you are what you eat
Enriched flour (composed of wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid), soybean oil with TBHQ for freshness (by the way, TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone), sugar, salt, leavening (which in turn contains sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, and monocalcium phosphate), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch, and soy lecithin.
Would anyone care to guess what this list is all about? Well, it’s the list of ingredients on a box of Keebler Club Crackers.
In recent years, there has been increasing attention to the food that Americans eat, especially the highly processed food we consume. There’s a witches’ brew of chemicals—some benign, some quite harmful—all mixed up in it, along with added salt and sugar.
Some time ago, I saw an interview with a retired lieutenant general who said the number one reason that people are refused admission to the armed forces is because they’re too overweight. On a side note, he said something I had never heard before. In the 1940s, one of the main reasons for Americans being refused admission was malnourishment. The military considered it to be a question of national security, so it pushed for the free lunch program in public schools.
Maybe it will take the military to push the food industry, and all of us, to get our act together and quit eating so much junk food! (Although, what can I say? I do like cookies. However, homemade cookies get a break.)
Throughout history, cultures have addressed the stuff we put into our bodies in a multitude of ways. What one group of people rejects as vile and disgusting is considered by others to be a treat that is absolutely scrumptious!
Ancient Israelites and modern-day Jews provide a classic example of distinctions in food. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 go into some detail.
These laws regarding what is proper and improper, what is ritually clean and unclean, to eat—they’re just part of a whole vision of life. Along with birth, death, sex, economics, and everything but the kitchen sink, instructions about food demonstrate the way the people of Israel, who are called to holiness, should live. In fact, the last part of Leviticus, starting with chapter 17, is referred to as the Holiness Code.
But maybe you’re wondering, “What is all this talk about food? To remind us to eat healthy?” Okay, that’s part of it. Still, what we consume helps to define us. You know, you are what you eat? It may be largely an accident of geography, but different cultures are associated with certain kinds of food. Thinking of cuisine, what comes to mind when I say Chinese…or Mexican…or Turkish?
However, there are other factors when it comes to eating. What we eat can reflect many values, be they religious, political, ecological, or whatever.
So what’s going on with Peter in Acts 11? It looks like he’s behaving—and eating—the way he’s supposed to. It looks like he’s doing his very best to avoid food that is ritually unclean. He hasn’t defiled himself by eating improper stuff; he has kept kosher. But then, he has a vision! (More on that in a moment.)
In chapter 10, we’re told the story of Cornelius, who lives in Caesarea. He’s what people refer to as a “God-fearer.” God-fearers are Gentiles attracted by the Jewish faith and who live according to its principles. The Bible calls Cornelius “devout”; he gives alms generously and observes the hours of prayer (v. 2).
During one of these times of prayer, an angel appears to him, telling him to send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, about 30 miles down the coast. He has a message that Cornelius needs to hear. It just so happens, as Peter re-tells the story in chapter 11, that while he’s been praying, Cornelius’ guys show up. And he has quite a story of his own!
It seems that he’s had a vision of “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” which contains animals of all kinds (v. 5). Peter sees critters with feet that run, wings that flap, and scales that are…just scaly! (This is not a vegetarian friendly vision!) The heavenly voice rings the dinner bell, and says, “Come and get it!”
As I suggested a moment ago, there are plenty of items on the menu that have Peter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks!” Then we’re told this: “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” (vv. 9-10). It came from heaven. That’s an interesting origin for all of this unclean stuff!
When Peter’s Gentile visitors arrive and tell him about Cornelius, something clicks inside him: one of those “a-ha” moments. And after he returns with them, as he is speaking, he says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (v. 15).
What has happened to Peter? Dan Clendenin frames it like so, how “the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually ‘clean’ who considered themselves close to God, and the ‘unclean’ who were shunned as impure sinners far from God. Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated.”
So in case you haven’t figured this out by now, this isn’t about food; it’s about people. Notice the language of verse 3; look at how Peter is confronted. The Good News Bible puts it this way: “You were a guest in the home of uncircumcised Gentiles, and you even ate with them!” Peter, what in the world were you thinking?
Clendenin goes on, “In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and perhaps even actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status. And as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, Jesus asked him to do the same.”
Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage. It’s obvious that we do have differences and distinctions but encouraging the ones that crush human life are not to be tolerated.
On that note about differences, there’s the story about the student who is speaking with the rabbi. “Teacher,” he says, “you have told us that we are all made in the image of God.” “That’s right,” the rabbi responds. The student asks, “Then why do people come in so many different colors, have so many different sizes, and have so many different customs?” The rabbi answers, “Because we are all made in the image of God.”
Just like anything that is alive, our identity continues to change—one would hope becoming bigger in heart and spirit. Think about it. Do we describe ourselves the same way as we did when we were children? (I hope not! I hope we’ve learned a few things!) What about when we were teenagers? And through adulthood, our identity continues to evolve.
That’s where the church is in Acts 11. They have to decide if they will let themselves grow in identity—who they say they are, how they define themselves—or will they turn inward? When Banu and I did interim pastor training, that was something we were called to encourage, discovering and renewing your identity, at the individual level and at the congregational level. We forget who we are, and we forget that we need to continue moving.
Remember, this isn’t something that Peter has welcomed. He has struggled against this expansion of his vision. (It had to happen three times, which is always a good symbolic number.) But despite his resistance, he realizes that this change in table manners is a good thing!
What about us? Do we need a change in table manners?
Do we have any purity laws of our own, ones that crush human life? Do we have any convenient rules we rely on to avoid the love-affirming, community-building, Holy Spirit-obeying way of life we know we should follow? Are there any people, or groups of people, that we think of as unworthy—and we move heaven and earth to avoid?
I don’t know the answer to all those questions. I suspect that, if we’re honest with ourselves, much of it is true.
“A second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’” The New Testament church has to deal with this again: “Who do we welcome to the table?” That’s something I’ve been hearing from Banu in recent times: who is at my table? That’s a good question for all of us. Who is at our table?
What is it within us that seeks to exclude? What is it that we regard with fear and loathing? Who is it that we regard with fear and loathing?
Remember, as I said earlier, Jesus is all about removing distinctions that cause damage. As I said in the story about the student and the rabbi, God creates us with differences and diversities; we just need to not encourage the ones that lead us away from love.
I want to finish with a Polynesian prayer of confession of sin.
“Lord, you have made us known to friends we did not know, and you have given us seats in homes which are not our own. You have brought the distant near—and made brothers and sisters of strangers. Forgive us, Lord… we did not introduce you.”
Thanks be to God, who is always willing to teach us table manners!