is probably at least part of the reason God, too, was determined to share that ground with us, in the person of Jesus Christ.
And then at last, when the whole group, the Jewish Christians from Joppa, the willing Gentiles of Cornelius’ household and circle of friends, are all together in one place, the Holy Spirit shows up, and demonstrates that this is a kind of assembly that the Spirit approves of and blesses and anoints.
It’s hard to argue with the Holy Spirit. We can read this story and be entirely clear, as clear as Peter and as clear as those Gentiles, that God is saying “the church is supposed to include everyone.” Everyone in the world. The in-group, and everyone who is not already in the in-group. Everyone. We can be entirely clear about that.
And nevertheless, clear as we are, we have never fully realized the ideal laid out for us in Acts 10. Just because the instruction is clear, that doesn’t mean it has been easy for us, ever, to overcome our common human tendency to hate others. If we look back at our long history as the church of Jesus Christ, we can see that it hasn’t been easy. If we look around at our present reality as the church of Jesus Christ, we can see that it is not only not easy for us to overcome our own various hatreds, it is extraordinarily difficult, and we are (well, most of us are, I am) not at all good at it yet.
Because even though we have the instructions, even though we have this manual of steps … this demonstration of the kind of thing that we need to do to make the inclusiveness of the church a reality … we have a hard time admitting that we still have a problem with hate. We say “I don’t hate those people … I just …” I just … I just dislike them, disagree with them, try not to get into serious conversations with them, don’t read their papers, want to scream when their posts end up on my facebook feed, I don’t hate them I just dismiss them and call them names and wish there were fewer of them … And until I can stop living in denial about my hate, until I can take that first step, until I can have that conversation with the Holy Spirit, about how I’ve never gotten that close to anything that unacceptable, only then can I begin to listen to the instructions that were not just given to Peter but were given to the whole church of Jesus Christ. Only then will I perhaps become brave enough to receive the messengers from the other side, recognize they need to come in and eat dinner, and have the grace to extend that invitation; only then will I perhaps be able to take the risk of getting on the road with them.
On the hard road in that dangerous but inescapable common ground of shared humanity embraced, and redeemed, by the Jesus Christ I say I follow. The only one worth being on.