“Why am I here?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? I know that I have in many different situations. Maybe you’ve asked it at the funeral of a loved one. Or asked yourself that question in meetings where it doesn’t seem to matter what you do or say. I’ve asked myself that question more times than I can count about parenting teenagers. I’ve asked myself that question when following Jesus seems to have put me in tricky or risky situation with people whom I’ve been acculturated to be wary of, or when I’m sleeping on the floor in a run-down apartment with 10 other youth as we serve in Chicago.
This question can also be asked existentially can’t it? What is my purpose? What difference do I make on a planet with 8 billion people? Who will notice if I’m not around? Why am I here? For those of you who are younger and in your teens, you might ask yourself this often. If you think when you graduate from college, or turn 21 or 30 that you will have the answer to this, allow me to burst your bubble. I’m 43 and I still wonder about my purpose, my role, what I bring to others and if I matter. This is the crux of our human experience I think. It’s part of our journey and while it can be painful and hard work, these questions are actually necessary, healthy and what keep us open to growth, learning and transformation. If we quit asking questions and wondering, we stagnate and run the risk of becoming closed to others around us and what God might be up to in our lives and in the lives of other people.
Peter was wrestling with this question of “why am I here” in our Acts 10 story. Previous in his stay in Joppa, he had brought Tabitha back to life and had proclaimed the good news of new life in Jesus to all who had witnessed the event. We read that Peter then stayed with Simon the tanner, in Acts 9: 43. The tanning of hides was not something that orthodox Jews would do, so it’s safe to assume that this Simon was probably a Gentile. For Peter to have even entered the house of a Gentile would have been considered taboo, and Peter, himself, would be considered unclean. Yet, this is where Peter found himself.
Why was Peter in an unclean house? Why was he there? He went to the roof to pray while he awaited his lunch. My guess is that he had some anxiety about what would be served in this unclean house. He might have been plotting how to refuse the unclean food despite his hunger. I can sympathize with this having food allergies. You want to be a gracious guest, yet you know odds are you will have to inspect and ask for a direct accounting of where the food came from. Those kinds of barriers are exhausting. Peter might have also assumed that this was his opportunity to explain to Simon the tanner and his household all of the dietary laws necessary to be a devout Jewish follower of Jesus. Remember, they were not Christians in the way that we consider Christianity. This was a Jewish movement at this point. They were still wrestling with purity laws, food laws, temple laws and the list goes on. Despite Jesus over and over again breaking boundaries and including the ritually unclean, the forgotten and the outcast, the apostles couldn’t quite overcome their Jewish worldview since birth of who’s in and who’s out. The culture and the viewpoints ingrained in us from the moment we draw breath are often difficult to reshape, reform and reimagine.
But here Peter was, on the roof with all of his questions, when God shows up and says the unimaginable to Peter: don’t worry about all of those laws-they aren’t what matter to me. There is no such thing as in or out Peter. All are in. In a very brave, daring and typical Peter response, Peter tells God no! No, I will not cross that boundary. Peter decides that God has gone a little crazy and so refuses to believe what God is saying to him. I mean, we’ve never told God no right? Oh Peter…
Peter has little time to stay in his confusion however, as Cornelius’ men arrive and share with Peter all that Cornelius had experienced. I’m always curious why Peter went so willingly to a Centurions house as it could have easily have been a trap. But something niggled in Peter and even while he asked himself, “Why am I going there?” he put one foot in front of the other in faith-not faith in himself and his own abilities but in what God was doing in an unexpected place, in an unexpected person. God was pulling Peter out of his worldview, his culture and into God’s view of creation and humanity. God was revealing to Peter that human culture is also part of God’s plan and there is not one cultural view point that is right or wrong, in or out. But God works in every culture, just not always in congruence with Peter’s own experiences.
Verses 34-35 are telling. Peter suddenly gets a glimpse of why he might be there in the presence of Gentiles, in the presence of a representative of the Roman Army. Perhaps he’s there because God already was there! God was already present with Cornelius, we read from the beginning of our story that he was a devout believer. God was already at work outside of the Jewish purity laws. God was already transforming hearts and minds in the name of unconditional and unending love and grace. Perhaps Peter was there for his own transformation, his own conversion to what God was doing outside of what Peter knew. Peter suddenly had an inside peek behind the curtain at God’s expansive vision for all of creation-every nation, every person, every time and every place. God was tearing down barriers and crossing boundaries.
Why am I here? Or why are we here? Are we here to show others the error of their ways and teach them the proper way to follow Christ? Are we here to lead others to Jesus in such a way that we understand and make sense to us? Can we see God already at work in places that make us uncomfortable or we don’t agree with? Like Peter, we are called to proclaim that God shows no partiality and it’s up to God to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not, not us. Perhaps this is the hardest part of following Jesus. It means asking the hard question of “why am I here?” and being willing like Peter to be open to the possibility that we are in a risky, transformative place in order for God to show us something new and to work something new in us.
Maybe we’re called to new patterns of worship, maybe we’re called to new patterns of language, maybe we’re called to new ways of thinking about being Church, maybe we’re called to be Church with those whom make us uncomfortable. Maybe we’re called to cross boundaries and be curious about what God is doing and why we are here. God reveals that God is present in our lives and in the lives of other people around us. God promises to stay with us as we wrestle with why we are here and why we matter. God promises that we DO matter and that we are here not only to offer God’s unconditional love but to receive God’s unconditional love, to be guests of this love-even when we are puzzled. God promises to keep transforming us, calling us and gathering us so that we aren’t a homogeneous, generic, boring group of people, but people created in the image of God to revel in our diversity, celebrate our varied gifts and to live joyfully in our rich cultural differences. We are here, all together because God’s love, mercy, grace and hope through Jesus Christ matters and needs to be heard and experienced by all people, even us. Thanks be to God.