Acts 10:44-48 | Psalm 98 | 1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17
The year after I graduated from college, when Brie was still a Junior, we decided we wanted to try a different church. We’d been going to a large church that was great in many ways, but we felt like it was just too big. Most Sundays we sat by people we’d never met before.
We wanted more connection. We wanted to know people in our church, and we wanted them to know us.
About this time, a friend of ours had started going to another church that was based off a house-church model. This church actually consisted of multiple churches that met throughout Northeast Portland on different nights of the week in people’s homes. They always included food, someone would often share their story (like David did last week), and then we would pray and study Scripture together.
Once or twice a month, all the churches would get together on a Sunday and worship together. But it was clear that the emphasis was on the smaller, more intimate gatherings that happened during the week. That’s where “church” happened: in the middle of the neighborhood, in the midst of everyday life.
Brie and I decided to check one of these house churches out. We went to one held at Don and Terry Paul’s house. Don and Terry were a couple in their 50s who had moved to Portland from Arkansas with their youngest son Zak, who was in middle school. They had thick southern accents and loved the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Every Tuesday, college students, upper middle class families, single moms, and a barista (me) came together to worship God and grow in our relationships with one another.
Brie and I found the connection we were looking for. We had friends of all types, friends who, despite our differences, knew us, who knew our struggles, and who shared their struggles with us. Soon after we started attending Don and Terri’s house church, I actually moved in with them. I had been living in Hillsboro and was commuting all the way to Northeast. Don and Terri offered to let me stay in their extra room for cheap, and Zak let me play PlayStation with him. Don and I really hit it off. We often stayed up late many nights talking about what it meant to follow Jesus. I remember some great conversations around pacifism, capitalism, and politics. It was really cool because, really, we had little in common, me and this older guy from Arkansas, and yet we always had lots to talk about.
Eventually, Brie and I left this church for a variety of reasons, and ended up back in the big church we had left, but we got more involved. After a few years, I became an intern. Part of my internship was leading a “life group.” Once again, we found ourselves meeting weekly with a small group in our home, eating together, praying together, studying Scripture together, and living life together.
Through these experiences we became convinced that following Jesus Christ is meant to happen in community, and that the most important stuff usually doesn’t happen on Sundays, but in the days between Sundays.
I was reminded of this conviction a week and a half ago when I went to the Inhabit Conference in Seattle. Inhabit is put on by the Parish Collective, a group of churches across denominational lines that are focused on creating faith communities that are rooted in their neighborhoods.
I heard stories about pop up dinners put on by immigrant and refugee women from different countries. I heard about a community turning a dump in the Bronx into an award-winning park. I heard about a church that uses its space to host art shows, concerts, slam poetry events, computer classes, and dance classes.
The common thread in all these churches and ministries was the assumption that God was already present and working in these communities. Whether the church was in Chicago, San Diego, or Ottawa, these leaders assumed that God went before them into every place and space, and that their job was not to bring Jesus with them, but to find where Jesus was already present and working. Their job was first and foremost to see – to see the Spirit of God in their place – and second, to act. Only after they found where God was already working would they begin to participate. Oftentimes this meant that they had to move themselves, they had to become uncomfortable, in order to join with God’s redemptive work in their neighborhood. They didn’t show up and say, “I’ve got Jesus here, everyone come to me.” Instead, they said, “Where is Jesus already? How do I have to change, adapt, grow, in order to meet him where he is among my neighbors?”
God is already present, already active, in places we haven’t yet gone, and in the places we have gone but haven’t thought to look for God there. God is even active in those places where we think God is most absent, maybe God is especially active in those places. We just haven’t trained our eyes to see the Divine in places we don’t expect to see the Divine.
This is what Peter and his friends learn in our reading from Acts. The 5 verses we get from Acts are actually kind of frustrating, because we’re getting the end of the story, without actually knowing how we got there, so let me give you some background, because what I mainly want to talk about is how we got to this point. There are 43 verses of buildup that come before our reading. So, this is what happens:
The story begins with a Gentile, a non-Jew, named Cornelius, who lives in Ceasarea. Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a military leader. Cornelius is what’s called a “God-fearer.” He worships Yahweh, the God of Israel, but he hasn’t converted to Judaism. He hasn’t been circumcised and he doesn’t follow the religious and dietary laws. One day, an angel appears to him and tells him to send for the apostle Peter, who’s staying in Joppa. Cornelius obeys and sends some people who work for him to find Peter.
Then the story cuts to Peter in Joppa. Peter goes up on the roof of his friend Simon’s house, and has his own vision. He sees a sheet come down from heaven with all these unclean animals in it and a voice says, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter days, “No way,” because he’s a good Israelite, and he would never eat something unclean. Then the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens a number of times. Then, while Peter’s trying to figure out what this vision means, Cornelius’ messengers show up and knock on the door, and God tells Peter to go with them to Caesarea. But before he goes with them, he invites them into the house and gives them lodging. I don’t want us to miss that. He invites them into his home (well, his friend Simon’s home), like how Don, Terri, and Zak invited me into their home.
The next day he goes with the men Cornelius sent. When he gets there he goes inside Cornelius’ house, which he isn’t supposed to do as a good Israelite. He walks into Cornelius’ home – once again, notice that this is happening in a home, and says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Cornelius tells Peter about the vision he had, and how God instructed him to send for Peter. Peter responds by saying, “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.” He then launches into the Gospel message. It’s in the midst of Peter’s sharing the Gospel that our text this morning picks ups:
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This is huge. This is the reason we’re all here (assuming we’re all Gentiles). This should be our third most important holiday behind Christmas and Easter. Oftentimes, as Gentile Christians, we read the Bible as if it was written for us, but most of it wasn’t written for us. It was written for the Jews, and it’s only through the grace of God that we get invited into that story, and this is our entry point. Israel’s stories weren’t initially our stories, but they become our stories here.
But none of this would have happened if Peter hadn’t listened to God when God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” and then he got off his keister and travelled to a place where God was already at work – place Peter never would have thought to find God: the house of a Gentile. Peter must move, must enter into a stranger’s house, must be made uncomfortable.
Some Christians today need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable, can I get an amen? Some Christians today need to see that God is working in people that don’t look like them, don’t speak like them, don’t subscribe to the same norms that they subscribe to.
God tells Peter that God isn’t restricted to Israel, or to Jerusalem, or to Joppa. God is in Cornelius’ house in Caesarea. God isn’t just in our church buildings. God is in our neighborhood and our workplace as much as God is here this morning. There are no borders between sacred and profane, there are no places where God is not. For those of us who were at Rob Bell last night, we might say that God has drawn a circle around the whole world and called it Holy.
Remember the demon from Mark 1 a few months back, who tried to tell Jesus that he has no business with demons? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” he asks. The demon was essentially saying, stay in your place and we’ll stay in ours. What did Jesus do? He cast him out. There’s no place that isn’t God’s.
Do we really believe this? Are we looking for where God is in our everyday life? Or are we too busy looking at our phones? Are we too busy running from one appointment to the next?
This may be kind of shocking to hear, but the church building is rarely the place of transformation. Don’t get me wrong, I think Sundays are important. I spend a lot of my time preparing for Sundays, but the hour we spend together on Sundays isn’t where the majority of God’s work, and our work, is being done, or should be being done.
As many of you know, I’m taking a class on Baptist history and polity for my ordination recognition, and this week I read a chapter on how Baptists understand and define “the church.” And I read these words, “Baptists generally do not view worship as an end in itself, but as a means to greater effectiveness in mission or as a launching point for a heightened personal effectiveness in providing a ‘witness’ or example of Christ-like behavior in the world”[i] (repeat). In other words, this time, Sunday morning, isn’t the end, it’s the means. We aren’t most fully “the church” on Sunday, we’re most fully “the church” during the week, and on Sundays we come together to refuel, to reorient, to launch ourselves back into the real world after getting beat up all week. This is a place of respite, but it’s not the destination.
I once heard someone put it this way, “The church is like a hospital. We spend all week ministering to the world, and we get beat up in the process. On Sundays we come back together to get bandaged up before being sent back out.”
If we’re waiting for “the church” to tell us where or how to serve, we’re going to miss out on what God is already doing in each of our unique contexts. It’s great to have ministries and outreach, I hope that as a church we grow in that area, but that’s not the primary way that Grant Park Church’s “ministry” happens.
When we all leave here on Sunday, our church family spreads out all over the city and beyond. We spread from Gresham to Beaverton to Vancouver. We spend our days in NE, NW, SW, and SE. And we are all missionaries to our unique places.
Some of us may cringe a little bit when we hear the term “missionary.” There are some negative connotations associated with missionaries, but when I say missionary I mean someone who is, first of all, a good neighbor – someone who takes Jesus’ words to heart, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” A missionary loves the people around them, and sees that love as intricately connected to loving God. And loving your neighbor means noticing them, talking to them, giving of yourself, giving your time and resources in order to be in relationship with them..
Secondly, being a missionary means being an observer. It means opening our eyes and looking for where God is. I wonder how easy it was for Peter and his friends to see the Spirit fall on the Gentiles? I wonder if we would have seen it, or if we would have been too busy to notice. A missionary asks God to open their eyes and reveal where God is, whether they’re in Portland, Poland, or Papa New Guinea.
Thirdly, being a missionary means becoming uncomfortable. It means stepping into those place where God is, even if it’s outside your comfort zone, and participating with Jesus in the work of resurrection.
Here’s the super cool thing: I’m not just encouraging you to see yourself as a missionary – a neighbor, an observer, and a participator – for the sake of others. I’m encouraging you to do it for yourself as well. When Peter and his friends go to Cornelius’ house, they think they’re the ones bringing the Gospel, and they are, but in our reading today, Peter doesn’t get to finish his spiel before the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles and they start speaking in tongues. That is, the Gentiles start preaching to Peter and his friends! Acts says that Peter and his friends “were astounded.” In that moment, they learned something new about God. They experienced God in a new way. They saw that the Gospel is bigger than they thought it was. The teachers have become the students, and the students have become the teachers. The lines blur between who is blessing who, because they are blessing each other.
If Jesus only exists for us on Sunday mornings and in our personal quiet times, but we don’t see him in our neighbors, on our streets, in the budding trees and the cracks in the sidewalk, he becomes just an idea – someone we think about in the appropriate places and at the appropriate times, someone who only appears where we expect him.
But Jesus isn’t where we expect him…well, he isn’t just where we expect him. He’s everywhere, but he’s most visible in intimate places, places we can’t go as a congregation but you can as a person, in homes where we eat, and laugh, and cry together. Like Simon’s house, like Cornelius’ house, like Don and Terri’s house. He’s in the breaking of bread and the sharing of stories.
He’s in the places where only you can go, where God has uniquely placed you – in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your friend group. Can you see him?
[i] Everett C. Goodwin, Down by the River: A Brief History of Baptist Faith, 84.