“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation those who fear him and do what is right.” – Peter
I love the story of Peter and Cornelius told in the tenth chapter of Acts. I love this story because it shows us that God does not respect boundaries. In fact, he often calls his people to transgress boundaries for the sake of his Good News. God's people are boundary-breakers.
Prior to this story the Good News that Jesus is Lord had remained largely within the Jewish community. In fact, the disciples seemed to understand the story exclusively within their Jewish context. Jewish was the Messiah for the Jewish people. They hadn't grasped that he was also the Messiah of the rest of humanity as well. As far as we can tell, the early Christian communities continued to observe Jewish ritual practices including the Levitical laws about food and prohibitions about interacting with Gentiles. Gentiles were the impure ones, the ones outside the community of faith. Interacting with them left one unclean.
In this situation God sends Peter to the home of the Roman Centurion (= Gentile). God has to provide a graphic demonstration in order to get Peter moving because this was not in keeping with Peter's perceptions of proper behavior nor of what was appropriate for a God-fearing man. His words on entering Cornelius' house tell us this in no uncertain terms: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” Wow, how's that for a word of welcome on entering someone's house? In a song Michael Card sings about this story he puts it in these words: “You know, I'm not supposed to be here.” Not exactly a strong endorsement of Peter's desire to reach out in love to these Gentiles.
But God shows Peter and, eventually through him, the rest of the early Christian community, that God's kingdom was about something bigger than maintaining their identities as Jews. God's kingdom is more inclusive than those first believers ever imagined. In verse 45 of chapter 10 we read that Peter's companions were astonished that God would pour out the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles. God was treating as equal those whom they had always viewed as inferior.
The Good News of God's kingdom breaks down barriers. As messengers of that kingdom, we carry on this call to cross the boundaries that we falsely erect to keep some people in and the majority of people out. Despite the example of Peter, despite the fact that most of us are beneficiaries of these early “transgressions” that allowed the Christian message to reach beyond the confines of Judaism, we unfortunately remain very good at erecting walls rather than destroying them. We write doctrinal statements defining what we believe and we make public statements clearly defining some people as “in” and other people as clearly “out”. We feel we are defending the faith in this manner. Maybe we simply are so bound by our own prejudices and stereotypes that we cannot imagine God's grace and love extending to certain groups of people. We are far more comfortable with drawing a distinct boundary between those who are in and those who are out than in allowing God freedom to show his mercy to all whom God chooses. We forget what Peter said after he encountered Cornelius: “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation those who fear him and do what is right.” Notice he doesn't say that we define what it means to fear God and do right. Those are God's prerogatives. God gets to choose whom to accept and whom not to, not us.
I want to be a boundary-breaker. But all too often I erect my own walls and define my own standards of who is in and who is out. I have my own prejudices and over the course of my life God has consistently worked to eliminate these. The most effective way has been for me to get to know people from those groups against whom I had prejudice or whom I had labeled with stereotypes. It hasn't always been easy. But it has been liberating. Along the way I have gotten to know some really amazing people. Slowly I am learning, as Peter did, that God doesn't draw boundaries the way we do. God wants me to break dividing walls, not erect them. God challenges me, like Peter, to go places where I might not feel so comfortable and to interact with people whom I would rather avoid. Because God is at work among those people and in those places also.
At the moment one of the areas in which God is most stretching me is my attitude toward homosexuals and the LGBT community. This is a HUGE stretch for me and I haven't fully reached the place where I can enjoy open, unhindered fellowship with these individuals and communities (not because of them, but because of myself). I am beginning to recognize that just as God's grace went beyond the early Jewish Christian community in which Peter felt comfortable, so it goes beyond the community in which I feel comfortable and I am tentatively stepping across those lines that had previously divided.
(Micky De Witt wrote some good thoughts on this topic recently. I recommend her post especially for her exploration of how fear keeps us from crossing these lines.)