A Collapse of Categories

Peter's Vision in ActsIn chapter 10 of the book of Acts, an interesting story is told about Peter.  While he is in prayer, he sees a vision of a sheet being lowered down, in which are many kinds of animals — some of whom the Jewish dietary law said were not to be eaten.  In this vision, Peter hears God commanding him to eat.  Peter refuses, since, as a faithful Jewish man of his time, he would not eat such animals.  God responds in Peter’s vision by saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”   This happens three times, and then the vision ends.  As Peter is mulling over what it could possibly mean, some men arrive inquiring after Peter.  They have been sent by a Roman soldier who, while not a Jew, respects the Jewish tradition and worships in the synagogue.   Cornelius, the soldier, had also had a vision, telling him to invite Peter to come and see him.   By the time Peter shows up at Cornelius’s house, he has come to understand what his vision of the animals meant.  For Cornelius was a Gentile, and by tradition, Peter should not have visited him in his house.  But Peter has figured out the revelation.  He says, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

The theologian James Alison calls this short sentence an “earthquake” statement, because it represents a huge shift.  Peter has come to the conclusion that, in Christ, all of the ways in which we declare one another unclean or profane have come down.  The categories of acceptable and unacceptable human beings have collapsed, and there is no longer any such thing as insiders and outsiders.  There are just human beings, made in the image of God and dwelling on the inside of an unimaginably generous divine love.

It recalls a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)   Paul had similarly come to understand that in Christ, the distinctions between people that we tend to make such a big deal about disappear and become meaningless at least insofar as these distinctions are used to make value judgments about ourselves and others.

This collapse of categories is indeed at the heart of the New Testament’s vision of the kingdom of God.  James Alison suggests that to live and see the world in and through Christ establishes a new kind of unity, a unity which is created not at the expense of some other person or group (which is the way human beings normally create unity), but which is rather rooted in this deep appreciation of our inherent value before God.

It is a sad thing that the church, which is meant to be a sacrament of this new sort of unity, of this kingdom of God, has often and continues frequently to fall short of actually manifesting this unity.  I have seen it in glimpses and moments within Christian communities, but it is hardly a permanent reality.   It is not surprising that so many people have so little use for church, given the ways churches so often perpetuate the categorization of humanity rather than seeking to break down those categories.

For Peter and for Paul, I think their appreciation of the nature of the kingdom of God was also a struggle to live into.  Paul tells a story on Peter, in which Peter has come to visit Paul and one of his Gentile communities.  When a group of Jewish Christians comes from Jerusalem, Paul says that Peter moved away from the Gentile group, because he was embarrassed to be seen eating with them in violation of the tradition.  Paul castigates Peter for it. (Galatians 1:11-14)  At the same time, Paul himself had no difficulty, in various places in his writings, drawing lines between groups and people and creating categories to put them in.

It is a sign, perhaps, of how unsettling this new reality that Jesus opens up for us is to us.   In many ways, I think we deeply long to live into this new unity.  At the same time, it terrifies us.   Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection sought to show us that we need not be terrified of occupying this new space, for it is the space that God occupies.  And yet it is so easy for us to fall back into familiar patterns of rivalry, defining ourselves in terms of and at the expense of other people.

The fact that this part of our spiritual journey is difficult, however, should not deter us from trying.  For if we can bring ourselves to truly live in the spaciousness of Christ, that will create spaciousness within us and within our world.

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