The Early Church All Over Again – The Real Conversion And The Welcome Mat

Steve Lindsley
(Acts 10: 1-6, 9-16, 23b-28, 44-48)

It is a weird time to be the church.  If we’ve hit on anything in this six-week sermon series that concludes today, it is that it’s a weird time to be the church.  What seemed to work for years and years isn’t necessarily working anymore.  Things that felt comfortable, familiar, reliable have been turned inside out and upside down. 

Now we can choose to understand this in a couple of ways.  We can see it as signs of a church that is dying; a church that is on life support and breathing its last few breaths.  A lot of people subscribe to this, because the optics at face value seem to suggest it.  It’s also how we respond to thing we don’t fully understand.  We’re afraid of it.  We deem it as not good.  The church is dying.

I must tell you that I, for one, have grown weary of this “sky is falling” view of today’s church.  It does us no good, it is not a faithful response to our calling.  But more importantly, it is simply not true.

Which is why I am grateful that there’s another way to look at all that is happening in the church today. Right at this moment, God is in the process of stretching our minds, expanding our vision, calling us to deeper discipleship.  Right at this moment, God is doing a new thing in our midst, a new thing that in some ways feels like an old thing, which is why we’ve been looking back at the very early church to see what we might learn from it as we move forward.

It is a weird time to be the church.  I have to think that’s what Peter was thinking in our scripture today: this is just plain weird.  There he is, up on the balcony for his daily prayers, when a vision overcomes him.  A vision of a huge blanket, dropped down from the heavens, full of all kinds of foods strictly forbidden by his Jewish diet.  I mean, full of it.  You could not have assembled a smorgasbord more offensive to his faith than this.  And to make matters worse, it was around dinnertime.  His stomach grumbling.

I try to put myself in Peter’s shoes– his sandals, more likely – and I think that he must’ve wondered if this was some divine practical joke. Or if not that, a test?  Either way, Peter was determined to be neither a punch line nor a failure.  He may have denied Jesus three times in the heat of the moment, but that was ages ago.  He would be faithful this time.  He would not eat what lay before him.

I try to imagine how strange it was for Peter to hear that voice from above, that voice that came with the blanket and the food, that voice commanding him to eat.  Eat that.  Grab the knife and fork, tie the napkin around his neck, and dig in.  This from the very same God who’d been telling his people for thousands of years precisely not to do that very thing.

So what does Peter do? Not surprisingly, he acts like Peter.  He pushes back on the Almighty.  God, I’ve never eaten this stuff before in my life, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not start today.

The response God gives him, spoken three times, because it is that important: If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.  If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.  If God says it’s okay, it’s okay!

It is a weird time to be the church!

A little earlier in this 10th chapter of Acts, and woven neatly into the overarching narrative, is a story about a man named Cornelius, a member of the Italian guard.  In Jewish parlance, a Gentile.  Like our Ethiopian eunuch last week, he is being called, more or less, to become part of this new thing God is doing, to follow Jesus.  So he receives a message from God; that a man would be coming to see him.  Now the reader knows that man is Peter.  But Cornelius doesn’t know this yet, he doesn’t know Peter.  And Peter doesn’t know Cornelius. Like last week, two people who don’t know each other, their paths about to cross.

So when Peter does meet Cornelius, the kind of person he’d normally have nothing to do with, it all becomes clear.  That vision he had earlier of the blanket and the food; that repeated command: If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.  Suddenly it’s not about the food and the blanket.  Centuries of Torah law telling Peter that interactions with Gentiles were not worth his time.  Centuries of law, now in the process of not being discarded but redefined, rewritten.  Expanding horizons with broad strokes.

What we have here in the 10th chapter of Acts, my friends, is a good ol’ conversion story.  Just not the kind of conversion we might think.

For when we say “conversion,” an image typically comes to mind.  A warm muggy summer evening, a pitched tent, open-air, propped up by four tall stakes at the corners and an even taller one in the middle.  Rusty metal folding chairs, arranged in makeshift aisles.  And up front: a small raised platform, maybe a simple wooden box, enough for the preacher to stand on.  In one hand, a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow; in the other, a worn out King James Bible.  He preaches and preaches and preaches, whipping the gathering into a frenzy, until that moment at the sermon’s pinnacle when he commands the sinner to come forward and receive salvation in Jesus Christ.

At least that’s what I hear happens.  I mean, I was raised Presbyterian.

The interesting thing about conversion stories like this is that they’re usually seen as one-time events.  Someone makes that decision, comes forward, experiences conversion.  And that’s it, they’re good to go.  The truth of the matter, though, is that conversion is an ongoing process.  We are constantly evolving as people of faith, forever being molded and shaped by the Holy Spirit.  We are never a finished product.

I love the way author Kathleen Norris describes conversion.  She says it’s not an event, not a goal, not a product we consume.  True conversion, Norris says, is a process. “The very cells in our body are busy changing, renewing themselves, every few days.  Yet we remain recognizably ourselves.”

This story in the 10th chapter of Acts is commonly referred to as the “Conversion of Cornelius” – as if Cornelius was the only one who experienced conversion that day.  Was he?    For when Peter speaks about a changed heart and expanding horizons, it’s not the Gentile he’s talking about.  He’s talking about himself. The conversion of note here is his.  A conversion instigated by a simple truth that came to him in a vision, three times:  If God says it’s okay, it’s okay!   

It reminds me how a fellow pastor once described this passage: “as if it were the Holy Spirit itself flinging out the welcome mat of the Gospel.”  I love that image, because it reminds me of trips to my grandmother’s house tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina.  Driving down the dusty gravel road, greeted by the garden in their front yard; running through the side door of their house into the long mudroom.  And there, at the end of the mudroom in front of the door heading inside, a sturdy, thick rubber mat; inscribed in large font with one word: WELCOME!  All caps.  An exclamation point.

That mat was more than simple decor.  Bit by bit as a child, I came to see that Granny and her husband Dave made a point of living out the message of that welcome mat.  Granny and Dave lived in a self-supporting community outside of Burnsville.  Everyone there got their milk from the community cow.  Everyone grew vegetables in their own gardens and shared the bounty with others.  They volunteered as tutors at a nearby prison.  They taught nature classes for a children’s summer camp.  They practiced radical hospitality with strangers that happened upon their way.   Over the years I got a feel for all the people that Granny welcomed into her home – rich and poor; white and people of color; Democrat and Republican, gay and straight, Christian and other religion and no religion. 

My Granny literally flung out the welcome mat for everyone – because at some point in her life, I imagine, she experienced the same kind of conversion Peter had.  One that equipped her with this radical sense of God’s love for everyone.  One that compelled her to not just tolerate people who were different, but embrace them and welcome them.  One that convinced her in no uncertain terms that “if God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”

It has been said that, in this weird time of being church, one of the more important things the church can be is a welcoming church.  Which is not the same thing as being a friendly church.  Every church likes to think that they’re friendly – and most, I would venture to say, probably are.  You certainly are!  I’ve seen how you greet each other, how you check in with each other, how you genuinely care for one another.  I’ve also seen the way you greet visitors when they come – you’re kind and cordial, you thank them for being here, you tell them you hope they come back.  Our church is certainly a friendly church.

But it’s a whole different kind of thing being a welcoming church.

Being a welcoming church means taking a step beyond the ordinary pleasantries and cordiality that we so eagerly share.  It means making ourselves more accessible to others by intentionally locating ourselves in situations and contexts that don’t always feel comfortable or familiar.  Being a welcoming church means not simply facilitating conversion for others, but experiencing conversion ourselves over and over and over again.

And I am grateful for the many ways that our church, our denomination, has been experiencing this kind of conversion as of late; has been choosing to fling out the welcome mat for everyone.  Last year, the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the PCUSA enacted an awareness campaign called “We Choose Welcome,” which focuses on extending hospitality to and stand in solidarity with our immigrant and refugee neighbors, and provides resources for ways that local congregations like ours can put those principles into practice.[1]

This past Tuesday, at the 223rd General Assembly of the PCUSA, our commissioners approved a motion that celebrates the gifts of persons of various sexual identities and orientations.  And so it was not coincidence, I imagine, that the very next day, in a powerful moment, a young adult advisory delegate came out on the assembly floor for the first time in his life.  And where just a few years ago he might’ve received disapproving looks or no looks at all, this time he was immediately surrounded by dozens who rushed to embrace him.

This kind of thing is more than simply being friendly.  This is the kind of welcoming that not only changes the one being welcomed, but the one doing the welcoming as well. 

So much is happening around us, sisters and brothers.  So much in our city, in our country, in our world.  All of which makes it a weird time to be the church.  Because what seemed to work before doesn’t necessarily work any more.  What once was familiar and comfortable has been turned upside down.

But while the church may be changing, we know – we celebrate – that the mission of church is not.  The mission of church – to share the love of Jesus Christ with the world, to work diligently to build the kingdom of God; to, as our Trinity slogan states, “grow together and welcome all” – that has not changed for the past 2000 years. 

My friends, do not fear.  The church is not dying – not even close.  The church is experiencing conversion all over again.  It’s not the first time it’s happened.  It won’t be the last.  God is calling us to live out the Welcome mat we’ve placed at our doorstep.  Because if God says it’s okay, it really is okay. 

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/we-choose-welcome/, visited on 6.21.2018.