Building a Church: Making Room 5/9/21

Acts 10:44-48 and Psalm 98   

Building a church is multi-faceted indeed.  Since Easter Sunday, we have been looking at various aspects of church building, none of which have anything to do walls or steps or pulpits or organs or even paying a pastor.  In the book of Acts, we have seen that building that first group of believers in Jesus after his ascension into heaven, that first Christian church ever, required sharing their possessions so none were in need.  A church also must share a common faith in the Author of Life, who is Jesus the Christ.  Believers need a boldness to speak and act that is fueled by the Holy Spirit, not from within themselves.  And building a church will benefit from relational evangelism, which is sharing God’s Big Story about Jesus with a person you trust or a person you take the time to get to know.

We have learned from Peter, that fisherman turned preacher, and his companion John.  We have learned from Philip, the lunchroom manager turned evangelist, who first took the gospel message out toward the end of the earth. Again, this morning we hear from Peter, who seems to continually be growing in his understanding of how God operates, being “converted” in new ways by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Our text for today finds Peter in the home of a Gentile, a Roman citizen who served as a military leader.  According to Luke, Cornelius was a devout man who feared God, together with all his household; who gave generously to people in need and who prayed constantly to God.  Cornelius and Peter are connected by God, and Cornelius gathers his entire household and his close friends so they could all hear what Peter would have to say.  Peter was accompanied by some Jewish Christians, new believers in Jesus who had grown up Jewish and still highly respected the Jewish traditions which set them apart from any non-Jews.  Cornelius, his household and his friends, Peter and his traveling companions–it sounds like the house was packed, with no worries about any virus!

Just sitting in the home of a Gentile family was strange enough for Peter and his companions.  They had grown up being taught never to mix with Gentiles.  The Hebrew Bible is steeped in warnings about consorting with those who do not follow the God of Israel.  Always hanging over the heads of the people of Israel was the possibility of straying into idol worship and the accompanying threat of punishment for turning their backs on God.  Gentiles were anyone who was not a Jew.  Period.  No exceptions.  Except, now Peter has had a revelatory dream that ends up being a kind of conversion experience—earlier in this same chapter we learn of the dream’s interpretation:  God was clearly telling Peter that God shows no partiality to Jews over Gentiles, to the people of Israel or China or Brazil.  Anyone in any nation who respects God and does what is right is acceptable to God.  Sounds like even the “spiritual but not religious” folks of today the wones who believe in God but stay away from traditional church are acceptable as well.  So too are the members of the younger generations who have been demonstrating a strong sense of social justice and generosity with time and money for causes like caring for the earth or fighting hunger or creating stable housing for low-income neighbors. Anyone in any nation who respects God and does what is right is acceptable to God.  That is the opening line of Peter’s message to the crowd in Cornelius’ house.

Peter tells the story of Jesus and his message of peace, his death and his resurrection.  Peter tells the Gentile crowd that all the prophets (who, by the way, are not a group of people with any authority in the Gentile community, but who were definitely important voices for the Jewish community) testify that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.  Imagine yourself in that crowd, listening to Peter.  What are you thinking?  Even if you, like Cornelius, acknowledged and respected a higher power, gave generously to the poor, and prayed, you knew very well that you needed forgiveness for something.  What about when you harvested some of the wheat that was on your neighbor’s land when you were harvesting your own?  What about when you got so angry at your wife that you yelled at your children?  What about when you cut off that driver on the highway because you were in such a hurry to get somewhere?  What about when you couldn’t get your friend’s new backyard grill out of your mind, desiring one just like it, or even a better one, for yourself?  If you are sitting there listening to Peter, you know very well that you need forgiveness, you need a clean slate, you need a chance to be in right relationship with those you have wronged, and with the God who accepts you for who you are.

All of a sudden the Holy Spirit fell on the crowd of Gentiles, the non-Jews, the outsiders to the faith.  What?  The Jewish Christians with Peter, and I am sure Peter himself, were stunned.  What is God doing here, right before their eyes?  It is like a mini-Pentecost all over again, right here in Cornelius’ house.  The Gentiles are speaking in tongues, just as the disciples did in Jerusalem after the Spirit was poured out upon them.  The Gentiles are praising God, just like the disciples did, in multiple languages.  Even on the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit is poured out.  Even on the Gentiles.  For Peter, this had to be confirmation that he had interpreted his dream correctly: God indeed accepts anyone who respects God and does what is right.  Crazy as it may sound to their ears, apparently there can be a Gentile Christian.  Whew! That includes us!

Apparently building a church means making room for people you had not previously included in your circle.  It means drawing the circle wider to make room for a growing community of believers.  Apparently building a church means getting your own biases and traditions and exclusive attitudes out of the way, making room for God’s Holy Spirit to act. And what a response on the part of these new believers:  they immediately became hosts, inviting Peter and his companions to stay with them for several days.  This was not going to be a one and done event.  The conversion of this Gentile community was just the beginning in Caesarea.  It would be the spark that lit the fire of passionate church building in a new, unexpected community.  This turned out to be the beginning of a real relationship, as they would for sure have been sharing meals together, cooperating with usage of the rooms and facilities in Cornelius’ home, and likely praying as one group.

Building a church requires making room.  If we create barriers to entry that are intimidating or cumbersome or exclusive, we are automatically leaving people out.  This pandemic has shown us that we do have ways to break down those barriers on many levels now.  People can join us for worship and book discussions and even service to the community around us from their home or workplace or car or the bleachers at the softball field!  We have made room in new ways which we would never have done if the pandemic had not forced us to make changes in the way we operate. 

Building a church requires making room.  We need to get ourselves out of the way and let God’s Spirit do her work.  Let us notice and watch and join in as the Spirit moves in unexpected ways.

This week I had the opportunity to attend an annual lecture series at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, my alma mater. The principal speaker was a professor from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Dr. Ted Smith.  Dr. Smith walked us through an amazing survey of how we got to the model of a professionalized, elitist, expensive education for ministers (especially in the Presbyterian Church, but certainly not only in the Presbyterian Church).  It was fascinating to see the shifts that have occurred in this model over time.  In the 1700’s  early New England, churches had inherited their ideas from Europe, ideas like the church as the center of not only religious life, but also as the political and economic powerhouse in the community. 

Over time, that concept unraveled as our entire society slowly moved more to an age of voluntary association—everyone was joining associations—the Elks, the garden club, the Boy Scouts, the church.  The church and its seminaries became core institutions, solidified and separate from the state.  We created denomination after denomination, setting our own ecclesiastical standards for operating procedures and training of clergy, for membership and for leader ship in our voluntary association.

This lasted a very long time in this country— many of you remember it well—these were the golden years when everyone who was someone wanted to belong to a church, when the pews and the Sunday School classrooms were bulging at the seams. 

Until that was no longer the case.  For multiple reasons, we as a nation have made the shift now away from an age of association  to an age of authenticity.  Just joining a church to say we belong is no longer necessary in the minds of so many.  Participating in church activities, in mission or service, in book groups dealing with spiritual or faith questions, even attending worship, can all be done without formal membership.  We Presbyterians have a hard time with this shift.  We are bean counters and head counters extraordinaire, aren’t we? When people come alongside us without becoming members, we welcome them and  we call them friends of the church.  And we have many friends here at Hunting Ridge, for which I am grateful.  We have people who are truly looking for authentic ways to ask questions and to explore their own relationship with God without ever feeling like they need to belong to an institution.  The question for us is, are we making room for those who are seeking an authentic relationship with us and with God?  I hope we are and will continue to do so—make room for the unexpected and make room for the Spirit. Amen.

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