"Welcoming Those Different From Us"
May 15, 2011 50-Day Spiritual Adventure Wk.3
(with material adapted from Rev.Roger Haber)
CAN THIS BE 'CHURCH'?
A week ago we had the privilege of worshipping for a half an hour with our daughter Meredith and her husband Davies at their church in northeast Calgary, close to the airport, before we had to catch our plane. Some features of Cornerstone Four-Square Gospel Church make it stand out. Not the building - a pretty ordinary-looking yellow-brick rectangle that could have been a school in a previous existence. The foyer has several small round tables with chairs scattered around in an inviting café-style. Inside the door of the sanctuary, a handicapped person in a wheelchair had bulletins on the tray of his wheelchair for us to take. About half the congregation was black; dress ranged from casual to suit-and-tie. Up front to the right was a whole section of black folks, possibly Nigerians, who were quite into the praise music and rhythm. One guitarist in the band looked like he'd had a tough life, maybe a recovering alcoholic - a little gaunt, with angular features to his face. A young woman in the row in front of us had a pretty blue scarf draped in front of her neck and down the back of her shoulders. After us, another tall black man in suit and tie came in and, though we were already singing, kneeled down on the floor in front of his chair and prayed briefly by himself before standing and joining animatedly with the rest of us in singing. (Praying by yourself in church? Unheard of!)
While we were singing, from time to time the individual in the wheel chair called out in a loud voice without recognizable words; but it seemed he was enjoying being there. When we had to leave to catch our plane, I noticed the young woman with the sash in front of us had moved to the back right corner where she had taken the scarf and was waving it flag-style in praise in time to the music. A very diverse congregation, but despite their differences, it seemed everyone belonged. It was a bit of a stretch for me, but a healthy stretch! And one could surmise that, just maybe, the Lord was enjoying the diversity and creativity.
What I went through is nothing compared to the way the apostle Peter had to stretch his comfort zone. Let's consider Luke's words in Acts 10(1-35) and watch for some big-time stretching this morning.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING FOR "MR.CLEAN"
The beautiful port city of Caesarea, built by Herod the Great, was the centre of the Roman government in Palestine. In this city lived a centurion named Cornelius. A centurion was the equivalent of a noncommissioned officer in today's military. Luke tells us that this man and his entire family were devout and God-fearing. He gave generously to the poor and was a man of prayer. Cornelius must have come to appreciate the true and only God as he served in Palestine.
One day, while praying about 3 in the afternoon, Cornelius had a vision. An angel of the Lord came to him and called him by name. This angel informed Cornelius that God had heard his prayer and remembered his gifts to the poor (10:31). He said to send some men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon, who was also known as Peter. Cornelius would have noted that Simon was a Jewish name. A Jew coming to a Gentile home was unthinkable, entirely illegal for the Jews. But Cornelius, demonstrating both faith and obedience, sent two of his servants and an aide to the address in Joppa.
As the scene shifts to Joppa, we see Peter on the roof praying. It's noon the next day, and Peter's trying to prayeven though he's hungry. While the meal is being prepared, Peter has a vision. God speaks to him 'where he's at': about food and eating. Three times Peter sees a large sheet descending from the sky with all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds on it. God instructs Peter to get up and help himself to this smorgasbord. There's a problem, however: Peter is a good Jew. He knows the dietary regulations found in Leviticus 11. Being brought up in a Jewish family, he's been steeped since childhood in the distinction between 'clean' and 'unclean': more than religious importance, this goes to the root of his identity as a person, his very 'Jewishness'. He knows that Jews are only allowed to eat kosher or clean food, that is, meat from animals that both chew their cud and have cloven hooves. In our day, he would not be able to eat any pork chops, lobster, or turtle soup. (Not that you've probably ever wanted to corner the market on turtle soup anyway! But pork chops - that's another story...) But three times the Lord tells Peter not to call anything unkosher (common / unclean) that God has declared kosher (clean / purified).
As Peter was stunned by the significance of what God was trying to reveal to him, the three men from Caesarea arrived downstairs and asked for him. (Catch the significance of the number? 3 men / 3 times the sheet was let down in the vision - God's making a connection.) The Spirit told Peter to go meet them, and not hesitate in going home with them. The men, who had stopped by the gate probably out of consideration that they were Gentiles not Jews, informed Peter that Cornelius was waiting to hear him preach. Peter invited the men to stay with him there in Joppa for the night, since Caesarea was about 30 miles away. It was one thing for a Jew to offer hospitality to Gentiles; it was another thing to accept it from them. But the vision Peter'd witnessed was already preparing him to stretch his comfort zones. And did he recall the Lord Jesus' amazement at the faith of another Roman military man, a centurion - that prompted Jesus to exclaim, "I have not found such great faith in all Israel"? (Lk 7:9)
Peter and his entourage arrived at Cornelius' house to find him waiting eagerly for this preacher. As he walked into the house, Peter found he had a congregation eagerly waiting for a sermon. He reminded his hearers that what he was doing by being there was unthinkable and unlawful. V28, "It is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him." But he also told them he had just ascertained that what God has called clean he should not call unclean.
Then Cornelius told Peter about the vision he had, and Peter gave his message. Peter was learning as well as teaching. He discovered that God does not show favouritism, but accepts people from all backgrounds. He proclaimed the story of Jesus to them, telling them how Jesus went about doing good. But beyond mere good works, Jesus had supernatural power to confront evil: He healed the sick and those who were under the authority of the devil. Peter himself was right there when these things happened and could testify to the truth about them. But the Jews rejected Jesus. They killed him. Then Peter told Cornelius' household that God had raised Jesus from the dead and shown Him to select eye-witnesses, including Peter. He declared as the prophets did that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon the group, reminiscent of Pentecost. And like those believers in Jerusalem, the accompanying sign of speaking in tongues and praising God came upon these new Gentile believers. Peter and his associates were astonished. God obviously considered these believing Gentiles pure enough - clean, acceptable enough - to accommodate His Holy Spirit. If God had accepted these people, what was to prevent the church from accepting them into its fellowship? So Peter gave orders for them to be baptized in Jesus' name, an outward act that signifies the reception of people into the family of God. Peter stayed with this new church for a few days and continued to teach them.
What a wonderful account! Its very length speaks of its importance to the mission of the church. It demonstrates clearly that the church Jesus desires to build is a church that welcomes all kinds of people! In order for this to happen, you and I must learn to stretch our comfort zones.
Every one of us needs to learn the very important lessons that Peter and Cornelius learned if our church is to be the church Christ wants it to be. The church must welcome all people, even those who are different from ourselves - racially, culturally, socially. We must stretch our comfort zones.
THE CHURCH DOWN HERE, AND UP THERE
Billy Graham said that 11 o'clock Sunday morning was "the most segregated hour in America." Too many churches forget or ignore the dramatic words of the apostle Paul: "Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Col. 3:11). Glen Kehrein of Rock of Our Salvation Church, a multi-ethnic congregation in Chicago, tells about someone who learned to welcome those who were different from him:
"I attended a wedding not long ago of a family that lives in the middle of the corn fields of Nebraska. I remember standing on this farmer's front lawn and seeing only one road, no other people, and corn in every direction. The scene couldn't have been farther from the west side of Chicago. Yet, this particular farmer has developed one of the closest relationships with the people of our community of any volunteer I know.
It began the day he arrived with a work crew some years ago...During that week, he got connected with people in the [inner-city] neighbourhood and began to establish relationships. All his stereotypes began to break down.
When he returned for a second visit, he told me: "The Monday after I came home from my first work trip to Chicago, I met with the same fellas I've been having coffee with for twenty-five years...But this time, I had to get up and leave, because the same jokes, the same conversation, the same prejudices that never bothered me before now got to me."
What's the point here? This story shows two good ways to begin welcoming others. First of all, try something new--a volunteer work project, in this case--that will get you into a different environment and put you in contact with people you usually would never meet. Second, let things bother you. Don't go along with the same prejudices everyone around you holds. Speak out when someone says something derogatory about another people group. If necessary, get up and leave so you don't have to hear those unwelcoming, unaccepting attitudes.
By the way, Billy Graham also observed, "The neglect of older people is becoming an increasing sin in America." We may not struggle with prejudice against other races, but do you tend to look down on older people? Or youth? Are you a tad agist? Is it really fair to lump a whole group in one basket just because an odd one is delinquent, or another is immature? Goliath despised David because he was just a kid - to Goliath's ultimate shame.
Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein would agree with Paul, Peter, and Cornelius: "We believe the body of Christ holds the key that can unlock the stranglehold of racism in our society." The church down here should start to look like what the church is going to look like up there. Do you want to know what I mean?
After describing all of the Jews from every tribe of Israel that will be gathered around God's throne for eternity, the apostle John wrote in Revelation 7:9, "After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands".
The head of the church, the Chief Shepherd, has welcomed and will welcome all types of people into his kingdom. Shouldn't you and I start stretching our comfort zones now? Shouldn't our churches intentionally reach out to people of colour, people of different cultures, and people of different educational and economic backgrounds? Peter, Cornelius, Paul, and the Lord Jesus Christ would all answer that question with a resounding "Yes!" How about you and me?
RECONCILIATION NEEDS TO BE PART OF OUR DAILY LIVING
It's easy for us to sit in our comfortable pews and say the church must welcome all people. Corporate assent is easy. Individual lifestyle change is another story. Peter was slow in getting the message on that rooftop in Joppa. The Lord had to deliver it three times! I'm sure Peter would have said the church should welcome all people. After all, he heard Jesus teach that the gospel was for the whole world. He stood there on the Mount of Olives just before Jesus ascended into heaven and heard him say that His followers would be witnesses to the ends of the earth. God's Kingdom infiltration wouldn't come to a screeching halt at the borders of Judea.
But the lesson Peter learned on that rooftop was that he needed to stretch his comfort zone. The gospel was for more than Jerusalem; more than Judea and Samaria; Jesus predicted we would be His witnesses "to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8) That includes all types of people. Peter needed to acknowledge his prejudice and then do something about it.
You might say, "Oh, I don't have that problem." I thought I didn't either. Then my youngest daughter started dating a man from Zambia and suddenly the possibilities became very immediate! Yet once I got to know Davies and started to sense his heart for the Lord, he seemed like family even before they tied the knot. Quite apart from the difference in pigmentation, he was in every way a brother in the Lord.
We all are prejudiced. Peter was. We can't overcome it if we continue to deny it. After we admit and confess it, we can start to do something about it.
That's where Action Step 3 (in your handouts) comes in. We need to connect with individuals outside our circles. Our handouts challenge us to evaluate our circle of friends so we can consider ways we can broaden our horizons and stretch our comfort zones. How many friends do you have who are different from you in age, race, religion, economics, education, or marital and family status?
After we evaluate, it's time to reach out. Select a person who is outside your normal circle of friends. Does this sound too contrived? Perhaps, but human nature inclines us to always be 'comfortable' - but that's not spiritually healthy. We need to take this action step. After you've made your selection, be a friend. Our handouts have some helpful suggestions.
Let me make some more: Invite an Asian or Jamaican neighbour for dinner. That single parent up the street struggling to raise two young children might be interested in learning why you go to church every weekend. Married couples, invite a single person for dinner after church. Or how about some of you with graying or thinning hair making dinner for a college student when they're home for the summer?
CAN YOU HEAR ME?
Stretch your comfort zones. Peter did. Cornelius did. Jesus Christ will be pleased when "The Church You've Always Longed For" welcomes all people - even those who seem 'different' to us.
Sometimes we unconsciously distance ourselves from people with disabilities. In The Whisper Test, Mary Ann Bird shows us a teacher who obviously worked at welcoming and loving all people: she recounts - "I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate...a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech...I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.
"There was, however, a teacher in the second grade whom we all adored--Mrs. Leonard by name. She was short, round, happy - a sparkling lady. Annually we had a hearing test...Mrs.Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back - things like "The sky is blue," or "Do you have new shoes?" I waited there for those words that God must have put in her mouth, those seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, "I wish you were my little girl."
Do you suppose that little girl with the uncommon features and cleft palate had difficulty hearing such a heartwarming message? It just took seven simple words to makes such a HUGE difference in her life. So, be aware: the handicapped, the poor, the uneducated may feel they don't "fit" in a congregation, but they don't really have an alternative. You may feel you're completely accepting of others, but they may never perceive that unless you vocalize your welcome. A few, well-chosen, heartfelt words can change a person's whole perception.
Today we close with the prayer we've been encouraged to use daily these past two weeks: "Lord, We long to be part of a caring church family, But often we're not sensitive to what people are really saying.Please teach us to listen with Your ears of compassion.We pray that we could stretch our comfort zones.Lord, help us respond with a heart that cares the way You do." Amen.