by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are continuing our sermon series. It is inspired by that old rhyme with a slight modification.
Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Look all around, and see all the people.
We’ve been looking at the question of why. Why are we, Or do we, want to be disciples of Christ? Why do we have ministries? Are we merely being nice? Or, due to the transformation of the Holy Spirit on our lives, do we want to share God’s love with each other, with our community, and the world?
John Wesley put it this way, “Being inwardly transformed by the power of God… Producing love to all humankind.”
We learned that when we know our why, our what, what we do, has more impact. It could be a full-blown ministry, or it could be a small piece of a larger whole. As the Apostle Paul says in multiple places, all our gifts and roles work together for God’s glory. It can make a task like folding bulletins almost exciting. Do you realize how important this little piece of paper is for worshiping God here together? We could get along without it, but it would make things a lot more complicated. Looking at it in that light makes folding bulletins a big deal. To approach everything we do knowing our why is for the love of God and showing love to each other to all humanity makes everything more exciting.
This week we are going to look at the questions of who and how. This week Scripture passage marks a turning point in the book of Acts from concentrating on the early church as basically except within Judaism to its inclusion of gentiles or non-Jews into the church.
We are chapter 10, and a Roman Centurion named Cornelius has a vision. He was what was known as a God-fearer, one who acknowledged the God of Israel, but had not converted to Judaism. Because he was a gentle, Jews could not associate with him on a social level, and most especially could not eat with him. They would be made unclean, which would mean that they could not participate in any worship activity until they went through a ritual cleansing process. Of course, they could not associate with other Jews or risk contaminating them, too. Therefore, the God-fearers, while acknowledging the one true God, were like people outside looking in, with their noses pressed against the window.
So, Cornelius has this vision commending him for his prayers and his giving to the poor. Therefore, he is to send for Peter, which he does.
The next day, Peter has a strange vision where the Lord tells them to eat foods that are considered unclean by the Jewish law. He is told this thing three times, always a significant number in scripture.
While he is contemplating what all this could mean, the men from Cornelius arrived, and Peter is told to accompany them. During this journey, Peter comes to the understanding that God was not just referring to foods in the vision. When he arrives at the house, he acknowledges that it was against the Jewish law for him to go into Cornelius’ house, but he does because… “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
Then, Peter makes a pronouncement that would completely alter the way or with whom people would share the gospel. That is where are scripture passage begins today.
Acts 10:34-38 NIV
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
“God does not show favoritism.” (Acts 10:3) This is not a new concept in New Testament times. In Deuteronomy 10:17-19, the Lord says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, Mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” Much of the law speaks to how one is to treat the poor and marginalized, and this forms a constant refrain. For you were aliens in Egypt. For you were slaves in Egypt, etc.
Job looks at it from a slightly different perspective in chapter 34, talking about God to his friends, “[Is God not the one] who shows no partiality to princes and does not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all the works of his hands.” (Job 34:19)
The theme here is that we are all part of God’s creation. God sees us the same weather we are insiders or outsiders.
This stuff with Peter though was very big. Israel and the Jewish people consider themselves the insiders of insiders when it came to God. They were a nation created by God, through the selection of Abraham and Sara, and made holy and set apart for the Lord. That was the reason for many of the dietary and cleanliness laws, to keep them separate from the nations around them to keep them distinct. It was one of the markers of the special relationship they had with God.
With this vision of Peters that separateness goes away. Imagine how shocking that would be for these Jewish people who followed Jesus! People who were perpetual outsiders are invited in. They can share in the love and forgiveness of God, too!
The reason that most of us are allowed in it all is because of this shift in the understanding by the Early Church! The spread of the Gospel, the acceptance of Jesus first by people all over the Mediterranean through the ministry of Paul and others, then all over the world, all started right here. Turning outsiders into insiders. God does not show favoritism. In other words, God sees all the people.
That is our job, too! And like with Peter, it is our job to turn outsiders into insiders. It is natural for any group to have an insider feel to it. We may even be welcoming and hospitable, but new people have to fit in our very narrow guidelines. Basically it is to come here at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, probably not knowing anyone, not knowing what the reception is going to be like.
What if instead the picture of a building with open doors that people can come in, if they are brave enough, we have a picture of a big front porch where we invite people to have a glass of lemonade or a cup of coffee as we talked and got to know each other better. What if people could come in to worship for the first time on Sunday morning being sure that they already know some of the people here, and we cared about them. Some of the people who come on our figurative front porch may never come inside, but we still got to know them, and they still know that we care about them because God cares about them.
How can we create these opportunities to build relationships, real, authentic, caring relationships regardless of whether they come to this church or not? They are part of this community. We are part of this community, so we care about them.
This can be described as missional engagement. Very often when we think of missions or outreach, we think of providing some service to meet some physical need, or it might be trying to get our name out there, so people may come to our church. These are both good things, but it is more ministry for people not with people. On the other hand, missional engagement involves the building of authentic, organic, and consistent relationships.
The first thing is authentic. Are the relationships we are starting genuine? Do they start from a good place, or are they based on hidden motives? As we develop relationships with people outside of the church, not just this church but any church, we need to check our motivations. Are they genuine? The more honest and authentic the encounter the better.
Second, it should be organic. By organic, I mean something that grows naturally. It is not forced. You may meet someone at an event, but the relationship develops as you see and talk to this person, as you come across them elsewhere, maybe even as you are walking your dog or something.
And, third, it needs to be consistent. Building a relationship takes time. Consistent means that the conversation is not transactional, such as I am only talking to you to get you to come to my church, but rather I care about you and want to be your friend whether you attend my church or not. Consistent can mean a phone call, an invitation to special events, or a simple acknowledgement that you or the church have prayed for them.
If we have authentic, organic, and consistent engagement, it may open an opportunity for faith sharing, again, not to be forced, but authentic and organic. Engagement is not a program. It is a way of building relationships with our neighbors and showing them the love of God by being a true friend. In the end, it can foster intentional discipleship.
The only way that we can do that is getting to know our neighbors as a church. It can also mean getting to know our neighbors as individuals at our homes. As a girl who lived most of her life in an urban environment, I really didn’t get to know my neighbors. Since that is a practice of a lifetime, it’s difficult for me here, too. I know that some of you here are in a similar circumstance.
We are opening the door of opportunity to get to know our neighbors. On September 9th, we are hosting a block party from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. You should have it invitation in your bulletin. We will be going around the neighborhood a few blocks inviting the families around the church. No hidden motive, no expectation only that we want to get to know them better. If you have a neighbor or someone you would like to attend, you can give them an invitation. However, one of the most important things there will be you, to talk to our guests, and make them feel welcome. We will have games. We will need help with some food related things. There is a list in the coffee area after worship. Whether you can come for the whole time or just part, I hope and pray that you will be a part of this beginning to get to know our neighbors and to see all the people.
You were also given a notebook, and I encourage you to look inside the front cover. It says, “We cannot disciple people that we are not in relationship with. Discipleship begins with relationship.” This is by Reverend Junius Dotson the General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries at the United Methodist Church. We some directions here, too. “How does your congregation see all the people in your community? Use this journal to record your ideas and thoughts about connecting with those living around your church.”
I hope that you will jot down any ideas for building relationships with our neighbors and share them with me. This will be such an exciting time for Joseph United Methodist Church as we discover new ways to share the love of Christ.
Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Look all around and See All the People.