September 25, 2011

No Background Checks Needed

Just a shade over two years ago, I introduced an idea to you.  This was an idea that had spent about a year being talked about and thought about and prayed about.  It was an important idea.  This idea was our mission.  Prior to that time, it had been a long while since Central Baptist Church had had much in the way of a clear mission—a reason for its existence.  Now, Central has always been a good church and a vital part of this community.  But, much of this was accidental and came on the backs of the truly wonderful people who are here and have been here over the years.  Eventually, though, wonderful people get tapped out and the church declines for a season until more big personalities arrive to help carry things forward.  In clarifying a succinct mission for the church then, part of the goal was to take all the great parts of this church (and again, there are many of these) and get them focused together on a single task: fulfilling God’s vision for the church; seeing this church become fully what God designed her to be.  The reason this was an important step to take is that a mission statement such as this helps to define and even to reveal purpose.  And purpose is absolutely essential to the functioning of any human institution, of any human being for that matter.  You see, we were designed with and for a purpose.  God doesn’t create randomly.  He never has.  Everything He does is done with the explicit goal of seeing His plans for His universe come to pass.  His creation of you and of me is a part of this great truth.  His creation of His church is a part of this—and not just the church, but of each individual church including this one.  When we are operating according to the purpose God gave us, then, things are good in our world.  We are able to go about our lives with a focused joy because everything we are doing has meaning and value.  Every part of our lives is helping us to fulfill the mission God designed us to accomplish.  Without purpose, on the other hand, we slowly die.  Without a clearly defined purpose, when we ask the big questions of life like why we are here, we can’t come up with any meaningful answers.  The huge, glaring problem with this, however, is that we were created for something and in our heart of hearts we know it!  And when we don’t live this something more, we can feel that something is not right until we get on the right track.  If we stay off track too long, disconnected from our designed source of spiritual and psychological and emotional and relational nourishment, we will start to die.  It may be a slow lingering death wherein we accomplish a lot of good by running on the reserves of the last real meal we had, but dying is not living no matter how you try to frame it.  Living goes somewhere.  Living moves forward.  Living involves growth, change, renewal.

Getting more specific, our source of nourishment here at Central, the shape given to us by God to accomplish His design for us, is this: we exist to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  We are a place of belonging.  People can come to this local body of Christ and know without question that they belong to a community.  We are also a place of learning where people can receive the knowledge they need to accomplish the tasks God has for them.  And we are a place of serving.  The amount of service and ministry coming out of our doors belies our demographic size.  But, we’re not all the way there yet.  Thus the importance of the other idea I introduced to you two years ago: our vision.  Mission is important, but without some idea of how to see it fulfilled, it will more than likely sit as something out there that sounds good but which never really impacts our lives as it was intended.  It is vision that gives us the path and points us in the right direction.  Our vision, then, is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  In case your ears are perking up at the similitude between those two statements, that’s intentional.  In a nutshell, our vision is to become fully the church God has designed us to be.  Let’s push things even a bit further, though.  If our mission is the goal and our vision is the path, we still have to know the steps to take in order to successfully walk down the path.  Thankfully, we have these steps.  They are summarized by the three pieces of ethos I have already described to you: belonging, learning, and serving.  The way in which we are going to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally, is by first creating a place where people matter, a place where people truly belong.  The second and third steps are wrapped up in the ideas of learning and serving.  Learning is the chief form of empowerment.  And the way in which we engage our world in the name of Jesus Christ is by serving it.

Here’s the other thing about mission and vision.  As important as purpose and direction are to our lives, because of sin, they are not our natural state.  The futility and hopelessness that God described in the curses of Genesis 3 are what we default to if not actively drawn out of their miry depths.  In other words, without a vision constantly set before us, we’re going to default to…just…whatever.  But just…whatever isn’t what God intended for any of His children.  If in an effort to call this church forward to be fully the church God created us to be I had stood before you two years ago, proclaimed our mission and vision, and then done nothing else since then, I would have done you a great disservice.  The great likelihood is that nothing would have happened.  We would have never really latched on to any overarching purpose and would have kept moving along doing the all the same things in all the same ways and getting all the same results, which I think all of us can admit didn’t reach the level of fullness God has in mind for this church..  None of this was necessarily bad, but if we have the choice between remaining really good and moving forward to great, there shouldn’t really be any question as to which is the better, more God-honoring option.  Thus, the leaders of this church have made a concerted effort to keep the mission and vision before you on a regular basis.  And for this and the next couple of weeks, I am going to set them before you once again.  But this time, instead of using theological discussions from Paul to argue for their importance, I want to simply tell you some stories that I think make the point.  I want to tell you these stories and in the process draw from them some truths that will help you see more clearly the importance and necessity of moving in the direction the Spirit is leading us.  And in this morning’s story, we are going to see why having a place where people matter is so important.

Getting to the story itself, we are going to be in the book of Acts this morning.  The book of Acts tells the story of the church: where she came from, how she got started, how the Spirit constantly picked her up after she tripped over her own feet.  Before Jesus left to go back to heaven He gave the disciples their mission: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  That’s Acts 1:8.  Well, the church got started in Jerusalem, but quickly fell into a rut.  Oh it was doing good ministry, but it wasn’t moving on to all Judea and Samaria.  Now, God could have held the critics at bay and let the church grow and grow and grow in Jerusalem until the entire city was converted.  But He didn’t.  As the church grew, it began attracting more attention, particularly from those who had a vested interest in seeing it fail.  The leaders of the fledgling movement were threatened verbally and physically by the established religious and political powers of the city.  Eventually, things got so bad they had to leave the city.  And when they did, much to the chagrin of the ruling class, they took the Gospel with them.  As a result, after Acts 7, we encounter some stories of the Gospel finding its way to some folks outside Jerusalem including a promising young leader of the anti-Way movement named Saul in chapter 9.

At the end of chapter 9, Luke transitions away from Saul to focus once again on the apostle Peter who has thus far been the main character in the narrative.  He tells how Peter travels to some towns along the Mediterranean coast and works miracles there with the effect of encouraging the faith of the believers.  Specifically, Peter was staying in Joppa which contained a large Jewish population.  What is notable about this is that the Gospel was still only being presented to the Jews.  Then in chapter 10, which is where we are going to spend the rest of our time this morning, Luke introduces us to a new city and a new character.  Let me start reading in v. 1: “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort.”  Let me give you some quick context: Caesarea was the seat of Roman government for the region that included Jerusalem.  This meant that there was a much higher percentage of Gentiles in Caesarea than in most of the surrounding cities, including Joppa.  Also, the cult of emperor worship, which was the official state religion and would become the biggest political persecutor of Christianity, was practiced in full force there.  Now, Cornelius is described as a centurion.  This was an officer in the Roman army who was in command of a group of roughly 80 men.  Although most officers in the Roman army were from the aristocrat class, Cornelius was probably not as the centurion was generally the highest rank a non-commissioned officer could attain.  It was roughly equivalent to a navy chief like Mike Williams.  These were men who had risen through the ranks the hard way and were the heart (and often the head) whose beat kept the Roman legions the best fighting force in the world at the time.  In other words, under normal cultural expectations, Cornelius would have been one of the last people that someone like Peter would have ever attempted to reach with the Gospel message.  But, God doesn’t operate according to normal expectations.

Cornelius was a God-fearing man, Luke tells us.  What this probably means is that while he was not a full-fledged Jew (that wouldn’t have gone over so well as a military officer), he had a great deal of respect for their God and worshiped Him before any other gods.  He also sought to live the lifestyle prescribed by the Law.  This is why he is later described in v. 22 as “a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation…”  Cornelius has a vision in which he is told to send some men to find Peter and bring him back to Caesarea for a visit.

At this point the scene shifts back to Peter.  We find Peter trying to have some quiet time but getting distracted by his empty stomach.  Well, while he is waiting for his food to come, he has a vision of his own.  In this vision he sees this large sheet coming down from heaven and on this sheet are all kinds of animals, some clean, some unclean.  Next, Peter gets his world rocked.  He hears God’s voice telling him to kill and eat from the animals on the sheet.  Peter, perhaps thinking that this is some kind of a test from God to see if he will violate the ritual purity requirements of the Law, refuses, protesting that he’s never eaten anything unclean.  In saying this, he sounds the part of the faithful follower of God.  “Why I would never do anything do deviate from the traditional interpretations of how to do religion handed down by my ancestors.”  Then God drops the bomb on Him: “Anything I’ve made is clean.  Don’t call it profane.”  In other words, if God has made something, it is good.  He then tells Peter to go with the men coming to see him.  But, I think the subtext is that these men are not “clean” according to the Law.  Yet God made them, they are His, and so they are clean.

Well, the men God tells Peter about show up, ask for him to accompany them to see their master Cornelius the Gentile centurion in the Roman army.  Apart from God’s explicit command to accompany them, there’s really not a good reason for us to believe that Peter would have gone with them willingly.  For a Jew to even be in the company of a Gentile was thought to render the Jew unclean (which, by the way, was a racist attitude).  Peter, who still thought of himself as a good Jew, was not going to willingly do something to violate what he understood the Law to say.  He had already demonstrated that with his response to the animals on the sheet.  In other words, he was not going to violate his understanding of Scripture of his own volition even if doing so meant that he was falling short of fully keeping the command of Jesus.  Yet because of the command of God, Peter goes with them and meets with Cornelius.

When Peter arrives, Cornelius explains the vision he had which the apostle immediately recognizes as from God.  As a result, Peter takes up his holy duty and starts to share the Gospel with the whole household.  From v. 34: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  You know the message he sent to the people of Israel…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  But then, just as Peter is ramping up to a knockout altar call, the Holy Spirit comes on everyone who was within earshot before he could get there.  Thankfully, Peter is smart enough to pick up on the obvious when he sees it.  With this irrefutable evidence that these folks were firmly in God’s camp, he has them all baptized as a public statement of their conversion.

A few weeks later, Peter returns to his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and relays this whole affair to them.  They are shocked and their gut reaction is that the Gospel couldn’t possibly have come to someone like Cornelius, someone with a pagan background, someone actually working for the enemy state, someone so different from them.  But, the evidence of the Spirit is not something with which they can argue.  As a result, the story ends with the following exchange in 11:17-18: “‘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.’”  Let me paraphrase that a bit: Background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God.

So then, why is this story so important for our purposes this morning?  This last idea captures the message: background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God.  The lesson that God had to drive into Peter’s head by essentially throwing him off the deep end theologically we still have to learn today.  There is no one whom God can’t use.  And sometimes the people He brings to the church in order to accomplish its mission do not fit what has been the mold for a long time.  Now, granted the church in Peter’s day was only a few years old, but the leadership had been uniformly Jewish.  Yes, they had some Jews of Greek background, but everyone in the church that we know about had come most recently out of a Jewish cultural and religious context.  The very thought that someone didn’t have to be a Jew in order to become a follower of The Way was too much for some from this early community to swallow.  This group, referred to as the Judaizers by Paul, would come into towns after Paul had left and “retrain” the people according to their narrow interpretation of how exactly one could get in.  The problem with this is that their narrow interpretation meant that Gentiles had to become Jews first.  Becoming a Jew in that day mostly meant that guys had to be circumcised.  This really cut down on the pool of willing potential converts.  Furthermore, given that there were a great deal more Gentiles than Jews in the world, to limit the pool of available Christ-followers in this way was to put the church on a slow death march.  Paul had some pretty harsh words for these folks who were stopping the spread of the church in Jesus’ name.  But God made explicitly clear to Peter that day at Cornelius’ house that this was simply not the case.  Nothing He made should be thought of as profane (thus in need of being made sacred in order to be of use to Him) and that included Gentiles.  Background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God.

This principle is essential to this church’s ethos of belonging.  I have in years past talked about belonging from the angle of our gifts and talents.  There is room here for people of all different gifts and talents.  In fact, we need them.  Without a full consort of gifted people we can’t possibly see our vision become a reality.  No matter how externally valuable a gift seems, the person carrying it is an important and necessary part of this ministry.  But, this take on belonging is pretty necessary as well.  Let’s speak the truth in love for a minute.  Central Baptist is built on the backs of five families and if we’re going to be really honest, those five families would shrink to three because three of those five are really one family back on up the line.  There have been those in this community who have had the thought that it’s tough to be a part of Central if you’re not from one of those families.  But, come on: you and I know that’s not true, right?  It doesn’t matter what is in someone’s background.  It doesn’t make any different where a person has been.  It matters not a single iota whether a person is “family” or not.  They can be a part of the Central family.  Not only can they be a part of it, they can be an essential part of it.  In fact, if we entertained for a minute the silly notion that those five families counted most, I hope you can see that this would put the church on a slow death march.  Background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God, or at Central Baptist Church.

After all, think for a minute about how important to the spread of the church in those early years someone like Cornelius or a member of his household would have been.   They had the opportunity by virtue of their position to reach people with the Gospel that someone like Peter or Paul would never have encountered without direct divine intervention.  They brought gifts and talents that the church needed in order to accomplish its mission to be a witness for Christ in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.   A spirit of belonging is part of the essential makeup God has created into this church.  It is to our advantage and frankly pleasure to use this to its fullest extent.  We’re a family church here.  And the thing about families is that they grow.  Families that don’t grow, die.  They don’t need to grow any faster than is necessary to maintain themselves three ways: reproduction, adoption, and marriage.  Let me tell you: we’ve got reproduction down pretty well at this church.  The next generation is taking shape right before our eyes.  Marriage and adoption, on the other hand, means people coming in from the “outside” and connecting deeply with the family.  These work because families foster a sense of belonging that is attractive to the newcomers.  Every person in this room is here for one of these three reasons.  And if you are here but haven’t been for very long—in other words you’re still like a foster child or maybe in the dating or even the engagement stage—you’ll soon come to find out what it means to be a part of the Central family.  My sincere hope is that you will take the next step and join fully and formally with this body because we want you here.  We need you here.  You are welcomed here.  Because we are a place of belonging.  We are a place where people matter.  People matter because we are a wonderfully small church that’s going to be a wonderfully small church for a wonderfully long time.  And in a wonderfully small church, people have to matter because next to God, people are all we have.  We don’t have—or need—big, fancy programs to trick people in our doors.  We have people.  We have people who matter and who belong and it doesn’t make any difference where they’re from.  The simple reason for this is that background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God.  Background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God, or at Central Baptist Church.