by Viv Holt
The act of having a cup of tea or sitting down for a meal can be a radical expression of community. For example, take the story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:1–11:18). This is the foundation of the worldwide Christian church that lives beyond the boundaries of ethnicity, culture and social status. Such a community demands a strong connection with and response to God as well as with people.
Cornelius is a God-fearing Roman centurion in Caesarea. While praying, Cornelius has a vision of an angel who tells him to summon Peter from Joppa; he immediately obeys. Recall that 800 years earlier, Jonah went to the seaport of Joppa to flee from God’s command to go to the Gentiles in Nineveh. Jonah was not willing to respond to or connect with either God or people outside his comfort zone.
Peter is staying with Simon the tanner, a fact mentioned three times (Acts 9:43, 10:6 and 32). A tanner had the undesirable job of working with the skins of smelly, dead animals outside of town. Thus it is ironic that God gives Peter a vision of unclean living animals while in Simon’s house. Remember, too, that it is just before lunch and Peter is hungry. But the deeper message of the vision is not about clean and unclean dietary laws, rather it is about the community God desires to build His church with.
Perhaps Peter’s choice to stay at Simon’s house shows an emerging receptivity to eating with those he would not normally associate with. The vision is repeated three times. (Peter has an affinity with threes!) But Peter’s immediate response to the command to get up, kill and eat is: “No way, Lord” (10:14). However, there are three men at the gate already and the instructions become clearer: “Get up, go down, and go with.”
So Peter invites them to stay for the night. The significance of this break from Jewish tradition should not be glossed over. Peter offers hospitality to a Roman centurion’s two servants and a soldier, and it is lunchtime. Jews did not eat with Gentiles! Eating together implies community.
The next morning he takes six brothers and travels to Caesarea and enters Cornelius’ home. Cornelius has invited his relatives and close friends. This entering is also stated three times, highlighting its significance. Imagine, Peter the fisherman with his Jewish community interacting with the Gentile community in the opulent home of a Roman centurion! Peter makes it clear that it is against Jewish custom for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile, but that God shows no favouritism.
This was not the community that the early church leaders seem to have envisaged. Back at Jerusalem, Peter is criticised by the Jewish believers for entering the home of uncircumcised men and eating with them. However, it becomes clear that the rejection of community with those previously considered unclean is also a rejection of connection with God.
So who is God inviting me to have a cup of tea with?