Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Dividing Lines

Evangelism is like having a much longed for child.  All your sisters should be excited, encouraging, and enthusiastic. And to some degree it’s true.  If you announce to your ladies Bible class that you talked to your best friend about coming to church with you, they’ll all give you a little pat on the back and promise to pray.  If you tell them that you signed up to grade correspondence courses or that you are going to teach a community Bible class at the Library, you’ll get proud smiles and offers to help with anything they can do.  

But when you joyfully announce something like, “One of the ladies from our prison bible class was baptized this week.  She’ll be out next month and she and her kids will get to be a real part of our congregation.”  

Do you think you’ll get that pat on the back?  

Maybe. Maybe not.

Let’s be honest.  Every box you tick dividing the person you shared Jesus with from the main demographic of your church eats away at your support.

So when you introduce the single mom you brought to Christ who got her GED during her 5 years in prison for aggravated assault, you’ll be facing a few raised eyebrows and cold shoulders. 

However, you won’t be alone.  

The early church faced an entrenched divide difficult for modern Americans to understand. God required that the Jews keep themselves a holy people, sacred to him; he intended them to be a light to the nations.  Unfortunately, in the years after the exile they understood God to mean that everyone who wasn’t a Jew (that’s what Gentile means) was less than human.  What should have made them a light to the nations became something that caused them to turn their backs on the rest of the world. 

God could not abide this divide.  He had always meant to make the two into one in his Son (Ephesians 2:11-22), and Peter opened the door to that healing.  

Up on the roof waiting for lunch, Peter fell into a trance.  He saw a giant sheet with all kinds of food that good Jews aren’t supposed to eat being lowered to him and heard a voice declare, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:13) In keeping with his personality, he refused.  The voice came again and said, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15).

While Peter was still mulling over what this vision meant, the Spirit told him to go with the three guys downstairs who were looking for him. He met them and they explained that God had sent an angel to a devout centurion, a Roman officer over 100 soldiers, named Cornelius. The angel had told him to send them to bring Peter back.  Then we have this curious detail.  

He invited them in and gave them lodging.   And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. Acts 10:23

Why did Peter bring those brothers from Joppa? He was opening himself up to enormous criticism just for following the messengers home.  He did not know he had a far more radical task at hand-baptizing the first Gentile Christians.   Peter would open the door wide for people like Paul to usher thousands of Gentiles into the Kingdom.  God knew he would need witnesses.   Because when Peter got back to Joppa and Jerusalem and every other place in the diaspora, he had to justify how these most unacceptable people were accepted by God.  It was a hard sell.  

How hard?  God sent not only witnesses but a powerful sign.  On Pentecost when the first believers were baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, the event was marked by a miraculous expression of the Holy Spirit unlike anything ever seen in the world up to that moment. On the day that Peter stood in front of Cornelius, to the astonishment of the brothers he brought from Joppa, it happened again.  The Spirit signaled the open door to Gentiles the same way he signaled the open door to the Jews. 

Baptizing Cornelius and his household did not automatically heal the divide. The rest of the New Testament faces the Jew/Gentile problem head on.  Peter goes back to Jerusalem to face his critics (Acts 11).  Paul calls both sides to judgment.  To the Gentiles and Jews he declares that all have sinned and deserved to die and that in Christ none are condemned (Romans 3:1-20, Romans 8:1-2).  As for the critics of Gentile inclusion, Paul wishes they would go castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12). 

Today’s division consists of a subtler disunity that quietly excludes and neglects those who don’t fit the profile.  Not just the baby Christians coming from a different demographic but the evangelists who reach them. Healthy, righteous, godly churches, for that matter righteous godly people, cannot allow themselves to turn a cold shoulder.  We must declare with Peter…

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, Acts 10:34

Although Peter began his story by saying, “By no means, Lord,” he ended his story telling of the grace, mercy and lack of partiality that God shows to all men.  As evangelists we must not only be impartial ourselves as we reach out to the lost, but we must also gently help our critics come to understand the how much God loves (and expects us to love) all his children.


  1. Gutsy truths in this post. Appreciate you being able to put it in such clarity. "He that has ears to hear, let them hear..."

  2. We work with the ladies at our jail and we find this to be so true. Breaks my heart. I do not know how to reach people who turn their backs on new Christians because of their pasts. "There but for the grace of God go I."