May 19, 2013

An Inclusive Message

Do you know what one of the most polarizing words in modern English is?  “Christian.”  That word is the cause of not a little angst on the part of many people both in the church and out.  There are some in the church who don’t like the title because of the cultural connotations it has come to have.  In the same vein, there are a lot of folks out there who hear the word and associate a whole host of adjectives with it: judgmental, small-minded, exclusive, bigoted, intolerant, homophobic, unloving, uncaring, and the list goes on.  Then of course there are the folks who wear the title like a banner and are kind of judgmental toward all those who don’t.  But, have you ever wondered where the word “Christian” came from?  Some of the Bible scholars in the room may know that it was not what Jesus followers originally called themselves.  They preferred the much simpler and, frankly, more descriptive title “disciple.”  So how and when did the name change start to happen?  Better yet, what does it actually mean to be a Christian?  I mean, if we’re honest, there are a whole lot of different kinds of people who believe and do a whole lot of different kinds of things who all claim the title as descriptive of them.  A little clarity here would sure be helpful.

Well, thankfully, as we continue our journey through the greatest story ever told, found in an ancient document called Acts, the next part of the story sheds some light on all of this for us.  Since we’ve been away from the story for a week let me bring us up to speed.  The story began with the disciples standing around with Jesus just before He ascended into the sky.  Before leaving them standing around with their mouths open He gave them their final marching orders.  They were to wait until the Holy Spirit came to empower them and then they were to bear witness to everything He said and did.  They were to do this in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  A few days later the Holy Spirit came, just as Jesus had promised, and the church exploded onto the Jerusalem scene.  The initial surge, though, wasn’t a mere fluke.  The powerful words, loving actions, and attractive community created by the Jesus followers drew people in like ants to a picnic.  From there we saw how the boldness of the early Jesus followers drove the church through every challenge it faced whether external or internal in origin.  And yet, boldness has a price.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution and as a disciple named Stephen found, sometimes that price is, in this life, very high.  Responding with anger or caution, however, only delivers victory to the persecutors.  The only good response to the persecution that boldness sometimes sparks is more boldness.  And indeed, when Jesus followers boldly do our part, pairing our meager efforts with those of the God who always does His, the church grows, which, by the way, should be our goal.  We should seek for the church to be as big as we can possibly make it because that means there will be a whole lot of people in it which is kind of the point of the whole venture.

All of that brings us to this morning.  We have seen the Gospel come full circle in Jerusalem.  We have seen the Gospel blanket Judea and Samaria.  We have seen the transformation of the church’s chief opponent into the church’s chief proponent in the conversion of Saul/Paul.  All that’s left in Jesus’ marching orders is the ends of the earth.  But that means the Gospel was going to have to be proclaimed to some folks that the current crop of disciples were going to have some trouble embracing.  How would they handle it?  Let’s find out.

The story opens near the end of Acts 9 with Peter back in the center of things.  He has traveled from Jerusalem out to the coastal city of Joppa to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews there.  Well, as we’re tracking along with Luke we kind of expect to keep hearing about how the Gospel continues to advance along mostly the same lines it has been following.  Suddenly, though, Luke takes us somewhere new and, frankly, unexpected.  At the beginning of chapter 10 Luke shifts his focus to the city of Caesarea, the Roman capital and seat of paganism for the region, and focuses in on a Roman centurion named Cornelius, a man we would naturally expect to be an enemy of the church.  If Luke’s original audiences had included any Jews—and they probably did—they would have reached this part of the story and immediately thought: why on earth are you talking about this Gentile guy?  Him being not a Jew, he would be one of the last people in the world fit to receive the Gospel message.  And yet listen to Luke’s description in 10:2: Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”  He hadn’t gone all the way and become a Jew because that both required a rather personal surgery and it wouldn’t have looked so good with his superiors, but he was apparently very much dedicated to their God.  Because of this, he receives a vision of an angel who tells him to send for this guy named Simon Peter who is currently staying in Joppa.  Cornelius immediately obeys and sends men to find him.

At this point, Luke takes us back to Peter.  When we arrive back in Joppa it is lunchtime.  While Peter waits for lunch to be fixed he goes up on the roof deck to pray.  While he is praying he has this vision of a sheet coming down from the sky loaded up with a variety of animals.  Listen to how this goes down starting in v. 13: “And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’”  His first thought had to be: “I guess I was a lot hungrier than I thought.  I’m hallucinating and my stomach is talking to me.”  His second thought was a bit more holy: “This must be God testing me since I’m not supposed to eat those animals; none of them are kosher.”  Stay with me in the text: “But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”  In other words, “Lord, I’m a good Jew.  I’m not supposed to eat that stuff.  Why I’ve never eaten that stuff.  So did I pass the test?”   From the response, it would appear he didn’t: “And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’”  This happened three times and then the sheet was gone, leaving Peter with a rumbling tummy, a wish that he had gone ahead and eaten lunch before coming up there, and a great deal of confusion as to what it meant.  While he’s working on making sense out of this, God speaks more directly: “Behold, three men are looking for you.  Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”

The men from Cornelius come and Peter and some companions with him travel with them back to Caesarea.  No doubt Peter wonders the whole time where they are going and why.  When they arrive and Peter is escorted into a room packed full of Gentiles, Cornelius stands up from among them, walks over to Peter, and drops to his feet in worship.  Peter and his friends are by this time about to burst with curiosity.  When Cornelius drops to the ground in worship of him, Peter’s reached his limit.  From v. 26: “Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.’  And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered.  And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without objection.  I ask then why you sent for me.”

Cornelius goes on to tell him what had happened from his end.  He finishes by saying: “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”  In other words, “You’re asking me what’s going on?  All I know is that I was told by an angel to send for you.  You tell me what’s going on.”  Well, as Cornelius is describing all this, a light begins to dawn in Peter’s mind.  His neatly processed and catalogued worldview begins to unravel and a totally new idea moves in to set up shop.  When he next speaks in v. 34 it sounds like he’s talking to Cornelius and crew, but I think he’s really just processing out loud what was swirling around in his head.  “So Peter opened his mouth and said, ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’”  In other words, Peter had been going on this whole time under the assumption that the Jesus movement was a Jewish movement.  Indeed, to this point it was.  This was all just a Jewish thing and Jesus was still going to come back and smash all the Gentiles to pieces and establish His physical kingdom as the throne of David.  But, in the face of this overwhelming evidence that God has clearly spoken to this Gentile—and not a run of the mill Gentile either, but one with some power and influence—the lesson Jesus had spent so much time trying to teach finally sunk in.  God really doesn’t care whether a person is a Jew or not.  In fact, He doesn’t care what a person’s cultural identity markers are at all.  If people really seek Him, He’ll accept them.  Period.  Friends, this was a game changer.  For their entire lives every member of the church at this point in history had been taught that people like Cornelius were the enemy.  I mean, Cornelius wasn’t such a bad enemy as far as enemies go, but he wasn’t a Jew and so therefore was still an enemy.  Now, though, Peter has been forcefully confronted with the fact that no, God actually doesn’t care about that at all.  He never did.  He just wants people to come to Him regardless of who they are.  If they come, He receives them.

Then, as irrefutable evidence of this, as Peter preaches the Gospel to the group the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they all start speaking in tongues exactly as the original 120 had done.  God didn’t even bother to let Peter finish his sermon.  Well, Peter really couldn’t argue anymore that this group was not as fully a part of the Jesus movement as he was so he baptized the lot.  This was great…right?  Well, it was great at least until Peter got back to Jerusalem.  There were some Jesus followers in the church there who were even more hung up on the whole you-have-to-become-a-Jew-and-keep-the-law-before-you-can-follow-Jesus thing than Peter was.  When Peter got before him they all looked at him flatly and simply said: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”  This was one of those statements that’s really an accusation.  What they really meant was, “Petros, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”  Peter was no doubt expecting this reception—had John been the one to go to Caesarea, he probably would have been first in line for an explanation—and so he patiently recounted everything that had happened.  When he finished there was really no way they could argue with him.  Luke writes that “when they heard these things they fell silent.”  The realization gradually dawned on them just as it had on Peter.  When it did, “they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’”

And this feels like it should be the end of the story, but we’re not quite there.  Luke makes another setting jump with us at v. 19.  Remember all the Jesus followers who had gotten driven out of Jerusalem after Stephen’s death?  Some of them went as far away as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.  Now, most of them went “speaking the word to no one except Jews.”  This fits perfectly with what they knew.  This was a Jewish movement for Jewish people.  For Jesus followers coming out of Jerusalem which was a hyper-Jewish context, this made perfect sense.  It fit with how they saw the world.  But there were some other disciples who were from places like Cyprus out in the Mediterranean and Cyrene which is not all that far from modern day Benghazi in Libya.  These were entirely more Gentile contexts.  They were used to rubbing elbows with Gentiles on a regular basis.  They probably had friends who were Gentiles, possibly even family.  They didn’t really see any reasons why these folks weren’t just as deserving of hearing the incredible message of Jesus as the Jews were.  And so, when they came to Antioch, they started preaching to the Gentiles.  And the effects mirrored those of Cornelius’ household.  When given the chance to hear it, these outsiders, these people who were nothing like Jesus, loved His message.  They loved hearing the stories about Him.  They were floored by the reports of His resurrection and based on this powerful truth they gave their lives to Him.

Eventually the Jerusalem church heard about all of this.  They sent Barnabas up to investigate.  He got there and started encouraging all the new believers.  He even went and retrieved Saul from Tarsus to help him.  The pair stayed in Antioch for a whole year during which time “they met with the church and taught a great many people.”  Luke ends this part of the story with a foreshadowing note that actually gets a great deal more fleshed out in some of Paul’s letters.  But there’s a little sentence tucked in at the end of v. 26 that I think is the real point of the story.  It’s almost an afterthought.  After describing the ministry of Saul and Barnabas in Antioch Luke adds this: “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

If you were wondering before where the title came from, this is where it came from.  It came from Antioch.  And notice that Luke doesn’t say the disciples called themselves Christians.  No, they were called Christians.  This means someone else gave them this title.  The word literally means “little Christ.”  In other words, “You guys are acting just like this Jesus you keep describing.  You’re little Jesuses.”  But here’s the thing: this wasn’t a compliment.  They didn’t mean, “Hey, we like this Jesus guy and you guys remind us of Him.  Good work.”  They meant it more like, “Hey, this Jesus guy was a coward and a freak and a disturber of the peace.  You fools are just like him.  We wish you would be better citizens—more like the Emperor and less like Jesus—so you don’t blow things for the rest of us.”  This puts a new perspective on the whole thing, doesn’t it?  Now, the disciples eventually claimed the title because it fit, but nobody outside the church considered the title “Christian” to be a compliment.

There are a couple more important things to take from all of this.  First, by giving the believers this new title, the people of Antioch were recognizing that this wasn’t a Jewish movement.  It was something more than that.  Remember: the vast majority who were believers at this point were Jews and they both still considered themselves Jews and the Jesus movement to be a Jewish movement.  After all, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi.  Of course His movement was a Jewish movement.  When Peter was standing in Cornelius’ house nearly the first thing he said was that it was not lawful for him to even been in that house.  According to what law?  Jewish law.  Peter identified himself as a Jew.  But these critics in Antioch—perhaps some of them Jewish—understood that this was simply not the case.  Yet, and here’s the second important thing here: how did they come to understand this?  I mean, yes, the believers kept talking about the resurrection, but the theology of the movement was still developing so it doesn’t seem very likely that they did a detailed theological analysis and saw too many divergent points for the kinship claims to be accurate.  With a few exceptions, the believers basically acted like all the other Jews too so that wasn’t really a feature pointing in the direction of a distinct movement.  What was it that made them stand out?  Well, what has Luke just spent the last two chapters telling us about?  The conversion of Gentiles.  The Jesus movement started welcoming people who weren’t Jewish.  They didn’t fit the mold.  They reached out to and included people who were nothing like them and by every reasonable cultural measure at the time should have been excluded.  This was how group movements back then worked: you molded yourself to become more like the group and then you were accepted.  That’s still how group movements work.  These Jesus followers, though, they accepted everybody first and then started molding.  They were inclusive before being inclusive was cool.  This set them utterly apart from every other group on the market in that day.  Because they defied current cultural identity markers they had to be given a new one: Christian.  What we see is that being a Christian is all about being like Christ.  But you already knew that.  What you did not perhaps know is that the specific being-like-Christ that first drew the title was their being an inclusive group.  “Christian,” it seems, is an inclusive identity.  “Christian” is an inclusive identity.

Now, most of us hear this and think, “So Peter preached to Cornelius and Gentiles started receiving the Gospel message.  That’s great, but was it that big a deal?”  Yes, it was.  We think: the Jews didn’t like the Gentiles.  This doesn’t cover it.  The Jews had almost 2,000 years of hearing that the Gentiles were evil, unchosen by God, and that they should be nothing like them.  They had it driven into their heads over and over that the reason they had lost their sovereignty as a nation in the first place was that their ancestors had become too much like the Gentiles.  Again, it was against the law for a Jew to even be in the same house as a Gentile.  It made you ceremonially unclean.  You could not get to God if you got too close to “those people.”  The mental hurdle that had to be overcome in order for these Jewish Jesus followers to even start thinking they could be followers of Jesus together with Gentiles, viewed by God in the exact same way, was like Mt. Everest to an ant.  There’s a reason that for a full generation there was a group of professed Jesus followers who went around after Paul on his missionary journeys in order to let the new believers know that in order to really get in on the life of Jesus they had to first become Jews.  This idea that God didn’t want to save just the Jews but actually wanted to save Gentiles too was so totally new that they really struggled to wrap their minds around it.  But once they did and started to live out its implications, they gained a new identity, an inclusive identity.  Indeed, “Christian” is an inclusive identity.

So what does this mean for us?  I mean, we know that Jesus died for everybody.  God’s grace covers every sin.  This idea is the water to our fish.  But is it really?  Who do we have trouble accepting?  Are there people we look at and think: “Oh they’ll never come around.  I don’t need to waste my time with them.”?  I would suggest that there are.  It may not be the same for every person, but we all have those folks somewhere in our hearts and minds.  Let me offer a couple of suggestions.  For some folks it might be black people.  Yes, you know black people can be Christians too but you really can’t imagine having them worshiping alongside you in your church.  Yet “Christian” is an inclusive identity.  The final kingdom will be a many colored affair.  Why not start to make some stabs at replicating it now?  For others it might be gay people.  Unlike with black people, you don’t think gay people can really be Christians.  Being gay is just nearly the unforgivable sin.  You make jokes about them, demeaning their humanity behind their back, but you really can’t imagine sharing the Gospel with them.  It would be unlawful to even be with them, wouldn’t it?  Yet “Christian” is an inclusive identity.  Yes, there is a high moral standard that goes along with the identity for which we should be held accountable, but most of us don’t live up to it any better than we think “they” do, we just fall short in a different way.  Who else might be your “Gentile”?  Another race?  A particular socioeconomic class of people?  A certain group of sinners?  Folks of a certain political persuasion?  Who is it?  Standing in the way of this whole mode of thinking is the fact that “Christian” is an inclusive identity.  Peter said it rightly: God doesn’t play favorites and He gladly accepts anyone who earnestly seeks Him.  Do we?  “Christian” is an inclusive identity.  It was earned because the early Jesus followers made the radical move of reaching out to and building a community that gladly welcomed people who were nothing like them…kind of like Jesus did.  With the exception of the resurrection this was the first thing that really and truly set them apart from every other movement at the time.  “Christian” is an inclusive identity.

Let’s be really honest for a minute and then we’re out of here.  There were many in the first century church who had a mold in mind for the movement.  If you didn’t fit the mold, you couldn’t be in the movement.  Period.  For them this meant becoming a Jew.  Become a Jew first, then you can call yourself a Jesus follower.  Folks, at Central, we have a mold.  People in the community who know of Central recognize us as having a mold.  You can come once or twice, but until you’re more like us, you’re not really getting accepted.  Now, this wasn’t formed purposefully.  It happened over time.  People tend to gather in groups with other people like them.  That’s natural.  Almost every church across the country has a mold.  But, “Christian” is an inclusive identity and molds are by nature exclusive.  Now, in recent months our mold has begun to change some.  But my question is this: could we change it some more?  Could we follow the lead of the early church in this?  What would that look like?  What would it feel like?  “Christian” is an inclusive identity.  How could we embrace that fully?  What if we became known in the community as “that place where everybody is welcomed’?   What would it look like to create a place where everyone mattered?  Both Jesus and the early church loved people who were nothing like them and people who were nothing like them loved being with Jesus and the early church.  Friends, “Christian” is an inclusive identity.  Let’s be who we claim.