Today we are transitioning into phase two of our series where we are reflecting on our church vision statements. Over the previous four weeks we’ve been reflecting on our vision statements about worship, preaching and prayer. Over the next four weeks we’ll be looking at our mission of discipleship. Our church has come up with three vision statements pertaining to discipleship: 1) We value loving grace filled relationships in which members and seekers are enfolded and cared for. 2) We value our church to be a safe place for those who are broken and hurting. 3) We believe that followers of Christ of all ages should be nurtured and trained as we yearn for continuous growth. What does discipleship look like in our congregation? Today we’ll reflect on the first statement: We value loving grace filled relationships in which members and seekers are enfolded and cared for.
Are loving, grace filled relationships important for a church? Is it important that people are enfolded and cared for in our congregation? Why should this be a value? Why should we care about this? If we were simply Deists, rather than Christian, I don’t think this would make it as one of our vision statements. The Deist idea of God says that there is a supreme being, but he’s not involved in this world. The Deist god is often thought of as a Divine Clockmaker. The story goes that this god created the earth like a clockmaker makes a clock. After building the clock, the clockmaker just walks away. In that scenario, having an ongoing relationship with god is about as likely as expecting a clock to have an ongoing relationship with the clockmaker. For a Deist, there is no theological reason for meaningful human relationships. There might be other reasons to have friends, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with belief in god. If Peter and Cornelius were alive today, and Deist, it would’ve been much more expedient for Peter to send Cornelius an email that said, “If you believe, God will forgive your sins.” Then Cornelius clicks the yes box and goes on his merry way. No need to get to know each other and go to each others house. A deist faith is more simple to live out: its just about what you think.
We aren’t Deists. We’re Christian. Relationships, embodied relationships are import. But why? Why do we value loving grace filled relationships in which members and seekers are enfolded and cared for. What is it about God that would suggest we should value loving grace filled relationships? To put the answer in one word, “Its the incarnation”. The reality that God became an embodied human to restore relationship with us tells us that embodied relationships are really, really important. The incarnation is what drives our vision statement.
Everything about the story about Cornelius and Peter speaks to how much God values loving, grace-filled relationships. The story begins with God addressing the problem that two groups of people, the Jews and the Gentiles, hate each other. The Gentiles thought the Jews were anti-social and stuck up. The Jews thought the Gentiles were immoral dogs. Have you ever been in a fight with someone, and had a friend act as a go-between to get you guys to start talking again? That’s exactly what God did in this passage with Peter and Cornelius. A heavenly visitor speaks to Cornelius, telling him to send for Peter. Around the same time, God goes to Peter, and through a vision about a bed sheet and some unclean animals, says “What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Now go with these people who are bringing you to Cornelius’ house, I’ve sent them”. God is being a mediator, working to heal the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles through the relationship that He already has with Peter and Cornelius.
Its not just enough for Peter to hear God say that the Gentiles are clean. Peter has to walk through Cornelius’ door. That’s the thing about Christianity. Its not just about knowing a truth. Its about knowing a truth, and then living that truth, embodying that truth. God did this, becoming human in Jesus and entering the door of humanity. He wants us to do the same with each other. It wasn’t enough for Peter to know that God has made the way for the Gentiles to join God’s family. Peter had to walk through Cornelius’ door with an invitation to join that family.
So they meet in Cornelius’ home. That is so significant. Loving and grace filled relationships really take off when you are welcomed into another persons home. Meeting at church is good, but once someone invites you for dinner, you know you’re cared for. So Peter shows up at Cornelius’ home. And I love that when they meet its just pretty awkward. Cornelius isn’t sure how he’s supposed to greet Peter. He wants to show Peter respect, but isn’t sure what to do. So when Peter walks in, Cornelius falls down at Peter’s feet and worships Peter. That was the wrong thing to do, Peter is super embarrassed, and says, “Stand up! I’m only human.” Then Peter names the elephant in the room by saying, “You know that its unlawful for me, a Jew, to associate with or visit a Gentile.” This story reminds us that relationships, after all, are awkward. We’ll say and do stupid things. There will be culture clash. We might even have to talk about our painful, hurtful history and prejudices. But all this is necessary, because God wants His friends to be friends with each other. As we see, being friends often involves awkward and hard conversations.
The ice begins to thaw as they both talk about their visions from God. Cornelius knows that Peter has been sent to tell them something about God, so he asks what Peter has to say.
Now notice what Peter has to say. Peter doesn’t tell Cornelius about the “four spiritual laws,” or some propositional truths in bullet form. Peter tells a story about his friendship with Jesus, the Lord of All. Peter tells about God anointing Jesus of Nazareth, with the Holy Spirit and with Power. Peter tells about how Jesus went about enfolding and caring for people, doing good, healing those who were overpowered by the devil. Peter says that Jesus was able to relate with people in this way because God was with Him. Jesus was able to have powerful relationships with others, because He had a powerful relationship with God. Then Peter tells about how Jesus died on a cross, and that God raised Him from the dead, and restored Jesus to His friends! Not only that, but in raising Jesus from the dead, God is showing himself faithful to the promise He’s given all the prophets. The promise that everyone who seeks relationship with Jesus, the anointed one, will receive forgiveness of sins through His name.
Peter tells a story about how God became embodied in Jesus of Nazareth to bring us back into relationship. God died for our sins, the sins that separated us from relationship with God. The sins that are the awkward, shameful bits of our history that sever our relationship with God. God became a human, took those sins on himself through death on the cross, all because He desires our friendship. The story Peter tells is about God’s embodied and sacrificial friendship, with the surprising conclusion that we are forgiven and welcomed to be friend God. Not only are we invited into friendship with God, but God then invites us into friendship with His friends. And God’s friends happen to be very different from us. Surprise!
God began the process of getting Peter and Cornelius to talk, and he was determined to finish it. Because, it turns out that growing in friendship with God’s friends means growing deeper in friendship with God. After Peter and Cornelius had that awkward first conversation, after Cornelius listened to Peter’s story about friendship with Jesus, God cements their friendship with His friendship. The Holy Spirit fall on everyone who was listening. The jewish Christians who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, those people they had thought were unclean. They heard them speaking with tongues and praising God. God cemented the new friendship with the Gentiles, and opened the way for jews and the gentiles to be friends. I think that there might be a cycle at work here. As we grow deeper with God, he moves us to go deeper with each other. As we go deeper with each other, we go deeper with God. God became one of us, so that we might become friends with God, and friends with each other. Have you ever experienced a deepening friendship with God through friendship with one of God’s friends? Of course.
Our faith, from start to finish, is about being known — knowing God and knowing each other. When we think we can do church without really knowing one another, then we haven’t really understood the story of Jesus. Maybe we’re just Deist. The incarnation is about God’s embodied relationships with us, which in turn moves us to embody the love of God in relationship with one another.
Let me conclude with two thoughts about how this story might relate to our context. First, as I’ve been reflecting on this story, I’ve been struck by the parallels between the history of the Jews and Gentiles, and the story of White and First Nations people. Both stories have their share of prejudices and stereotypes. Both stories have their histories of injustice. I’ve been reading a history of the relationships between First Nations and white people in North America. I’ve been deeply disturbed by the stories of massacres, deprivations, broken treaties, government lies, and racism that characterizes white relations with First Nation communities. In reading about these histories, my faith has been rattled by the fact that many of these injustices have been carried out by the church, or by people functioning in the name of Jesus. How is it possible for a people who are supposed to be characterized by loving, grace filled, enfolding, caring relationships to commit abuse, injustice, and murder? I thought we had the Holy Spirit!
What would it look like for us to foster a culture which valued loving, grace, filled relationships with the Witsuwit’en? Peter began his friendship with Cornelius with an awkward conversation about the history and prejudices of his nation. I wonder if we could have that conversation through the Blanket Exercise. The Blanket Exercise is a ways of having the conversation about our history of treaty-making and colonization. What if our church publicly hosted the Blanket Exercise as a way of owning our role in this painful history. Peter and Cornelius then were able to talk about their shared faith in God, and the grace found in Jesus Christ. And as their friendship grew, so did their relationship with God. I wonder if through a willingness to have painful conversations, our community might see the Holy Spirit fall on us in fresh ways.
Second, what does it look like for this congregation to grow with each other in loving grace-filled, enfolding relationships? Its easy to intellectually agree with this vision statement, but living it out is difficult. To say the obvious, its difficult because we’re finite human beings. We have limitations. Emails are great because you can say “I love you” to a hundred different people and just hit ‘send’ once. Facebook is even easier. As Christians, we need to go deeper and actually embody our love for one another. That means we can’t be in relationships with everyone. We only have so much time and energy, we all have limitations. My life feels full with just two young kiddos. We’re not alone in our limitations. When Jesus was on earth, He was limited by His body. We won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs as individuals. No single one of us can do all the enfolding and all the caring. But we can do much more together, especially if we’re intentional and organized.
So, how can we live out this vision statement together? Let me suggest an easy first step: learn everyone’s names. Not bothering to learn someone’s name suggests that they don’t matter and you probably won’t get to know them. If you don’t know someone’s name, just ask someone who does, or introduce yourself, start a conversation. That’s a pretty simple first step to becoming a caring church, learning everyone’s name. Don’t wait for someone else to take the initiative. A next step involves small groups. As we mentioned, meeting in people’s homes through small groups, sharing meals, praying, sharing life is a huge way of growing deeper with God and each other. Imagine if everyone in our church fellowship became was part of a small group. That would make enfolding new people who are seeking community so much easier. Right now we only have a few small groups, and those groups don’t have capacity to keep taking on more people. What if for each new person who started coming to our church, after they got comfortable, they were inundated with invitations to join small groups. How much easier would it be to enfold people who walk through our doors if our whole church was really intentional about being in community with each other!
Here is challenge number two. While you’re learning everyone’s names, commit to investing in a small group of people outside of Sunday morning. Let me remind you why we do this. The incarnation is about how God became human to restore our friendship with God, and with each other. As we embody the love of God in friendship with one another, we grow deeper in friendship with God. Then, together we wait for the Holy Spirit to fall on us.