Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Acts 10) transports me to the Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End, where Kim and I saw a performance of Les Mis in its 25th season, in celebration of our 25th annivery coming up in a couple of weeks. What a fantastic piece of musical theatre, utter genius, in the way the themes are woven and re-woven throughout. And what a character study of humanity’s various responses to grace. Some offer grace in surprising ways (the heroic Bishop lying to save Valjean from another imprisonment), some receive it and are changed forever by it (Valjean), some exploit it for their own gain (the Thernadiers), some reject it altogether, preferring the harsh boundaries of judgment to the open borders of grace (Javert).
The story of the early church parallels the story of Les Mis, in its portrayal of God’s radical and surprising and transforming grace, and the various responses to that gift. Just like I need to see Les Mis every so often, to be reminded of just how powerful and transforming grace is, the disciples and first church leaders needed to learn and re-learn the lessons of grace over and over again. Peter’s rooftop drama put him in the role of Inspector Javert once again, securing the borders of God’s grace and controlling God’s movements of mercy. Peter’s breakthrough came in the form of a divine vision where he was commanded to eat unclean, taboo foods, and he resisted. The answer to his resistance came in the classic reminder of God’s freedom to stage and direct the drama of grace however God wants. What God has made clean, don’t call profane. The vision really isn’t as much about the taboo of food, though, as it is about the taboo of fellowship with “tainted” people. There were some unclean folk out there who didn’t belong at the table, according to Peter’s understanding. So here he was getting stage directions once again. I wonder if this vision reminded him of the time Jesus encountered the Syro-Phoenician woman whose persistent faith broke through some age-old boundaries and brought her taboo self into the fellowship. Maybe the directions reminded Peter of the time he and his fellow disciples complained to Jesus about a group of folks doing mighty deeds in his name, but it didn’t seem right, because they weren’t one of us. And Jesus gave them the classic reminder that whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus apparently pitched a mighty big tent along that narrow way of grace.
The craziness of today’s world religion zoo sets the stage for us to learn the lesson again, and again. Rock star Bono comes to conservative evangelist Rick Warren in a rooftop-like vision and shifts his ministry more in line with the ministry of Jesus, attending to the poor, which then leads him to start a dialogue with people of other faiths, to explore how they might work together to help starving children have a chance to survive and experience the abundant life. And of course he starts getting the Javert treatment. Harsh judgment is in order. Yes, he’s feeding the hungry in Jesus’ name, but he’s not one of us! Make him stop Jesus! We can’t have fellowship with folks like him! And then, if I’m to believe the truth of the Les Mis story, and the Acts story, such acts of resistance to God’s grace are the precursors to some even mightier works of grace. Valjean offers grace to his tormentor, Javert. Peter enters the house of the pagan Cornelius and the Holy Spirit descends. Even Billy Graham has rooftop-like visions that expand his understanding of grace and Javert starts tormenting him. I suspect that if we have the courage to climb up on the roof and pray, we’ll get our own vision; we’ll see our own sheet full of taboo people descending from heaven, and a voice saying, go and share fellowship at the table with these folks. For some of us, the sheet will be filled with liberals and Muslims and homosexuals and socialist rock stars. For me, the sheet will be filled with Inspector Javert types, border guards and puritans and Pharisees. And the music of Les Mis still rings in my ears: At the end of the day we realize that we’re all nothing more than beggars at the feast. . . singing to the Lord on Sundays, praying for the gifts He’ll send.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith?