The four verses we heard in our first reading draw to a conclusion one of the most significant events in the history of the Christian Church. The 10th chapter of the Book of Acts begins by introducing us to Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army. We are told he is a devout man who, along with his household, fears God. He gives alms generously and prays to God constantly. One day an angel appears to him and commands him to send for Peter, who is staying in a nearby town.
Meanwhile, the next day Peter is praying on the rooftop of a house and he is hungry. He has a vision of the heavens opening and a large sheet being lowered toward him. On it are all kinds of creatures considered by Jews to be ‘unclean’, which means the Purity Laws forbad Jews to eat them. A voice tells Peter to kill and eat, but he refuses. The voice instructs Peter saying, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” This is repeated three times before the vision ends. Peter has no idea what to make of it.
At this exact moment Cornelius’ messengers arrive. The Spirit instructs Peter to go with them without ‘hesitation’ (the Greek word used here means without ‘making distinctions’). It is a startling word because, like the animals in the vision, Gentiles were also considered to be unclean. Going to Cornelius’ house is not lawful for an observant Jew, but Peter heeds the instructions he has been given.
Peter and Cornelius meet and share their mysterious visions with one another. Peter then preaches one of the most powerful sermons ever preached. He begins by saying this:
“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.”
From here, in concise fashion, he tells the story of Jesus.
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” This was a revolutionary statement at the time. It is a revolutionary statement even today. In his book on ethnic relationships in the Book of Acts, Eric Barreto writes, “As a constructed social reality, ethnicity is a projection of our own anxieties and hopes, an inclusive impulse to identify who we are but also an exclusive effort to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” In other words, distinctions based on race, economic and social status, age, and nationality help us to understand who we are and who we are not. We see them. We make them. And to some degree, we need them. But God does not see them, does not make them, and does not need them.
In his sermon Peter identifies new distinctions God invites us to make because of our faith in Jesus Christ: “In every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Fears God. This does not mean cowering in terror. It means respect and appreciation. It means honoring God as God should be honored. Doing what is right. God welcomes every decent human being. From this flows a new distinction for God’s people. Like the hymn says,
Who serves my Father as a son
is surely kin to me.
is surely kin to me.
So now we pick up the story with today’s reading. While Peter is preaching the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone in the room, including Cornelius and his household. Now the Day of Pentecost, which we will celebrate in two weeks, took place in Acts well before this episode. It marks the day the Holy Spirit fell on the followers of Jesus, all of whom were Jews. This is the first time the Spirit falls on Gentiles.
Notice that the text says Peter’s Jewish companions were “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” These two words hint at the depth of the divide between these two groups. But based on what he has seen, Peter proclaims the Gentiles should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and given full inclusion in the Christian community. He stays with Cornelius for several days and the two become close friends.
The story begins with Peter being perplexed and it ends with the Christian Church in an entirely new, different, and unexpected place; a place created in and through the working of God’s Spirit. Peter does two things to make this happen. First, he listens to God’s voice. And second, he leaves the sheltered confines of how he has practiced his faith in order to preach and live the Gospel in an entirely new environment and context.
In their book The Shaping of Things to Come, authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsh describe what they call the attractional church. Its approach to mission is to develop programs, events, and ministries that appeal to non-members, attracting them to the church. They estimate that 95% of America congregations operate with a “come and listen” mentality.
I give St. Paul’s high marks as an attractional church. We have a beautiful building, quality worship, wonderful events for children and families, meaningful formation programs, and targeted outreach ministries that make a real difference in peoples’ lives. Best of all, we are warm and welcoming to everyone. There may have been a time when St. Paul’s was a stereotypical ‘country-club’ parish, but those days are past. We are diverse and getting more diverse. We are growing in our reflection of God who shows no partiality. I don’t see this as a creation of our own doing, but rather evidence that God’s Spirit is working in and through us. We are a place were God can bring any and every lost sheep, hurting soul, and searching pilgrim in order to find Christ’s love made manifest.
If it feels like there is a “but” to all of this, there is. Frost and Hirsh point to a major problem with the attractional approach in today’s world. It requires non-members and unbelievers to enter our sanctified spaces to hear the Gospel. Simply put, this is not happening. More and more it is like hoping the public will abandon their smart phone and revert back to the payphone.
The unchurched are not here because they choose not to be here. They may have no experience of being in a church and can’t even comprehend its value. They may have grown up in a church and been bored by the experience. That judgment still stands for them. Or something very painful may have happened to them at a church and they are determined not to let it happen again. The attractional church is not going to reach these people any more than Peter was going to reach Cornelius by saying on his rooftop praying.
At Clergy Day this week we heard the story of an Episcopal priest who decided to spend every morning over the course of a week in a Duncan Donuts store striking up conversations with people and asking them what they knew of the church where he was the rector. After dozens upon dozens of conversations, he discovered that not one person had even heard of the parish, which was startling because it was located right across the street from the Duncan Donuts store. Being warm and welcoming and offering great programs will not be an effective way to proclaim the Gospel in a culture that isn’t interested in coming onto our property in the first place.
Frost and Hirsh offer an alternative missional approach, which they call “incarnational” – the word we use to describe what God the Son did when he took on human flesh, left the heavenly places, and came to live among us. They write that the incarnational church “disassembles itself and seeps into the cracks and crevices of society in order to represent Christ to the world.” Like Peter, we have to go to Cornelius.
What this looks like I am not exactly sure. One place to begin might be to form listening teams that go out into our community and strike up conversations with people. Perhaps we need to listen and to learn. Perhaps we can figure out what people are passionate about. Our Clergy Day speaker reminded us that today, more than ever, people are looking for a place to belong. They want to meet a variety of people and they want to explore questions about life, not simply be told to memorize a catechism. They want to build something. They want to make a difference. They want to matter.
On Thursday, I chaired a meeting of the Commission on Ministry, which oversees folks in the ordination process. We interviewed two people who have finished seminary and recommended to the bishop that they be ordained next month.
One of the candidates told us about his experience working as a chaplain on a pediatrics floor of a large New England hospital. He described a conversation he had with a teenager who had attempted suicide. He asked the young girl to look him in the eyes and listen because he wanted to tell her the core of what his faith tells him. He said to her, “One, you are loved. Two, your life matters. Three, whatever mistakes you have made, you are forgiven. You don’t have to believe it, but you need to know that I do.” He suspects he may be the first person ever to say these things to that young girl.
It is a story that highlights the challenge attractional churches are facing. We cannot proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to a hurting and needy world unless we open the doors of our building and walk out into the neighborhood. People around us are in great pain. They are searching for something they cannot name. They crave something that will help them have a purpose in life. We have been entrusted with the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Doesn’t its echo sound nice within these walls? Is there anything within you that burns to take what we know of God’s love to the cracks and crevices of our community in order to represent Christ to Suffolk?