When I was in high school, it seemed like everyone belonged to a specific group of students — the athletes, the non-athletes, the cheerleaders, the wealthy kids, the not so wealthy kids, the ones who gathered outside the school entrance to smoke cigarettes, the ones who gathered behind the school gym to smoke other things, the ones who gathered before and after school to work on cars, and the ones who did not seem to fit in with any of these other groups.
The pressure was intense to fit in and belong … somewhere. Being alone, or feeling like an outsider, was hard to deal with for a high school student.
It was not enough just to be part of a group, but it also seemed like the groups treated the ones in the various other groups with disrespect and ridicule. The athletes made fun of the non-athletes, the wealthy kids looked down on the poorer kids, and so on. It served as a regular reminder that you were unwanted and unwelcome, except in your own group. To the other groups, you were an outsider.
As I look back on my high school days from the vantage point of nearly 40 years later, I wish someone had been willing to try to bring the groups together for the good of the school. I often wish that I had been that person. I think of how much better our school would have been if we had all known and welcomed one another, instead of being separated and distanced from each other.
The likelihood of that happening was, as the saying goes, “when pigs fly.”
But there is hope. A number of years ago, a man named Simon (whom his friends called “Peter”) was praying around lunch time when he saw a vision of a sheet coming down in the sky. On the sheet were numerous animals that Jewish people of that day, like Peter, were not allowed to eat. I can see it in my mind — ham biscuits, crispy fried bacon, shrimp scampi, lobster tail dripping in melted butter, crab legs, clam strips, pepperoni pizza and cheeseburgers.
While looking at this vision, Peter heard a voice from heaven say, “Peter, eat some of that!” (see Acts 11:7). Horrified, Peter replied, “No, Lord. I have never eaten anything unclean.” The heavenly voice responded, “Don’t call anything unclean that I have made clean!” (see Acts 11:9). Then the vision repeated two more times.
Afterward, there was a knock at the door and some folks said, “We have been sent by Cornelius, from the city of Caesarea, to bring Peter to the house of Cornelius in order to tell him and his family how to be saved.”
In an instant, Peter realized that the vision was not about food that Jewish people were not supposed to eat; it was about other folks with whom Jewish people did not interact. Peter was a Jew and Cornelius was a Gentile. Jews and Gentiles of that day did not spent time together and they certainly did not go to one another’s house.
But in that moment of clarity, Peter had a revelation that Jesus was not just for people like Peter, but also for those who were not just like Peter. Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, Peter (the Jew) made the journey to the home of Cornelius (the non-Jew).
But God was not finished working through Peter. As soon as he entered the home, Cornelius said to Peter, “I have a message from God. I was told to bring you here so that you can tell me and my family how to be saved.”
Peter replied, “A couple of days ago I would not have believed it, but now I am convinced that Jesus saves even people who are different from me.”
And as he began to tell Cornelius and his household about the saving love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came upon everyone in the house, and in a moment’s time, lives were transformed and strangers became part of God’s family. Because of the life transforming love of Jesus, walls that separated people were town down, and bridges that brought them together were built up in their place.
I wonder if later, when Peter went back home and told the story of how Jesus had brought different people together into the family of God, if one of the folks from his “in crowd” said, “Do you mean to tell me that Jesus loves Gentiles just like He loves us? I’ll believe that when pigs fly!”
And I wonder if Peter replied, “You know, I used to think that, too, but wait until I tell you what I saw when I was praying!”
* Dr. J.F. Howard is senior pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Asheboro. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.