THE CHURCH BEYOND BORDERS
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles […]Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”
Acts 10: 44-48
This Sunday, I preached through Acts 10 – Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his household. Peter and Cornelius, both miles away from one another, each have a vision that interrupts their routine prayers. Cornelius is led to invite Peter into his home; Peter is invited to set aside certain Jewish kosher laws that would hold him back from joining Cornelius and his Gentile household at the table. The result is an opportunity for Peter to present Cornelius’ household with God’s message of fresh grace in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom breaks through in new and uncharted territory!
I so love this encounter between Peter and Cornelius.
For one, its one of the best examples of the boundlessness of the Gospel in Acts. A pastor friend of mine commented in a sermon that Acts was the story of the Church playing catch up with the Spirit. God moves and the church struggles to follow.
This story between Peter and Cornelius is such a fantastic display of this theme being teased out in Acts. Peter has been doing ministry within the comfortable boundaries of his Jewish heritage. God throws a wrench in his paradigm and invites him beyond these boundaries into something unheard of – Gentile, non-Jewish ministry. It’s this very challenge that the Gospel continues to voice to us today. It invites us beyond the social barriers and cultural taboos we box ourselves into; it glories in the uncomfortable encounters that remind us daily we are only ever at home in the Kingdom of God.
I also love that the story comes as such a surprise to Peter and his cohort of Jewish brothers – “Even on the Gentiles!” they exclaim. As if to say, “Them too God! Who else could you possibly let in?!” When was the last time we really stood in awe of the fresh unbounded beauty of the Gospel and said out loud: “WOW! The Kingdom belongs even to these!” Perhaps our lack of such surprise comes as an indictment on our failure to go beyond the boundaries we’ve boxed ourselves into in the Church today.
But lastly, I love that this encounter between Peter and Cornelius is so incredibly awkward! We live in a culture that shuns the uncomfortable and prizes instead, the smooth execution of strategy or intention. I would venture to say, Peter would have loved to have some time to plan out the intricacies of Gentile ministry; He probably would have done well to spend some time in a few board meetings with his buddies back in Jerusalem to vote on an action plan. But, that’s not how God decides to do things. Yes, the meeting takes place, but interestingly enough, its after the fact! Its not until Acts 11 that Peter and his brothers back home get a chance to hash things out and get a solid idea of how to proceed.
I wonder at times if our strategic vision-casting and slick church growth models strangle the awkward, unplanned opportunities to share the Gospel with people we never would have imagined to share it with. Do these plans and visions allow for change and re-shaping? Can they actually encourage the openness of the Spirit’s creative re-imagining and reformation? Are they fluid? Or, are they concrete and uncompromising – demanding we only go where we’ve planned to go?
All this to say, I think this encounter between these two men invites us to follow Jesus along with Peter and live the life of the Church without borders – a faith that goes beyond our self-created social boundaries or cultural barriers and offers all people the story of Jesus and his unbounded grace.