During my vacation, I spent a good time with my family and friends in South Korea. I also had a lot of good Korean food. Among them, there were some authentic folk dishes. And I guess, they may be quite strange to you. How does pufferfish soup sound? How about soy sauce marinated raw crab? They may sound strange because they are unfamiliar to you. Other dishes, however, wouldn’t just sound strange, but they would also look and smell repulsive to you. Even many Koreans including Jee Hei don’t eat them at all. One of them is silkworm pupae soup. I know, they are insects basically. But what I can tell you is that it tastes alright and has high protein. And the last one I am going to tell you today is fermented raw skate, which is always ranked in top ten smelliest foods in the world. The New York Times even named it, “A Delicate Mix of Outhouse and Ammonia.” And that’s so true. Whenever I eat it, I get to squeeze my eyes shut because of the stench of ammonia fume coming out of my nose. Yes, I’ve eaten them all. But believe me, it was not me who ordered those dishes.
As you saw those images of strange Korean foods this morning, in todays’ Acts reading, Peter also sees a vision of strange foods from heaven. They are “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.” Peter has never had them before. And they are something strange and even repulsive to him. As a Jew, Peter knows it clearly that the Jewish dietary law, which we know as the Kosher law, defines such food items “unclean.” But in his vision, he sees a large blanket coming down from heaven, delivering them directly to him. And as he looks closely at them, he even hears God’s voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Out of surprise, he replies right away, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” Then, the voice answers back from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:5-9). The scripture says, this happens to Peter three times.
From our own perspective, we may feel like Peter is overreacting to God’s voice. These days, we are quite used to trying different cuisines and exotic foods. And we sometimes try them for a new experience. Let’s say, I bring some of those strange Korean foods to the church. Although they seem unappealing to you, I know some of you may give it a try just for fun. Right? You may take a little bite of silkworm pupa. No, never? Anyway, for us, trying some folk dishes from different cultures can be just a matter of fun, a matter of new adventure. But for Peter, for a Jew in Jesus’ days, eating unclean food is a crucial matter of life. It’s a matter of keeping his religious and ethnic identity, a matter of keeping the boundary of God’s chosen people in the world. In short, food is not simply food for Peter.
Through centuries of captivity in a foreign land, centuries of persecution by the powerful empires, centuries of dispersion from the homeland…Jewish people like Peter tried so hard to survive as a scattered and marginalized group of people. And they knew, this survival could be accomplished only through the faithful honoring of the boundaries between Jews and others called “gentiles.” To remain as sacred people of God, they made a careful distinction between those who were part of God’s covenant to Israel and those who were not. They did as such by the law including detailed dietary restrictions.
Then, why on earth does Peter see that vision from heaven and is now being asked to break that law? In today’s Acts reading, Peter is actually standing in front of the Jewish Christians who thought that the good news of Jesus was primarily for the Jews. They are in the middle of accusing Peter of baptizing gentile people. “We heard that you are with them in Caesarea and ate their food with them! You had the nerve to even baptize them? How dare you violate the boundary established by the scripture?” Peter’s defense? He recounts the vision of the large blanket with the unclean food items. Peter tells them that the vision was not about unclean food, but it was actually about unclean people, the gentiles they have discriminated. Peter continues, he heard the Holy Spirit ask him to go to them. And he witnessed the Holy Spirit fall upon them when they were baptized. The meaning of all these? It’s simple; it is no one else but God who breaks down the boundary. The grace of God is now going beyond human barriers. And now everyone can be part of the promise of God, can be part of God’s beloved children!
After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Peter and other Jewish Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit being unleased in the world. This power transforms everything. And one of the powerful works of the Holy Spirit is to leap over any humanly imposed boundaries and widen the scope of God’s love and grace. This Holy Spirit now awakens Peter who still holds the old boundary as a norm and a mandate. The Spirit opens his eyes to serve God’s continued boundary-breaking mission on earth. Hear what Spirit-filled Peter says today, “If then God gave [the gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)
Today, I am sure that the same Spirit, who gave that vision to Peter, is at work within us. I am sure that the same Spirit who broke the boundary between Jews and gentiles, is within us. This Spirit is the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave us a new commandment. Jesus taught the disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Do you believe this Spirit of breaking boundaries, the Spirit of boundless love, is at work in us and in our church today? Yes, we should be awakened to this work of the Spirit calling us and empowering us to continue God’s mission of love and grace in this world. The Holy Spirit wants us to turn our justified discrimination into loving acceptance, replace our barriers of separation into doorways of relation, and change our self-righteous exclusion into self-emptying inclusion.
Faithful friends in Jesus Christ, is there anyone you discriminate wittingly or unwittingly? Are you somehow biased towards a certain individual or group of people based on their differences? Do you regard some people as they are out of God’s grace and forgiveness? Do you regard some people are not gifted enough to do God’s holy work in the church? Here, I want all of us to do this. Whoever they are, from now on, let us try hard to accept them and love them as the children of God. I know it must be difficult for us to love those who are different from us, who are strange to us. But whenever it’s hard, let us remember the blanket of God coming down to Peter. And let us remember the voice of God from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:5-9). By the Spirit of love, by the Spirit that breaks down barriers among us, let us show the world how we love one another, how we love beyond any humanly imposed boundaries with the radical love of Jesus Christ. Then, people will know that we are disciples of God and we are the church of Christ. Let the love and grace flourish among us, and let them flow from us to all the people over any threshold of the world, over any barriers of our differences. Amen.
A long time ago, I saw this woodcut print in one of my college text books. I guess, the book was about modern art. The book said, this German artist Käthe Kollwitz made the woodcut and titled it The Mothers(Die Mütter). The image was so impressive and has been engraved on my mind ever since. Two years ago, I had a chance to visit Berlin. And I found there is the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. I was so excited to visit the museum. And guess what, there I could see The Mother sin person, and I could even purchase a copy of it. Here I brought it today. At the museum, I also got to know the story behind this work. This is a part of Kollwitz’s woodcut series called War (Krieg). She began carving it in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I. During the war, she lost her younger son Peter who joined the army and lost his life in a battle. Out of grief, she created this series as her artistic response to the pain and suffering she had to endure.
Indeed, The Mothers conveys quite heavy emotions and messages. If you look at this image, you can see the mothers basically huddling together. Their arms are bound around themselves and their bodies linked. They’re doing it to keep their children safe in their embrace. But these mothers look neither strong nor heroic. Look at their watchful eyes full of fear. You can feel their anxiety and tension. And they look quite different from the ideal image of the mother in classic paintings like the Madonna and Child. But their tough hands and protective bodily gestures do represent something special.
During the war, nations with power send people to battlefields to kill their enemies and conquer their lands. But mothers, out of their compassionate love, make safe space within themselves to keep one another. And they patiently nurture life and endure the turbulent days. After the war, people came to realize that these seemingly helpless mothers are the ones who actually grow hopes for the future from the ruins of war and give life back into the war-torn world. It is the compassionate love that paves the way of life, the true way of changing the world.This image of The Motherstells me this simple truth whenever I look at it.
Today’s Psalm and Gospel readings give us one of the most distinctive images of God—yes, God as the good shepherd. And let me tell you this today: this image reveals us God’s maternal side. Like the mothers who endure hardships for their children, shepherds face dangers and challenges with sheep at the closest distance. In Jesus’ days, “Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter what the weather. They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals.” And they had to trudge through the rocky hills and wilderness with the sheep in search of a patch of grass. The real life of a shepherd was never like the ideal images of the good shepherd portrayed in some church paintings and stained glasses. And the Bible tells us, like a good shepherd, our God of love cares for us, sacrifices for us, gives life to us, and nurture us. In short, as the good shepherd, God is mothering us.
I think we can clearly see this motherhood of God in Jesus Christ. While Jesus was in the world, people didn’t understand who Jesus truly was. Their main concern was about whether he was the Messiah who can defeat their enemies and restore their glorious days with his mighty divine power. In today’s Gospel story, the Jews gather around him and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). But Jesus answers them, “You may want me to change the world upside down into an ideal place once and for all. But that’s not my job. I’m the good shepherd. I’m here to mother my sheep, give them eternal life and keep them safe so that no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). After Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross and resurrected, people came to realize that the humble Jesus is the one who actually overcomes the world with love and grows life with grace even out of death. It is his compassionate love that paves the way of life, the true way of changing the world. Jesus’ cross and empty tomb tell us this simple truth whenever we reflect on them.
Today we are celebrating Mother’s Day, and also, the Good Shepherd Sunday. In the Mothers and in Jesus Christ, our good shepherd, we see God at work our midst. The mothering God always keeps us safe in God’s embrace and huddles together with us against any harms in the world. And God as the good shepherd always walks besides us and guides us even through the darkest valley of life. This motherhood of God is very special. It tells us, God’s way of giving new life and renewing this broken world is not a way of power and control. But it is a way of compassionate love. This way of motherhood seems weak and humble, but we know, it is the only way, the true way to flourish life in this world and build the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Faithful friends in Christ, as disciples of Jesus Christ, today I hope we commit ourselves to expanding God’s motherhood in this world. How? I think we all can be the channels of God’s compassionate love and find our ways to grow and nurture life. Out of God’s compassionate love within us, we may take care of the brokenhearted and the wounded. We may huddle together with the least and embrace the lost. We may help one another to grow hope even in the valley of despair. We may accept one another unconditionally to make this church a place of healing and renewal. We may encourage one another to cultivate our kind spirit in us. We may serve one another to ground a kingdom of heaven among us. And above all, we may hold one another to be faithful in Jesus, the good shepherd. In doing so, I surely believe, we will know once again, it is only God’s compassionate love working in our hearts that paves the way of life, the true way of changing the broken world. Amen.
American Bible Society, “How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus,” (http://bibleresources.americanbible.org).