Everyone Welcomed?

One of the great iconic figures in American history is Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). He had a brilliant military mind and was respected by friends and foe. When the Civil War ended, he wanted to live on his own farm. That was impossible because of his celebrity status. Instead, he became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He served in that position until his death in 1870 at the age of sixty-three.

Near the end of his life, Lee was in Washington DC. Those were religious times in America, so on Sunday morning, he decided to go to church. It was Communion Sunday, so Lee went forward for the elements. As he was being served, a black man knelt beside him. Some in the congregation were shocked. An onlooker said to Lee later, “How could you do that?” Lee replied, “My friend, all ground is level beneath the cross.” If you can understand that simple story, then you can understand this blog.

We are in the tenth chapter of Acts, verses twenty-three through forty-eight. According to the text, Peter arrived in Caesarea and Cornelius was waiting for him. Peter had rock star status. When the two men meet, Cornelius is so blown away that he falls at Peter’s feet. Peter thinks this is ridiculous and reminds him that he (Peter) is only a man. Two thousand years later it is hard for us to see, but they were not just two men. There was a Jewish man and a Gentile man. That was not a big deal to our world, but to their world it was shocking. The Old Testament law did not permit Jews and Gentiles to associate. Peter reminds them of this law in 10:28a. That is why the scripture speaks to our generation. If it is true in the previous story about food, then it is true of people in this story. Nothing that God creates is impure or unclean (10:28b). By the end of the reading, both men had told their stories. Cornelius told about the angel’s message (10:30-33). Peter told them about Jesus (10:34-43). God must have been pleased with those words because the Holy Spirit arrived, and everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, were filled. Peter knew it all along. God does not show favoritism (10:34). He ordered these new spirit-filled Gentile believers to be baptized with water in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is a fun story to preach, and it is an easy story to understand. You do not need an advanced degree to get the point. Through the eyes of God, everyone is the same internally. Everyone needs forgiveness and salvation. Everyone needs hope for a better future. Everyone needs God. However, that does not mean that through the eyes of God everyone is the same externally. All you need to do is look around. Look at all the different kinds of people there are in the world. There are various races. There are various generations. There are many nations, so there are numerous political views. There are the extremely wealthy and the homeless. There are males and females. There are heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexual. There are the limited, and people who are whole. When you mix all those things together, one thing is perfectly clear. There are as many kinds of people as there are people. The church must be diverse to speak to our diverse world. The problem is the church has always struggled with diversity.

History tells us Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) read the Gospels seriously during his student days. At one point he even considered becoming a Christian. He believed the teachings of Jesus were the answer to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So, one Sunday, he decided to attend a Christian service and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with “his own people”. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” That usher’s prejudice not only betrayed Jesus, but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior.

Maybe that story is the story of the church today? Maybe the thing that you love about your church is the same thing that frustrates God about your church. Is everyone in your church basically the same? Remember, God is always looking for a diverse church to minister to our diverse world. In the text, the Gentiles added some diversity. How diverse is your church?

Let me ask you these four questions. There are more, but these will clarify the point.

How many races are represented at your church on an average Sunday? There is a good chance your answer is one. That may be fine with you, but it is not fine with God. The Almighty is color blind when it comes to race and is looking for diversity. God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

How many generations are represented at your church on an average Sunday? In many mainline Protestant congregations, the answer is one. If that is your answer, then your church has a problem. Through the eyes of God, the higher the number, the better. The church was never meant to be a senior citizens center or a childcare facility. All generations are needed. The church is the last place where all the generations mix. God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

How many political views are represented at your church on an average Sunday? Church is a place to worship God, not hold a political rally. However, church members are part of society, and everyone should have a political opinion. Does everyone in your church hold the same political views? I hope not because God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

How many theological viewpoints are represented at your church on an average Sunday? During my time in the United Methodist Church, clergy were judged my what seminary they attended. The liberals went to one seminary and the conservative another. There was theological tension between the two. God must have enjoyed that tension because God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world.

It goes directly back to the scripture lesson for today. In the early church, everyone was the same, Jewish. Then came this story. Peter had the audacity to bring in not just a new person, but a new kind of person, a Gentile. That was a good thing because the world was filled with Gentiles. The church is filled with Gentiles, non-Jews! The church must be diverse to speak to our diverse world.

Can I be honest with you? Diversity has never bothered me. Diversity intrigues me. Recently, I was in Istanbul. It is the largest city in the world outside of China, approximately fifteen million people. I found it fascinating because it was so diverse. During my time in the ministry, I could work with anyone because I went to high school with everyone. I didn’t think much about it then, but I do now.

I am a proud 1975 graduate of Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio. Every portion of society was represented at that school. There were students with white faces and students with black faces. There were students who came from white-collar homes and students who came from blue-collar homes. There were students who spoke only English. There were students who spoke Spanish. There were students who spoke Greek. There were students who were being raised by their parents and students who were being raised by their grandma. There were students who came from the richest part of the community, and students who came from the poorest parts of the community. There were preacher’s kids and children whose father or mother was incarcerated. There were students who had a bright future, and students who had no future. At Warren Harding in the mid-1970s, every part of society was represented, and no one really cared. We were used to the diversity. It was expected. We laughed at schools where everyone was the same. I got a wonderful education in Warren, but the most valuable thing I learned was how to tolerate others. When I get to heaven, I am going to thank my parents for not sending me to a school where everyone was not the same. The diversity I experienced as a teenager made me a better adult. I was prepared for this diverse world.

Years ago, I was celebrating my birthday. It is the custom in my home that the birthday person gets to pick the restaurant for the celebration. Since it was my birthday, I got to pick. I usually shy away from chain restaurants and pick a restaurant that is locally owned. That year, I decided we were all going to Charlie Staples, on W. Rayen Avenue in Youngstown, Ohio. I love those ribs because, as the commercial says, they are cooked with a “cup of love”. As the day got closer, I got more excited. I could taste those ribs. When the day came, I was the first one in the car. When my daughters got in the car they asked me, “Dad, where did you pick to have dinner?” I said, “Charlie Staples; their food is prepared with “a cup of love.” As we drove to the restaurant, the closer we got, the quieter the back seat grew. As I left my white world of the suburbs and drove into the city, they weren’t talking at all. Then a small voice in the back seat asked, “We are in the hood! Are we going to die?” Those words cut me to the heart. I had deprived my children of something my parents gave me. My children had never experienced diversity. They were raised in an all-white community. They went to an all-white school. In their school everyone spoke one language, English. We went to an all-white church and all their friends were white. All their extra-curricular activities were filled with white faces. The only thing they knew was white. The only thing they knew about the non-white world was what they saw on television or heard from racist white people. As I ate my birthday meal, I was ashamed. I felt like a failure as a parent.

I always knew they should have gone to Harding. I learned the most valuable things in life at Harding. They were not ready to enter a society where people were different from them. I am glad they grew up to be wonderful, open-minded women despite me. As adults, they are comfortable with diversity. Can I ask you a question? How comfortable are you with diversity? Are you going to spend the rest of your life surrounded by people who are just like you? Are you brave enough to experience something new? God needs a diverse church to speak to our diverse world. Never forget the old American proverb, “variety is the spice of life.” How welcoming is your church?