How do you build a global missional movement rather than a monument? More precisely, how do you become a vehicle through whom God builds Jesus’ missional movement? Here is the first of three not-so-easy, but all-important steps:
First, be open to change. This principle stands in contrast to those monumental last words that destroy missional movements: “We’ve never done it that way before.” While it is not the case that every form of change is a good thing, a lack of openness to change kills momentum.
In reflecting upon this theme, I am drawn to Acts 10, where Peter experiences a spiritual crisis. There we find God speaking to Peter in a vision to eat what was considered an assortment of unclean food. In his dream state, Peter refuses to take up and eat the food put before him. Here’s the account:
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:11-14; NIV).
This happens three times (Acts 10:16). On the second occasion, a voice from heaven exhorts Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15; NIV).
After the vision, Peter is left to ponder the meaning of it all. As he is reflecting upon the vision, men representing a God-fearing Roman Centurion named Cornelius come to the house where Peter is staying. The Spirit of God instructs Peter to go with them to Cornelius who was told by a holy angel to call for Peter to instruct Cornelius (See Acts 10:17-22). Peter welcomes them in and then goes with them to Cornelius’ house (Acts 10: 23-24).
I love Peter’s response to Cornelius upon entering the Centurion’s home:
While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 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. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection” (Acts 10:27-29; NIV).
Like most of us, Peter is a creature of habit. Moreover, he seeks to honor God. So, when he is told to eat animals that are considered impure, he objects. Moreover, he would object if given the opportunity to resist stepping inside a Gentile’s home. How would we respond to God in such situations?
Now I do not think the point of the vision is for Peter to start eating food Jewish tradition considers unclean. The vision is really about engaging outsiders who would be considered unclean. The ultimate aim of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his household is for them to experience salvation through faith in Jesus Christ in fulfillment of Acts 1:8. Indeed, the apostolic community of which Peter is a central figure is to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Now what would happen to the missional movement of the early church if Peter refuses to go with Cornelius’ servants and share with Cornelius and his community? The missional movement would become a monument. But thankfully, Peter is growing. He is not becoming hard-hearted or closed-minded. Rather, he responds in obedience to the Lord.
How about us? How do we respond? What stands between God and us in being Jesus’ witnesses wherever God’s Spirit desires to send us? And what stands between us and those to whom we are called? Could it be a sense of our superior moral purity, and that we do not wish to be made unclean?
Just think: left to himself, Peter may find Cornelius unclean and unworthy of his consideration for several reasons. For one, Cornelius is a Gentile, not a Jew. Moreover, Cornelius is only a God-fearer, not a believer in Jesus. Furthermore, Cornelius is a Centurion, whose purpose is to rule on behalf of Rome over the nations, including Israel. So, there are many reasons why Peter might find Cornelius impure and refuse to engage him. I am grateful that Peter does not refuse God’s prompting and is open to change.
Given that Peter does engage Cornelius in response to God’s leading, he becomes a wonderful catalyst for Jesus’ missional kingdom. Peter also challenges us today not to write people off. Peter speaks prophetically into our culture of disgust. As Jonathan Haidt has argued in a TED Talk, we live in a society where we deem those who disagree with us as disgusting. In our culture of disgust, if you want to stay pure, you should discount and disregard those who disagree with you. While Cornelius is certainly on his way to becoming a follower of Jesus, he is not quite there yet. However, that does not stop Peter from getting our of his comfort zone, responding, and reaching out. Peter shows how open he is to God’s prompting to change by being open to this God-fearing, Roman centurion.
Who are we willing to engage for the sake of the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom? Who are we writing off as not worthy of our time or consideration? Let’s take our cue from Peter’s example. Let’s not write anyone off based on where they stand presently with Jesus. Let’s not allow one’s cultural or political background to stand in the way either. Like Peter, let’s be open to change for the sake of the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom, thereby ensuring we belong to Jesus’ missional movement, not a monument.