– The message of Jesus is meant for all people. God calls us in love to intentionally reach out to those who are different from us, even when it is uncomfortable.

It is not easy to surrender all to God. It is not easy to follow the call of God to be intentionally outside our comfort zone. It is not easy to share God’s love and our lives with those who are very different than us. It is hard enough for us to share God’s love and our lives with our own people! Life often seems hard enough just as it is. For God to call us to be God’s messengers outside of our comfort zone, I for one think, “wow, that sounds like a tall order.” After all, just trying to live a holy life WITHIN my comfort zone is already hard!

But that is exactly what God asks of us. There is a method to God’s madness… all of our effort is worth it. Everything that God asks us to do is worth it. We believe that God has good plans for us and for the world. The problem is… children often do not understand why their parents tell them to do hard things for their own good. We, like children, often look to our heavenly father and do not understand why HE tells us to do hard things for our own good… Sometimes telling us is not enough. Sometimes, God has to intervene in our lives directly to get us to do the hard things that we don’t want to do. We might not even know WHAT to do until God tells us.

That is exactly what happened in the early church in the book of Acts as we read it this morning. God called Peter and some other Christians to go to the Roman neighborhood and meet with some Romans. This was outside the comfort zone of Peter and his traveling companions. But God had an important lesson to teach the newly formed church of Jesus Christ. That lesson is that God is radically inclusive, and does not favor any people group.

I have been preaching through the book of ACTS this summer, trying to help us discover how we can learn from the early church. My hope is that we will be able to mold our own congregation to reflect some of the marks of the early church so that we might be able to help our congregation to thrive. I am hoping we can learn ways to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our congregation to help us become the people we were born to be. So far, we have examined how the early church was empowered by the Holy Spirit. We talked about how the early church had a sense of awe and generous hearts. We talked about how the early church met together daily in the Temple and in homes to worship God. And we talked about how the church was constantly changing and evolving as it grew.

Today we will see how the church became multicultural and how God encouraged the church to become united, even though the members of the church resisted. Last week, we talked about how God continued to grow the church even after the believers in Jesus were forced out of Jerusalem into the countryside by a persecution from the Scribes and Pharisees. In our scripture Today, God causes the church to grow by calling Peter and some others to officially welcome all people into the radically inclusive family of God.

Even though the early church was an amazing place where people shared wealth and spoke in different languages, it still had trouble reaching out and including people who were different than the first believers. Thus far, the early church consisted almost completely of Jews. These Jews thought that God chose Jews to be God’s special people, to the exclusion of all the other cultural groups in the world. Even after Jesus’s ministry on earth, where he ministered to Samaritans and gentiles as well as Jews. The Jews still didn’t understand.

It literally took an act of God for Peter to realize that God has no favorites, God is no respecter of persons. Jesus came and died to save all people, and by believing in Jesus, we get to begin that salvation now, in this life. Peter did not realize this, so God, through the power of the Holy Spirit came to Peter in a dream. In his dream, God told Peter to break the laws of Moses that required Jews not to eat certain animals that were called “unclean” animals like pigs. God said “do not call unclean what I have made clean.” God also came to Cornelius the Roman Centurion and told him to send for Paul. This is where our passage today picks up.

And this event, empowered by the Holy Spirit, caused Peter and some other Jewish believers to go call on Cornelius, a Roman. Even after the Holy Spirit tells Peter to go, Peter is not so sure. When he arrives, Peter informs the Romans that it is against Jewish law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, but God called, and so here I am! When Peter hears about the vision that God gave Cornelius, he FINALLY understands that God has not favorites. As Peter says, “God accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” But the other believers with him might not have been so convinced. In fact, as Peter is preaching to the Romans, the Spirit comes upon the Romans and they were praising God and speaking other languages (probably Aramaic which the Romans probably didn’t know). Then the other Jewish Christians with Peter were astounded, and allow the Romans to be baptized, even though they were not Jews. This event was a big enough deal in the early church that Peter stayed with the Roman Christians in Cornelius’s house for a few days.

What an amazing turn of events. Now, thousands of years later, most Christians are not Jews. But we still like to keep to our own racial, social, and economic groups, don’t we? Apparently, Martin Luther King said that Sunday Morning is the most segregated time in America. Even though we are working toward racial reconciliation, there are still churches that we typically think of as Black churches. There are also churches that we think of as white churches. There are other churches separated by language, race, ethnicity, denomination, and worship style. Just down the street in Turtle Creek there is a Chinese Alliance Church. In fact, there are more different specialized churches today than ever before in our history. This does not seem to be the same as the early church. Quite the opposite even. The church was designed by God to be a local phenomenon. The people of God in an area coming together to worship and share life. It does not need to be split based on ethnicity. That is why God got Peter and Cornelius together.

We can learn a lot from how God directed the early Jewish Christians to preach and reach out to all the different ethnic groups in the world. In fact, we can learn three things. The first thing we can learn from the early church is that God wants us to reach out to those who are different than us in our area. This is a fact. And it can really bring life into a congregation. God showed us this by directing Peter, a Jew, and Cornelius, a Roman, to get together.

The second thing that we can learn from the early church is that when we reach out to people that are different than us there will be tension. I’d imagine that there was a degree of tension in the room when Peter and the Jews with him were hanging out with Cornelius and his friends and family. If there were no tension, there would have been no need for Peter to explain that even though it was forbidden for Jews to hang out with Romans, God showed Peter that he should call no person unclean. I think it is important to remember this because sometimes, at first, integration of different people is tense.

That brings us to the third thing that we can learn from the early church: that is, God wants us to overcome the tension of diversity and become a diverse congregation of believers. This is the key to worshipping God in the power of the Holy Spirit, because, if we can’t handle the tension until we learn to feel normal again, the whole process will not work.

Ministering to people that are different, and including them in the congregation is not easy. We will see as we read further into Acts that the church had to revisit this whole Jew and Gentile Christian issue. But through the spirit’s leading, we have the power to work actively against division of people into similar groups, and try to gather with all the believers in our geography, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic level, or worship style. If we pray for God to help us minister to different kinds of people, I believe God will give us opportunities to do just that.

You may be wondering, “what could this look like for Hillcrest?” Let us talk about that for a minute before I wrap up the sermon. One example of what we could do would be for us to purposely go to places where there are people that are different than us, with the express purpose of making relationships with different people. Perhaps you could visit the hardware store in Turtle Creek instead of going to Home Depot or Lowes. Perhaps you could go visit an ethnic food restaurant in the area instead of hitting up your normal place to eat out.

Another example of purposely trying to minister to people different than you would be to intentionally make friends that are different than yourself. Some examples of this might be people in different age groups or life stages than yourself. People of different economic levels, people who (GASP!) aren’t Steelers fans. It is not just making friends of different ethnic groups.

I am going to be bold and say that almost all “life-changing” ministry comes through friendship. I don’t mean to say that buying grain for starving people in another country doesn’t change lives. I mean the kind of ministry that causes people to connect deeply with Jesus in their hearts. That kind of ministry only comes through personal relationship. When we witness to Christ with our lives and words to those who are in relationship with us, that is when ministry happens. And people gather together in congregations based on relationships. Most people I know go to the church they go to because a friend asked them to come. So it follows that if you want to diversify your congregation, diversify your friendships. I am not talking about being disingenuous. I mean truly seeking real friends that are different than you and a little outside your comfort zone. Friendship is the key. I think that is why Peter stayed with Cornelius for a few days after they were baptized… to cement their new relationship in Christ.

In closing, Peter and Cornelius show us how God plans to reach the world – through us. We are His messengers. From the early church we learn that God wants us to reach out to people that are different than us in our area. We also learn that when we reach out to people that are different than us there will be tension. But in addition we learn that God wants us to overcome the tension of diversity and become a diverse congregation of believers. Perhaps being radically inclusive will be one way in which we can energize our congregation through the power of the Holy Spirit.   AMEN.