The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, `Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”Acts 11:1-18
As is the tradition with contemporary public discourse, I’m going to start today with something controversial. After all, if I did not begin with controversy, how else could I guarantee that only those who share my opinion will keep listening? Or conversely, guarantee that I’ve angered those against me enough that they will also listen, just in the hopes to refute me. But of course since I’m standing 6 ‒(wait how tall is this pulpit again?) let’s call it 2½ft‒ above criticism and controlling the platform, whether you agree or disagree with my opinion, I still win. Love or hate my opinion, it doesn’t matter, because now that I’ve reeled you in with controversy, my opponents will talk about me, and my supporters will do all the hard work of defending me, I now control the conversation. Now that the seeds of division have been sown, and everyone is distracted from the real issues at hand, I can use the attention for whatever I want, whether it’s ad revenue, suppressing a real issue, or simply generating more attention.
But enough stalling, this isn’t a marketing lecture or Stewardship Sunday! What could be so controversial that it could distract an entire community from the mission of the Church by dominating the conversation? Especially here in church where, as we all know, we live in perfect harmony as God-fearing Christians, never giving in to infighting. After all, it’s been years now since we’ve done any interior painting! Is it controversial politics? Economics? A hot take on celebrity gossip? No, far more controversial than any of those things: Barbeque. Specifically, that Lexington-style is the best barbeque sauce.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, I haven’t been paid off by the Barbeque lobby (they still won’t answer my emails). No, my opinion is all my own, I find Lexington style sauce the perfect balance between the thin vinegar sauce of East Carolina, and the heretically sweet sauce of Kansas City. While this has cost me friends, strained familial relationships, and undoubtedly lost my credibility amongst some of you, I must speak the truth, for the truth will set us free. In that same vein, barbeque sauce is the best condiment for fries, like and follow me for more controversial culinary takes.
Now you laugh, and think I’ve made much of meat sauce, but barbeque has been a source of controversy and division for centuries. While taste may ultimately be a matter of personal opinion, barbeque itself was the catalyst for the first great controversy in Christianity. In our reading from Acts, Peter is heavily criticized by the other apostles in Jerusalem over eating barbeque with the gentiles. Like all seemingly inconsequential things that prove to be controversial, it wasn’t just about Peter’s choice in sauce. Eating with the gentiles was breaking with thousands of years of culture, national pride, and in the eyes of some, defying God’s law. Peter having cookouts with gentiles was so controversial at the time, that we have multiple hot takes in the New Testament about it.
Here in Acts, Luke gives us a highly polished version of the story, almost a Saturday morning children’s cartoon version with a nice happy ending. The apostles in Jerusalem confront Peter about this rumor that he’s been eatig with the gentiles, and Peter eloquently defends himself with the vision that God gave him, describing how all barbeque is beautiful. The Jerusalem Apostles are rendered speechless, then they rejoice and live happily ever after, having learned the power of friendship and understanding.
This of course is one version of the story. The other most detailed version comes from Paul, who while defending his own credentials to the churches in Galatia, presents a slightly different version of events. In Paul’s version, Peter may not have done such a great job of convincing the apostles in Jerusalem that all barbeque is beautiful. Because when Paul runs into Peter in Antioch and finds Peter hiding the fact that he eats with gentiles, Paul calls him out in front of everyone:
“But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood self-condemned, for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [Peter] before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the gentiles to live like Jews?’” ‒ Galatians 2:11-14
As you may have guessed, this controversy was about more than simply who’s coming to dinner. Though on the face of it, this was an argument about meal choice, underneath was a much more significant question that Paul cuts to in Galatians, and Peter eloquently describes in Acts: who does the Gospel belong to? Who gets to share in God’s grace, and sit at God’s table? Less philosophically, the question was simply: “Do the gentiles have to become Jews in order to become Christian?”
This was such a significant debate that it nearly tore the early church apart. We see stories and arguments about it countless times in the letters in the New Testament, likely written years if not decades after the matter had been “settled”. That’s the danger of a legitimate question spiraling out of control into a thousand smaller controversies. Even after the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) “settled” the matter by discerning that Jesus fulfilled the Law and brought salvation for all, meaning that one could be a Christian whether culturally a Jew or Gentile, early Christian communities all over the Mediterranean split and fractured over the issue. It took decades of teaching, writing, and reconciling to heal the controversy that to some extent began because of a dinner party.
We of course are no strangers to controversy. More and more our collective discourse is dictated by them. This is not to say that controversy should be avoided at all costs, not only is that an impossible goal but it holds another danger; that difficult matters never get sorted out. But we must be vigilant in discerning which questions are legitimate debates, and never lose focus on what we are called to do: proclaim the Gospel. The troubling truth of our controversies today is that there are many who stand to gain by constantly stoking the fires of division. There are many who will take a controversial stance because it builds an audience, serves a financial, political, or cultural end. There are those who will take legitimate debates and use them to stir hate not to find a solution, but simply to serve their own end. Beware the profit-seeking prophets.
Yet since it is the Gospel that we proclaim there is always good news. Much like the apostles discerning that the Gospel belongs to no single culture, but to all people, when we are faced with such controversy, we have been given the spirit of reconciliation, and knowledge of the Truth. What we see in Peter’s story is how he found God in the places and amongst the people he was culturally conditioned to avoid, and how when he saw the Holy Spirit amongst them, he knew how to meet them where they were. What separates us from the false prophets is how we handle controversy, they use it for their own gain, we work through it because of our love for one another. It is our love for one another that will overcome all adversity, how we can see the Holy Spirit working in all people, even those we fear or do not fully understand. It is by this that you will be and be known as a true disciple, that you have one for another.
In 2006 the friendly rivalry between Lexington and Eastern-style Barbeque sauce suddenly became a contentious political debate when two bills were brought to the North Carolina state legislature seeking to make the Lexington Barbeque Festival the “official” barbeque festival of North Carolina. The bills were defeated, but what was thought to be a harmless designation spiraled into a factional identity crisis over which style was the “Official” barbeque of the State. Once again, a controversy exploded not because of meat preference, but because suddenly people had to choose sides about which meat sauce would define their state identity. What was once a festival cookout rivalry became an existential question of representation and culture. After a year of controversy, the state legislature was able to come together to find a solution. In 2007, North Carolina House Bill 433 passed, granting the Lexington Barbeque Festival the title of the “Official Food Festival of the Piedmont Triad Region of the State of North Carolina”. Giving Lexington style the honor its due, while also recognizing that there is no singular defining style of barbeque in North Carolina. Or as we understand it, they recognized that what God has made clean, no one can call profane. Amen