I lived in Japan for three years and never ate raw horse meat, although I heard that it was a delicacy in the region where I lived. It was called "basashi," I heard, and kept wondering if there would be a time when I would have to swallow my revulsion and taste it. But it never happened.
There were new and strange foods, though, and I learned that it was part of being a missionary to learn to eat things I had never tasted before, to accept hospitality as well as to provide it. Being a missionary was not about being in charge all of the time. It was about learning to live in a strange place, and eat new things with chopsticks and humility. I'll be honest, there were times when I would have identified with Peter -- being offered a meal, and wanting to shrink away and say, "Oh no, Lord, I would never eat that! It can't be right to eat that!"
I remember the first time I bit down on something deep-fried, only to be told that it was "taco" -- octopus. It was okay, actually, after the initial shock of picturing an octopus tentacle passed over me. I also remember the surprise of tasting wasabi (Japanese horseradish) for the first time. Many times I learned that a new food that I did not want to try was a gourmet dish and an act of extravagant hospitality.
But of course -- Peter's reticence was more than cultural. These are foods that God had commanded him not to eat. This was about obedience to God, not just cultural preference or being a 'picky eater.' And the lesson here is not so much about the food as it is about people -- just as it was when I became a missionary in Japan. It is about what we eat, but more than that, who we eat with -- who we allow ourselves to eat with, to associate with, to worship with -- to live with.
While we have learned to eat different kinds of ethnic foods these days, we are more divided than ever -- by race and class and language. I remember the first time I helped serve a free meal through an organization called "Loaves and Fishes." While I was very comfortable ladling the food, serving food, I became uncomfortable when someone told me to go and sit and eat with the people I was serving. I have to ask myself why. I don't like the answer.
I like to think that both Peter and Cornelius were transformed through their encounter: both by the love of God. I know that this was true of me, long ago in Japan: though I thought I was going to serve in God's name and to tell of God's love, I ended up being expanded myself. I ate what was set before me, with humility and chopsticks. I learned to be loved at the same time I was learning more and more what it meant to love.