By the Rev. Darren Miner
Every culture in every age categorizes some foodstuffs as too disgusting to eat. Often, it is the case that the foodstuffs that are rejected are the delicacies of another people. When I was in Portugal recently, I was told that salted codfish, octopus, and barnacles are particularly beloved of the Portuguese. Call me squeamish, but even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I don’t think I would want to eat any of those items! Well, the Jews of the first century also categorized certain foods as disgusting filth. And for them the food laws were not unwritten, social norms, but actual written laws. Certain foods were considered filth, and the people who ate them, namely the Gentiles, were also considered filth. And you know what happens when you touch filth, you get dirty!
So imagine the shock and horror of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem when they heard that Peter had polluted himself by eating filthy food with filthy people. As we heard today, Peter had a vision in which God declared filthy foods to be clean and fit to eat. Peter took this as a sign that the filthy people who ate such foods had now been declared clean by God himself. In other words, part of the Torah had been abrogated! When Peter was summoned to the house of the Gentile centurion Cornelius, he witnessed the members of the household responding to the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter then instructed them in the faith and baptized them on the spot.
When Peter told his story to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, who had called him to account, their criticism was silenced. And they acknowledged that God had done a new and astounding thing: he had extended salvation to the non-Jewish peoples of the world, something previously unimaginable. So, while it is St. Paul who deserves credit for extending the Christian mission to Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, it is St. Peter who deserves credit for first discerning that God had torn down the wall separating the People of God from the Gentile peoples of the world.