Disgust: a Malleable Moral Emotion

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter C, April 28, 2013, on Acts 11:1-18 & John 13:31-35

First, the readings:

Acts 11:1-18

Domenico Fetti
Domenico Fetti

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.”

Disgust: a Malleable Moral Emotion

After we had recently arrived in Croatia I had the opportunity to visit many congregations, the vast majority of which were in small farming villages.  Often after the service I was invited to lunch in someone’s home.  I’ve eaten some of the best, most delicious, freshest, food in the world there.

One Sunday, the whole congregation gathered together for a common meal prepared by the church people.  Part of being a new person in a foreign place is that you never know if your instincts will serve you or not.  You go to lunch, and you don’t know what will happen.  How many courses will be served?  It the soup the whole meal, or only a starter?  Will there be dessert? What is it, exactly, that we are eating?

What’s for Lunch?

So, we sat down to lunch, and after the soup they put a plate on the table in front of each of us, with what looked like a layered cube on it.  I could tell it was not hot, but cold.  What was

church lunch in Croaita
church lunch in Croatia

it?  It looked like a layer cake with white frosting in between other layers. The top was a deep amber color, like glazed sugar.  Cake immediately after soup, I wondered?  Seemed strange, but you never know.

It was harder than cake to cut – but that didn’t tell me what it was.  I  cut a piece to eat, making sure to include some from all the layers.  In my mouth it went.  Suddenly I knew:  this was pork.  It had been boiled, probably the day before, then refrigerated.  The meat was quite tasty.  The white layers were fat;  to me, it was like eating pure lard.

At times like that, the one facial expression that you must not make is the one that you automatically do make: it’s the “disgust” face.  We Americans – most of us – are rather disgusted by the idea of eating a mouthful of soft fat.  We have heard, over and over, about the dangers of fat in our diets – the calories, the cholesterol – we know that this is the stuff that will make us sick and could kill.  So, we are disgusted by the thought of a mouthful of it.

Actually this is a learned-disgust.  The fat, after all, is where the flavor of the meat is.  Without the health indoctrination, I’m sure we would all love it.  Lots of things we find disgusting are learned reactions.

Disgusting Evolution

Scientists tell us that disgust is given to us as by our evolutionary history, as a way of avoiding things that could harm us.  The smell of rotting vegetation or rancid meat is disgusting to us – which probably saves our lives.  Think of the kind of milk you might have swallowed if you didn’t have a disgust reaction to its smell when it is old.

But disgust can also be taught and learned.  One day, when Ben was little, we were in a store.  At the check-out, the clerk was delighted that a little American could speak Croatian.  She said to him, “You don’t like those nasty Serbs, do you?”

Once we got outside, he asked me what a Serb was, and why they were nasty.  He had not been taught, in our home, to find them disgusting.

Kosher and Disgust

When we are taught that certain things are “bad” we can form feelings of disgust about, even if they are harmless. Some Jewish people who keep Kosher find the idea of eating bacon



That was exactly Peter’s reaction when, in his vision, the sheet-type-thing came down from heaven with all the animals on it.  We read that the sheet contained not just clean quadrupeds, but “all kinds of four-footed creatures” which would include pigs  (Acts 10:12).

Worse, it included other kinds of forbidden animals, like reptiles, beasts of prey – including birds of prey, like vultures that feed on dead animals – disgusting and totally unclean, according to Torah.

The Word of the Lord through Moses

Let’s take a minute to remind ourselves about where this concept comes from.  Listen to these verses from the Old Testament:

The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them:  Speak to the people of Israel, saying:…. 13  These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey….” (Lev. 11:1-2, 13)

“You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.”   (Lev. 20:25)

Abomination” is a strong word!  Making such distinctions between clean and unclean was fundamental to the Old Testament perspective.  And it went beyond food.  The necessity of making a distinction included people too:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—…the Canaanites,… [and a laundry list of other peoples]—  2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.  3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons”  (Deut. 7)

These were not just suggestions, these were commands; and, according to the story, they came from God.  Of course they came through Moses, but he got them, as it says, when the Lord spoke to him and told him what to say.

Peter’s Spiritual Openness

So it is not just remarkable, it is in fact astounding that the good Jewish man, Peter, has that vision in which he is told  to make no distinctions.  He actually refuses twice.  He says,

“I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

It takes a third time to convince him.

Disgusting Gentiles Arrive

Even more remarkably, the next thing that happens in the story is that the Gentile men sent by Cornelius appeared, and Peter immediately got the point that he should welcome them.  The voice in the vision told him not to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals; and he got the point that this whole classification system had expired, and he was also not to make a distinction between people either.

The basis for drawing this conclusion was the reason given by the voice for ending the animal distinction.

“the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter was raised going to the Synagogue on the Sabbath hearing the reading of scripture.  He knew perfectly well the Genesis creation story.  What had God made unclean?  Nothing!


Everything God made God pronounced “good.”  And when he had made it all, including humans, God pronounced it all “very good.”  God did not make anything unclean  (that concept had to wait for Moses to come along).   Now, the “clean and unclean” distinction is past it’s due date; it’s expired.

Peter should not have needed the sheet-vision to know this.  Did not Jesus himself say

“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  (Matt 15:11)

Yes, but disgust is hard to unlearn.  Especially disgust that has been reinforced by social consensus and by religious warrant.  The Old Testament called unclean animals an “abomination” to God, and the centuries of Kosher custom reinforced that feeling at every meal.

And yet the remarkable thing is, Peter was open to un-learning his disgust reaction, as he opened his heart to the Spirit of God in prayer on that rooftop.

Back to the story: Peter then describes how he had witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house.  The Spirit thereby confirmed that this new perspective on people was from God himself.  And Peter sums up the conclusion saying:

“If then God gave [Gentiles] the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Hearing this, the other Jewish apostles and Jewish believers, who evidently were questioning Peter about this were convinced.  It says:

“When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Repentance that leads to life” is exactly the way to say it.  Why?  Because, when Jesus came, what was his foundational message?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

That’s what he said at the beginning of his ministry.  How did he sum up his teaching just before his crucifixion in that upper room when he was giving his disciples his final words?

“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.”

Ah, this is exactly why the good news of the Kingdom must come with repentance (a change of heart and mind).    We are not naturally very good at loving.  We have all kinds of people that we find disgusting, and we feel justified in excluding them from the circle of love.

We do OK with people like ourselves – our race, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation, our religion, our political party, but we have had a bad track-record  when it comes to loving people who are different.

Hope for Change: the Spirit

Thankfully, there is hope for change.  Just like Peter, we too can be people who are open to the Spirit.  The Spirit, the active, powerful presence of God is at work in us.  The Spirit, like a

prayer position: catacombs

steady rain, softens the soil of our hearts to allow new growth.  The Spirit, like a cool April breeze, blows into the dank, closed off, musty places in our hearts with freshness, full of new possibilities.

Can the church – that is, people like us – learn to see past our culture’s insistence that we find people who are different disgusting?  Can we learn to love Muslims, gay people, even people from the notoriously wrong political party?  Even people covered in tattoos? Yes of course; the flame of Spirit is present like a candle to bring light into places in us that had been dark.

This openness to others, this refusal to maintain the clean-unclean distinction is exactly what we are called to be and to do.  We are called to love; full stop.  Without conditions, and without limitations.

Disgust and Prayer

But we cannot just switch off the disgust-face; it’s automatic.  It has been reinforced for years.  This is why, like Peter on the roof, we are people of prayer and meditation.  We are people who regularly discipline our lives to be open to the Spirit of God.  We are people who daily invite the Spirit to change us.

We are people who know that God’s work in us is not over until we draw our last breath and go home to meet the Lord.   Old habits die hard, but the Spirit is more powerful.  We expect God to change us.  We can have our eyes opened by the Spirit in new ways to seeing the things we need to repent of, now that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come.”

We can, and by God’s grace, we will be people who love. And the world will sit up and notice.  I believe we will see the day when the reputation we in the church have will be again, “see how they love…”.



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