“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” – Acts 11:2-3
Can you imagine? The nerve of Peter! Going to eat with…with those uncircumcised gentiles. Did he even think about how that might look to others? We’ve never done that before. He didn’t even form one single committee to study this matter and he certainly didn’t ask the church for a vote to have permission to eat with those people.
The believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter, the text tells us, for daring to go break bread with Gentiles. Never mind he also preached to them the gospel, baptized the whole lot of them, and began spreading the kingdom to the ends of the earth. I imagine that some of the criticisms might have gone like the statements above. Have you heard those tossed around in church? I suppose some things never change.
What I find compelling in this text is the use of labels. There are the uncircumcised gentiles; also known as “them.” Then there are the circumcised, the believers who are gathered in Jerusalem. Everyone is kept in their proper category so that never the two shall meet. You stay over there with your kind and I’ll stay over here with mine. Separate but equal was how we worded it in our country in the not so distant past.
You had the circumcised. Now these folks had the right pedigree as Jews. They had the right belief and they lived in the right place, Jerusalem. Oh, and, shall we say, their flesh looked the right way. Then you had those uncircumcised swine, as they might have been called. Their linage was wanting being that they were gentiles. “They’re not believers like us” those in Jerusalem might have sneered. They lived on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks; do good things come out of Joppa? And, lest we forget, their flesh didn’t quite look right. I don’t mean to belabor the point of circumcision, but isn’t it interesting how often our us versus them labels have something to do with how our flesh looks?
It strikes me as interesting how often in the circles I inhabit labels are prized possessions. What do you do? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up? Who are your family? I call these first date questions and they’re invariably what we lead with when we meet people. To be honest, the answers to those questions in our lives are treasured truths for us. The answers to those questions, perhaps more often than we’re willing to admit, form in our minds a version of that person. We take in their various labels, categorize them, and then apply a label to them. It could be good or bad, useful or not, worth my time or a waste, an asset to me or a burden. But in one way or another we label them. It’s a way to keep them where we need them…notice how that word “them” keeps popping up?
Here’s the thing though, God is not altogether interested in what labels you treasure about yourself and your friends nor is he interested in the labels you use to distance yourself from others. To be sure he is very interested in you and all the ways that you are unique, he’s just not all that interested in how you separate yourself from others. You see, way back at the beginning of creation everything worked together harmoniously. Men and women; birds and animals and sea creatures; sun and moon and stars, land and sea and air. Creation was harmony brought out of chaos. Sin brought chaos back into the picture; everyone and every things was torn apart by the new god of my labels make me more special than your labels. Our labels, used as a means to separate ourselves from others, are sin, plain and simple.
Our labels are sin, but the labels that God puts on us are grace. The first label, a label we share in common with all people is that we are a creation of the Lord God Almighty made in his image and likeness. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, how successful you are or how much of a failure you are. You are not the sum total of your successes or your failures. That is crucially important. What you are, if you have breath in your lungs, a pulse in your veins, a beat in your heart, what you are is a bearer of the image and likeness of the God who created everything, sustains everything, redeems everything. The second label of grace that God places upon us is beloved Child of God. He was willing for his one and only son to die so that that label could be applied to all people. Got that, to all people. He was willing to lose his son so that he could get you. You are, because of Jesus and no matter what, a beloved Child of God. Don’t ever forget that.
This is what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our world and in your life. He’s breaking down the labels we use to separate ourselves and in their place is binding us together to himself with the two stranded label of image and likeness bearer and beloved Child of God. Who are we to hinder God? Those two, and nothing else, are your labels.