In the first century, the standard expression of the Jewish faiths was strongly influenced by the Pharisees, the most populous of the many forms of Jewish sects that were active at the time. Unlike other groups which were often on the fringes of Jewish society or groups such as the Sadducees which were deeply embedded in the very narrow world of the Jerusalem temple and its rituals, the Pharisees were widespread and mainstream, and consequentially able to influence most pious followers of the kingdom of God.
One of the characteristics of the Pharisees, is that they firmly believed that the one thing that still needed to happen to bring the Messiah and the establishment of the reign of God – was a people to so perfectly fulfill the law of Moses by keeping themselves ritually pure and isolated – that there would finally be a people capable of being the image bearers of God that the original creation intended. It is very likely that Simon Peter and the other apostles would have been deeply influenced by such religious thought. Even though Jesus showed them that it was possible to break down this ritual wall that surrounded Israel (and the current Rabbi-proof fence that surrounds Israel is only a contemporary exemplification of this ancient ideology), sociologically we know that such massive paradigm shifts do not occur quickly.We see this manifested at the beginning of Acts 10, when Peter is up on a roof praying, mid afternoon on perhaps a warm day. As he prays he begins to be conscious of his hunger. As a bloke he would no doubt have been pleased that his prayer then became actualised when he receives a vision of a cloth descending from heaven containing all manner of food, accompanied by the voice of the Lord addressing him and asking him to ‘get up, kill and eat.’ Perhaps it is only then that Peter is able to focus enough to realise that the cloth does not only contain the usual forms of clean animals that the law allowed to be consumed, but also animals that were declared by the same law to be unclean and ritually forbidden because they would render the eater to be outside of the kingdom of God. It takes the Lord three goes before it begins to dawn on Peter that the Lord was making an actual offer and beginning to expand Peter’s mind and categories. God was not bound to the walls that the thinking of groups like the Pharisees created. ‘God does not have favourites.’
This follows as a rather logical consequence of the realisation that St John brings us to in 1 John 4 – that it is not that God simply feels love, or that it is one of his attributes – no, God is love. Not sometimes; not when he feels like it – but it is the deepest reality of God. And it is into this love that the Lord Jesus invites us. ‘You did not choose me; no I chose you, and I commissioned you to go forth and bear fruit – fruit that will last.’
Recorded at St Paul’s, Vigil Mass. (10’14”)
E6B – Easter, Sixth Sunday B