I want you to picture a generic first-century Jewish dude, a man who lived, if he lived beyond childbirth, in a much wilder, in a merciless world; and in this world, little boys could be gored by loose oxen, and little girls could be captured and sold off. Too much or too meager a rainfall foretold ruin. No medicines defended against disease. It was a world where Death nipped and nibbled and never did stop. Daily life was a dicey affair for this Jewish dude you have conjured; he would have been prey for nature red in tooth and claw, would have been vulnerable to forces he could not understand or control, would have felt chaos rage around him. But this first-century Jew would have coped, have sought grounding and strength, in the scriptures, among them, the very beginning of the book of Genesis. For this is what the very beginning of the book of Genesis gave this Jewish dude to believe about God: That, in the beginning, there was a formless void, a dangerous deep, a dark vortex, there was a kind of spaghetti pie of undirected cosmic forces – there was chaos. And probably for him that all sounded like just business as usual.
But, but, God had created – and created by sorting, by separating that chaos into discrete, ordered sets. God made heaven and earth. God made darkness and light. God made dry ground and sea. God made plants and animals. God made male and female. Which is to say: amidst the havoc of life in a chancier age, your first-century Jewish dude was not without comfort. He knew, for the scriptures told him so, that God wrought meaning and order, trusted that God tamed, God untangled the chaotic forces and routed them into stable categories. Genesis 1 – the way it describes God’s creative work as accomplished in imposing a sort of grid, a symmetry (light/dark, land/sea, etc.) – gives our Jewish dude and his pre-scientific people a way to make sense of the world around them, gives them a way to start to see structure even in the hard unpredictability of life then.
So we have a first-century Jewish dude who believes, straight out of Genesis 1, that God gives and sustains life by organizing it, by organizing away all that could threaten it – kind of an Is-chaos-knocking-at-your-door?-How-about-a-trip-to-the-custom-closet-department-at-Home-Depot? approach. But it was not enough simply to know that God calls forth order from chaos; our Jewish dude would also be concerned to mind that order, to honor it, and to abide within its bounds. Some of you may know one or two of those ‘wacky’ laws in Leviticus. Well, those laws were a means of mapping out God’s cosmic grid, God’s discrete sets, the ordered dichotomies of Genesis 1, onto daily life. Those laws hedge against crossing or confusing categories.1
Which is why our dude could not plant two different crops in the same field. Which is why our dude could not wear a shirt woven from two different fibers. Which is why – if he had wanted to – according to Leviticus, our dude could not sleep with another dude: it was thought the act invited confusion between the fixed categories of male with male-like sexual behavior and female with female-like sexual behavior. And which is why our dude could not ever, ever, ever eat animals that did not fit obviously and squarely into some clear taxonomy: So, amphibious critters that can live both in water and on land – no frogs or newts for him. So, anything that swims in the sea but has hair or fur – no otter or seals or walrus for him. So land animals with paws (paws looked too much like little human hands) – no dogs or cats or chimps for him. So, creatures that could not, based on the visuals, be put straightforwardly into a class with similar mates – no bats, no pigs, no rhinoceros, no squid for him.
The point of all of this is that, in much the same way that the majority of Americans today put some animals in the food category (cow, shrimp) and others in a quite fixed friend category (kittens), in much the same way that vegans put all animals in the friend category, in much the same way that, on the whole, we are strict with what we might call an eww-gross-weird! category, too – in our culture, we do not eat pigeons or rats, in much the same way in that we have firm, but socially constructed and contested categories, and in much the same way that these categories which guide our eating in the world reflect and reinforce our views of the world and our values (for vegans, that no living creature should feel pain; for most of us, that house-pets might as well be people, and to eat them would be to eat our own), so, too, did our first-century Jewish dude’s categories of clean foods and unclean foods reflect and reinforce his views of the world and his values. And just as to ask some vegans to eat a steak is to ask much more of them than to eat a steak, so, too, to ask our Jewish dude to eat shellfish or pork was to ask much more of him than to eat shellfish or pork.
Okay. So when our generic Jewish dude – let’s call him Peter – when Peter sees a kind of canopy coming down on the clouds, sees a great sheet filled with gross, unclean foods, and at the same time hears, hears God say to go ahead, to have at that frog, to have at that sea lion, to have at that puppy, to have at that pig, for Peter, this is not like when I realized I had outgrown my hatred of olives; for Peter, this is, like, his whole world collapses. And what’s worse, it is God, God whom he had known as High Imposer of structure and order, God as unchanging, God as predictable in all dealings and demands, God as wringing meaning from chance and chaos, it is God who says, Get to it, Peter; kill and eat!, it is God who calls an about-face, God who now undermines structure and order, God who changes course, God, unpredictable. It is God who relativizes all the old certainties.
And, we catch just a glimpse of the cascading effects of this. Like a house of cards, first comes a change of diet, then a change of dinner companions, and on and on, until Genesis’ way of carving up the world into clear dichotomies collapses. Did you see, first, how Peter struggles and resists and argues – That’s not the way we have always done it, God! Then how, once Peter gets it, he opens the floodgates, and without prompting, without explanation, all on his own, extends the logic of no more clean and unclean foods and jumps to the almost unfathomable conclusion that, I guess now there is no such thing as clean and unclean people, no such thing as insider and outsider, no us, no them. Peter and the earliest churches experience God’s calling an end to the categories of clean and unclean food as a seismic event; it effects how they think about food, yes, but how they think about ethnicity and about class and about gender. I truly understand that God shows no partiality, Peter says, and in every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable. His friend Paul will say, There is no longer Jew, nor Greek, no longer slave, nor free, no longer male and female; for all are one.
Peter has had an encounter with the God whom he grew up believing was solid as the ground beneath him, was stabilizing, a sure thing, the God who stands ever unmoved. And Peter’s experience of the holy was such that he now sees God not only as a God who structures and supports and secures – but also as a God who stretches and shakes and surprises! If we are to love and to live for Peter’s God, we must be prepared, like Peter, to have the rug pulled out from under us, to have our comfortable religions pulled out from under us. We must accept that God will bring down our sure beliefs and tried-and-true theologies, accept that God will not be bound by our ideas of God. We must be ready to throw out old ways of making sense of God and of the world and of other people, to shed shopworn ways of figuring right from wrong. And we must expect that God will be at work in the world in ways that directly conflict with the scriptures; for here in this story – in the scriptures, in the scriptures! – we have an example of God trumping the scriptures. (Which is why, when someone presumes to tell me that marrying another man or another woman or whatever is against the rules in the Bible, I want to say, The God of the Bible doesn’t play by the rules. The God of the Bible is God over the Bible. The God of the Bible, Peter’s God, my God, explodes categories and blows minds by bringing the people of God to love out beyond where it is comfortable. So if we are to live for Peter’s God, if we are to love Peter’s God, we will need not so much a faith that is strong, but a faith that is flexible.2 Amen.
1 My reading of Genesis and Leviticus owe much to Mary Douglas’ classic Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge Classics, 1966), especially chapters 1-3.
2 Christian Wiman speaks of a faith with flexible in his breathtaking My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), p. 72.