“Us and Them”
Us. Them. We all use these pronouns. We use them to describe (rather ambiguously) the people or group with whom we identify … and others from whom we distinguish ourselves. Sometimes, such distinctions about us and them are over rather meaningless things like our favorite sports teams or what soft drink we prefer. But sometimes these distinctions are based on perceptions and biases about others that can create separation and cause harm despite our good intentions. Human history is filled with countless examples of conflict between groups and parties that acted on their distrust of “the other” (i.e., of “them”), often through war or various forms of systemic prejudice and oppression.
As we read the first ten chapters of the book of Acts, we find the author depicting different groups of people in ways that cause us to gravitate more toward some than others. For instance, as God through the outpoured Spirit creates a worshiping community of believers that proclaims the gospel of the resurrected Jesus and cares for the needs of one another, we as readers are drawn to imagine the possibilities of God’s presence among us in our day. At the same time, the resistance from religious authorities (Acts 4—7) offers reminders of others who fail to see God, sometimes because of systemic shortcomings, preconceptions, and even static scriptural readings that refuse to allow God’s Spirit to breathe fresh life into them.
When we encounter this week’s reading, the initial response to Peter upon his return to Jerusalem after his time in Caesarea with Cornelius the centurion should raise many questions. Although Peter apparently was called “onto the carpet,” so to speak, for what he had done almost immediately upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the account in the previous chapter repeatedly highlights that neither Peter nor Cornelius initiated anything in this important event, which receives more attention than any other single event in the book of Acts. Rather, the author focuses on the divine arrangement and orchestration of their meeting: a vision of an angel instructed Cornelius to send for Peter (10:3-8), a heavenly vision initially guided Peter about what/who to accept as clean/unclean (10:10-16), the Spirit guided Peter to accompany Cornelius’ representatives back to Caesarea (10:19-20), and the Holy Spirit came upon the people at Cornelius’ house as Peter proclaimed the gospel message (10:44-47). Despite this picture, the interrogators of Peter were more concerned that he “went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them” (11:3, CEB; emphasis added).
But where did those questioners receive their information? How did they find out about Peter’s activities in Caesarea? The Acts narrative does not explicitly tell us (although the idea of “the grapevine” probably originated during this era!). But a few subtle clues may point us in some possible directions. First, the author reports that Peter was accompanied to Cornelius’ house by believers (10:23) or “those from the circumcision” (10:45-47). Peter cites these six believers as witnesses to what he reported to his cross-examiners (11:12). Second, the author mentions only Peter as the recipient of an invitation to stay with Cornelius for several days (10:48). This may suggest that Peter’s traveling party departed in protest to what happened among the Gentiles and then informed others about what they saw as the apostle’s “shenanigans.” Third, Peter’s interrogation came from those described similarly as his companions (“those from the circumcision”; 10:45, 11:2). So it is likely that these companions came from the same group that now raised the questions … all over concerns about them, the group that invited Peter in the first place.
Interestingly, the believers raised concerns over Peter’s table fellowship with them … these Gentiles. Conversely, they raised no direct questions about the apostle seeking the baptism of the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house. Like the Pharisees who censured the disciples (and implicitly Jesus) for eating with “sinners” (see, e.g., Luke 5:27-32), these Jewish critics merely assumed Peter’s actions at Cornelius’ house and table would have made him unclean. Thus, they would have presumed such actions to make him an outsider to the faithful people of God (although the Godfearer Cornelius, who worshiped at the Jewish synagogue, would surely have been aware of Jewish concerns regarding table fellowship, especially food and customs tainted by idolatry, and would have demonstrated respect and sensitivity in such matters). Such views stand in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching and practice. Rather than maintaining a system that kept sinners sinful, the “lost” lost, and outsiders outside, Jesus himself redefined traditional Jewish rules and values by calling “sinners” to repentance. And Peter’s heavenly vision reinforces the same message and practice (see Acts 10:11-16; 11:5-10).
What the author subtly suggests in this account is that the actions of Peter’s interrogators contradict God’s purposes and instructions. The verb diakrinō, which describes their critique of Peter’s actions, is the same term that appears in the Spirit’s instructions depicting how Peter should not respond to Cornelius’ entourage (10:20; 11:12). Thus, the author ironically contrasts the questioners and their initial response toward Peter with similar attitudes and actions toward Cornelius’ representatives that God told Peter to be inappropriate. The basic reasoning is this: the line of questioning distinguishes between “us” and “them” according to traditional Jewish categories, whereas the Christian gospel message redefines those categories so that former outsiders are now included within the faithful people of God, despite the fact that they are not Jewish. Thus, the former “us” and “them” categories are no longer appropriate or helpful in the recognition of and participation in the purposes and reign of God.
Throughout the Lukan corpus, we find a narrative world that depicts God’s purposes and activity extending outside the predefined boundaries and categories that had been used to speak about God and God’s people. We should not be surprised that God’s purposes extend far beyond Jewish categories. But what if those divine purposes extend beyond the categories onto which we hold? What might that say to the various ways that we distinguish between “us” and “them” in our contemporary contexts? Do we fail to recognize God at work because our generalizations and labels define and all-too-often specify who is and isn’t “us” or “them,” Christian, orthodox, evangelical, Spirit-filled, liberal or conservative (whatever these mean), or whatever else that we use that may end up blocking our view of what God may be doing?
What often happens is that, much like the religious authorities described in the Gospels and Acts, our preconceptions color our readings of the Bible, which further substantiate the distinctions we make. Yet John Wesley’s stated hope for the church, which he includes within his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament as he comments on 2 Timothy 3:16, is instructive: “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer.” Part of Wesley’s legacy to his theological family is his insistence that we as the church would look to God to breathe fresh life into the sacred texts of Scripture so that we may listen and wrestle together to discern what God is saying to us … and not be limited to our preconceived notions about the meaning of these texts. This may help us rethink some traditional biblical interpretations and understandings regarding what God’s faithful people might look like. But it may also help us see how our own labeling and distinctions, as well as our own past readings of the Bible, may have limited our ability to recognize God’s grace today in other individuals and groups.