Everyone needs a place to call home.
When we first got married, we were living in Cassie’s house together. And it was Cassie’s house. She owned it before we even started dating. She picked it out, she picked the neighborhood, she picked the furniture. And believe me, I was alright with that. My dining room table was a plastic picnic table I had picked up from Big Lots. My furniture consisted of a TV stand, two mattresses, a headboard, a coffee table, and a dresser that I had since I was a baby. Needless to say, moving into Cassie’s house was more than a step up. Cassie was great about clearing space for me, but all of my stuff could basically fit into one room in her house. The rest of the house was all Cassie. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I don’t think I thought about it all that much. But after Emma was born and we decided to move into a bigger house together, it really felt like home. There was something special about picking out a place together. There was something special about finding a place that said, “Us.” If we had never moved from Cassie’s house, I don’t think I ever would have complained. Well, except maybe for the weeds in the back. They grew like monsters! But it was a great house. Still, when we finally did move, it felt different. It really felt like home. Over time, we picked out more and more things together. Couches, tables, lamps. Until it all really was “our house.”
Becoming part of a church is very much the same thing.
Someone new may not actually help pick out curtains for the narthex or new pews for the sanctuary, but a church doesn’t really become YOURS until you put your mark on it; until you find a way to make it your own. We can either help or hinder that process. We can either help or hinder that process. What you choose to do, is up to you. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about this feeling of belonging, this feeling of being home, because it struck me that as we strive to come together in this place, as we strive to make it our own, we may need a reminder of what the other shoe looks like. It is so easy to get target locked on our own agenda. It is so easy to breakdown into the dichotomy of “us vs. them.” And it’s so easy to forget the validity of other people’s points of view when we are so SURE we are right, that sometimes we simply need to take a step back and remember who we are. We need to remember what we are doing. And we need to remember that truly we are all in this together. Because we are.
Peter needed a reminder of this and God was happy to provide one.
If you’ve got a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you go to the book of Acts, chapter 10, beginning with verse 23. Acts 10:23. The passage we’re about to read comes right after Peter gets three powerful visions from God. Peter is up on the roof of one of the buildings of the city to pray while lunch is being made, and as he prays he receives these visions where God commands him to kill and eat the animals provided to him. But Peter, probably thinking that God was testing him, refuses and tells God, “I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” But God tells Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter was puzzled by the vision until a messenger arrives from the house of Cornelius the centurion and the Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with them. This is where we pick up our story this morning.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
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.
Peter gets it.
He hears the Holy Spirit. He follows the messengers back to Cornelius’ house. He hears Cornelius’ testimony, and he gets it. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Everyone deserves to be welcomed into the family of God. But it took THREE visions from the Lord, the voice of the Holy Spirit, a trip to a Gentile’s house, and Cornelius’ testimony for it to sink in. We don’t always get that luxury. Not many of us receive a vision from God, or hear the Holy Spirit, or have someone share a powerful testimony, but we do have the Word of God to remind us what God expects. Everyone deserves to be welcomed into the family of God.
It’s easy to say, but hard to do.
Trying to incorporate two very different groups of people into a cohesive whole is a tough job and even for the early Christians it wasn’t easy. For a long time, many of the Jewish people insisted that Gentile follow Jewish law. They wanted them to be circumcised. They wanted them to follow the Jewish diet. They basically wanted to turn them into Jews. Paul even stood up to the Apostle Peter while Peter was surrounded by his posse and told him off. He said to Peter that Peter was a hypocrite. Peter used to eat with Gentiles and still lived like one, but when Peter was around his Jewish buddies he would fall in line with their thoughts and beliefs. Paul reminded him that we are not saved by the law but by the grace of God. Peter, even though he knew better, fell victim to peer pressure and started to give in to this group that wanted to force the Gentiles to be someone different than they were. This group wanted the Gentiles to conform to their ways instead of welcoming them in with the grace that saved them all. And that’s what Paul scolded Peter about. What this group was doing was exactly what Peter had done in our earlier passage. They were essentially calling unclean what God had made clean. The goal isn’t to find some way to get the other group to conform or blend in. The goal is to welcome them. The goal is to turn strangers into siblings. The goal is to turn strangers into siblings. We’re meant to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
God tells us to treat those new to our flock as if they were “native-born.”
That means we’re supposed to treat those who come in the door as if they were already one of us. We shouldn’t try to shape them into what we want them to be, but find a way to incorporate their gifts and talents with ours. We need to make them feel welcome. We need to extend the hand of hospitality to all who enter into this sacred place. And we do that by helping them to add to the rich life that already exists in this place. I think at times we, the people of Palm Church, don’t always recognize that our friends from First fit into that category as well. I think there are some who are expecting our folks from First Church to sort of “fit in” with what we do here at Palm. But our friends from First are exactly those we need to welcome whole-heartedly. They are the “foreigners” that the writer of Leviticus talks about treating them like our “native-born.” The fear most often shared by others to me is, “Do they want us? Will we really feel welcome?” We need to find a way to incorporate their ideas and their thoughts and their traditions into our own. When we do that, we’ll be helping them to carve out their own place here in this church. We’ll be helping them to create a new identity in this place WITH us. And hopefully, eventually, we’ll slowly forget that we were once two different churches and just come to think of each other as one family. Truly one family.
Any time two come together to form one it takes work and compromise.
Any time two come together to form one it takes work and compromise. If it helps to think of it this way, it’s like getting married and in many ways, that’s what this is. It is the union of two becoming one. Cassie could easily have told me to put my stuff in storage. After all, it was her house. It was her furniture. It was her dishes. It was her stuff. She was there first. But Cassie wanted me to be part of her life and because she wanted me as part of her life, she made room for me. She allowed me to carve out my own space within her space. And when our family grew, we found a place together that was truly ours. Should it be any different with our friends from First Church or anyone who comes walking into this space? After the fire in the parsonage, the whole house was gutted. From top to bottom, literally. Part of the ceiling was torn down, the attic space was stripped of insulation, the floors in the kitchen were ripped up. All of our stuff was thrown into the trash except for some key items that we were able to save. But every lamp, every bed, every fork, and every picture in our home had to be thrown away. As they slowly repaired the different parts of the house, you could see it becoming a livable place again. Walls were put up. Floors were laid down. Appliances were installed. But it didn’t feel like our home again until we were able to put some of our things back inside. Only then, when we had made it our own did we really feel like we belonged. Everyone is looking for a place to belong. Anyone looking for a church home is looking for a place to belong. We owe it to every person who walks into our doors to make them feel like this is a place they belong. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.