“A Ministry of Inclusion”
From time to time I have mentioned to my congregation that all churches should be “heterogeneous” – meaning the church ought to be made up of people of various socio-economic backgrounds, educational levels and even races.
Everyone should be included in the church. For that reason, I am suspicious when church people refer to those in the fellowship as “family,” because often times behind that is the idea that anybody else who may visit or join is “not family” and made to feel that way!
In the book of Acts, The Early Church is entering into a time of great expansion and growth. Therefore, God’s dealings were focused upon the nation of Israel. Now what God had promised – “All people would be blessed through the seed of Abraham,” – was about to come to pass. God never intended for his Gospel to be restricted within the narrow confines of Jerusalem, though they tried as best they could to keep it within those constraints. They did so by making Christianity an adherence to their laws, more so than having a relationship with Jesus.
Don’t we do the same? Sometimes a convert to the faith has to not like a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Catholic more than they not like Jesus, and if they don’t we conclude they are not Christians and therefore not one of us. We have so many spoken and unspoken rules in our churches, i.e. deacon or stewards sit here, mothers of the church sit here (and God forbid if anyone else sits there!), until we drive away more people than we draw! God wants to remove the constraints so that everyone feels and understand that the Gospel is for them too.
This is just what He does in our text. He gives Cornelius, a Gentile, but a praying man, a vision. In that vision, an angel tells him to have Peter, a Jew, retrieved from the city of Joppa. Cornelius sends a couple of his servants and a soldier to go and do just that. Peter, up until this point, shares the narrow view of many of his fellow Jews: that the Gospel was just for them. On their way to Jerusalem, Peter has a vision (many times God begins to move while we are on our way). In that vision, Peter saw a large sheet being let down to earth and on it were all kinds of four legged animals – the kind that any good Jew believed to be unclean. But yet God told Peter to eat and said, “Do not call anything unclean that I have made clean.”
The message was clear: the dietary laws that allowed him and other Jews to condemn Gentiles was no longer valid, and cleanliness and un-cleanliness in people is not determined by law, but by the acceptance of the Gospel. So, before Peter arrived at Cornelius’ home, God had already moved on his heart, that Cornelius and his family as well as every Gentile was acceptable enough to receive the Gospel. That’s Good News!!!
God loves everybody! He loves the unemployed, the incarcerated, the un-churched, the pimp, the prostitute, the poor, the uneducated – the very people who feel the ostracism that is not always spoken, but still, nonetheless, very real and strong. Peter preaches to Cornelius when he arrives and I think this sentence is the theme of the whole message:
“…that everyone that believes in Him
receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”
The Gospel isn’t just for us. Theoretically, we understand that, but in our hearts some of us do not. If we did, we would do a better job of bringing people to Church and making sure they feel welcome. Too often, what we believe in our hearts belies what we say with our mouths and do with our actions.
God validates this contention in that the same Holy Spirit that fell on the Jews fell also on Cornelius and the other Gentiles.
“While Peter was still speaking the words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers, (Jews) Who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit has peen poured out on even the Gentiles…Then Peter said, can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit as we have.”
Our God has a ministry of inclusion! And if He does, so should we. My prayer is that the “ministry of inclusion” is practiced in this vineyard we call Milwaukee.
“A Church where you are welcome.”