A chalk drawing of the earth with stick figure people holding hands around the perimeter. This reminds me of how grace can unite us.

The Spirit works mysteriously and majestically in Peter and Cornelius and shows us the beauty that unfolds when we catch up to the speed of grace. You can read the Scripture passage here. Acts 10.

Grace No Matter Your Starting Place

Our church in Northern California went through a period of growth over a handful of years. Much of that growth came from people becoming Christians through an introduction to Christianity course. This 11-week program offered a welcoming space for people to explore their faith. They shared meals, watched a teaching video, and discussed their discoveries. Toward the end of the course, we enjoyed a fun-filled weekend retreat for deeper learning and friendship building.

I lead the weekend. We had a great team. We stayed in beautiful Sonoma County for our retreat and enjoyed access to a nearby walking trail that meandered through the northern wetlands of the San Francisco Bay.

At one point I was walking with a course participant, Kyle. Life choices had pummeled him and he was searching for help and hope. This openness to a higher power led him to our church.

Our community was only 2% Christian, according to the census. So, for many people coming to our church, especially for those in the course, the concepts of grace, mercy, redemption, and Jesus’ teachings were completely new. It was inspiring to see them understand the message in real time.

As Kyle and I walked, he said, “Jason, can I talk to you about something?”

Sure.

“I like what I’ve learned. I’ve read many books. Jesus’ teachings make sense. I think they are true. I wonder, like, if you have time this weekend, and if you wanted, could we pray together, and could I become a Christian?”

Yes. Of course!

So that evening in Sonoma County as the sun drifted slowly over the Pacific coastal mountains and the tide came in, Kyle caught up to grace and became a Christian.

Catching Up to Crazy Fast Grace

This is what I’ve learned. Even before Kyle joined our course, God was already at work in him. His struggles could have made him angry and cold, but it softened his heart. He yearned for forgiveness. The Spirit stirred in him a desire for forgiveness and redemption.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, God is active in our brokenness. God is present in our barrenness. God picks us up when life lays us low. When it seems like the walls are closing in the Spirit makes us more open to God. Before the prayer, God was already there with grace.

God used our time that weekend in Sonoma County so we could all catch up to grace. 

God had worked in Cornelius, his household, and his friends, long before Peter explained Jesus’ story. The Lord awakened Cornelius’ desire to live beyond the physical; he prayed. God had awakened Cornelius’ conscience so he cares for others and lives impeccably. Peter only needed to show up and be himself.

This passage confronts us with something beautiful: a grace that meets us no matter who we are or where we are in our life or faith. It also confronts us with something very uncomfortable: the Church often struggles to keep pace with God’s boundless grace.

Never has the Church been ahead of God–never. The Bible calls the Church the Bride of Christ, but it might as well call us the bridle of Christ because the Church is notorious for trying to tame and reign in God. God moves so quickly and quickly is so uncomfortable for us.

The mission is too important to move slowly. God wants all people to know they are welcome, included, and belong. God wants all people to be free of the burden of guilt, shame, and sin. The angels scream in Advent, “This is good news for all people!” It then seems the Church comes along and says, “Well, let’s not get carried away here.”

The call to discipleship for the person and the Church is a call to discomfort. “Take up your memory foam pillow and follow me?” 🙂 The burden is a cross, the call is not comfort, and the point is love.

Faith is not required within our comfort zone. Growth and mission requires change and discomfort. Love itself requires change. If we want to love others well, we will get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This will help us catch up to the speed of grace.

How fast is grace? How fast is the Spirit? God is working in Cornelius’ heart and then, boom, works in Peter’s. God changes both of their lives in a matter of days.

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

Comfort zones are okay. We need routines. Our routines reduce stress and anxiety. A predictable structure in your day lessens the decision fatigue and uncertainty that contribute to your stress. Routines help you manage your time. They enhance your productivity and focus and promote healthy habits. Routines help you feel secure and creates a sense of security.

Routines can reduce creativity and flexibility, make us less adaptable, and hinder our growth. Rigid routines create blindspots and biases and our comfort zones become cages.

The passage teaches us that we can live within our routines but we also need to remain open for God to show us our blindspots so that we can grow and love as God loves.

Peter has a routine. He participates in regular prayer, keeping in step with his Jewish religious roots. He goes to the roof to pray, but God steps into his routine.

Peter learned at a young age there was a fundamental difference between people like him, Jews, and those who are Gentiles. Let me explain.

There are bowls, plates, and other things in the Temple consecrated and only used within the service of the Temple. If used for anything else, they become unclean or profaned and this renders them unfit, even dirty.

People applied this idea of clean and unclean beyond the Temple. They applied it to food, what you could and could not eat. They also divided people into categories based on clean and profane.

The gospels describe some devout people who lived like this. They set themselves apart and would not have table fellowship with people they judged as not as religiously “pure” as them. If you read the gospels, you see some devout people live like this.

They could not figure Jesus out and asked, “Why do you eat with those sinners!?” The word “sinner” is not how you and I would use that word. They used that word to describe Jews who were for one reason or another not religiously observant.

Jesus did not live in terms of us and them, clean and unclean. Jesus was pushing people to get out of their comfort zones.

Well, Jesus pushed Peter’s boundary in the gospels: we are going to embrace our Jewish siblings no matter if they worship like us or not and no matter if others might condemn them.  Yet, seven years go by and Peter believes he should not associate with Gentiles. You may be wondering, “How could Peter believe that?”

Peter amends his life and expands his thinking, which was revolutionary for this time, yet he still limits the love of God! Even though in the Great Commission Jesus said, “Go therefore to all nations/ethnic groups . . . ” Peter limits his fellowship to people within his group.

The passage shows the power and distortion of our comfort zones and how they can blind us and lull us into living limited lives. The passage also shows us how God insists on interrupting us and disturbing our peace so we can catch up to grace.

Grace and Obedience Collide

While praying, Peter falls into a trance and sees a vision of clean and unclean animals. He hears, “Peter, kill and eat.” This pushes Peter beyond his comfort zone and his core beliefs. This is how Peter has measured his faithfulness to God!

Yet, the message is clear: “Regardless of what you’ve learned and how you measure your faithfulness, you are not to call anyone unclean.”

Underscoring the importance of the message and the necessity of obedience, God tells Peter, “Go downstairs immediately and show hospitality to these strangers.”

Cornelius and Peter set the example for us–they understand what they are to do and they do it right away. Cornelius understands he needs to send for Peter and he sends for Peter. Peter understands he needs to go so he goes. They do the right thing right away.

Are you delaying obedience right now? Is there something in your life that you’ve been neglecting? Is there some obedience that is lagging? Are there ways you are measuring faithfulness that are actually hindering true, expansive love?

The Hard Call of the Good Gospel

Prayer opened the hearts of both Cornelius and Peter. It made them attuned to the Spirit.

God calls Peter to radically rethink his core conviction and how he evaluates his own faithfulness. God calls Cornelius to pledge faithfulness to the true king who is over all kings.

Grace comes in all shapes and sizes and is for all people, no matter who they are or where they are in their life or faith.

Peter’s vision conveyed, “You are not to distinguish between Jew and Gentiles. Welcome everyone.” He greets the men at the door. He shows them hospitality, which he would not have done 24 hours earlier! They eat and drink and stay overnight. The next day they travel together.

Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house and explained his experience, saying, “You know that it is unlawful (Mosaic law) for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentil, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

His eye-opening experience changed him. He embraced the truth of God’s love for all people and he embraced others and gained a larger community. Look what God has for us outside our comfort zone!

Cornelius shared his experience as well and invited Peter to tell him the story of Jesus.

Peter’s dialogue is powerful. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.”

Lest it escape us – this is where the call to daring discipleship increases for Cornelius. He’s a centurion, a Roman military leader with command of 100 soldiers. In the Roman world, the common saying was “Caesar is Lord,” which signified the emperor’s absolute power and authority. The phrase is connected to the deification and cult worship of the emperor.

When Cornelius expresses faith that Jesus Christ “is Lord” he says his allegiance is to the heavenly kingdom and not Rome. His moral compass is directed by Jesus and not Caesar. The hope of peace on earth and goodwill toward all is found in the one born in Bethlehem, who was anointed by God and is the sure sign of God’s forgiveness and redemption.

Cornelius confesses faith and is baptized and welcomed. What an amazing moment as the complexion and complexity of the Church changes. The perceived boundaries of love expand evermore!

What beautiful things can happen when the Church catches up to crazy fast grace.

Is the Church on the Roof and On Its Knees Today

As the statistics have pointed out for many years, Christianity is on the decline in America1, and this has led to many Chicken Little prophecies about the sky falling and the impending death of the institutional church. It is an uphill climb, but we are not to think God is not working. It is the Church who needs to catch up.

Without a commitment to gathering, mobilizing, unifying, and pursuing its mission, a church risks stagnation and decline.

God works within the structures of religion and religious practices while not being confined by those structures. Cornelius prayed. Peter prayed. God caused them to meet and the church increased. This was not passive. It took obedience, action, and habits.

Any church would do well to be like Peter, frequently on their knees! However, prayer means nothing without obedience.

A growing church thrives on participation! Here’s what that looks like:

  • Worship Life: just like Peter publicly proclaimed Christ, a growing church consists of individuals who are in the habit of regularly meeting together for prayer and worship and for the explanation of the story of Jesus.
  • Prayer Life: Remember how God met Cornelius and Peter through prayer? A thriving church will consist of individuals who are in the habit of praying, which provides soft, fertile ground for the Spirit.
  • Openness to God’s Will: Following God’s call isn’t always easy, but a thriving church will help its members do the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable.

A Story of God Still on the Move

Recently my friend told me a story that inspired me and it caused me to pray more earnestly for the people in my life. My friend is a yoga instructor. She is a devout Christian who prays, worships, and is part of a local church.

She had a new woman, maybe 30 years old, come into her yoga studio for a session. After the session, the newbie hung around, and said, “Hey, can I talk to you?” 

My friend said, “Sure. I’m happy to.” Thinking it was about future sessions or yoga positions.

The young woman said, “Recently I was meditating, and I’ve just been so spiritually hungry and searching for a higher meaning. I was meditating and I had this vision of Jesus in front of me. It was warm and welcoming and quite surprising. It pulled me close, and I felt so loved and safe.”

My friend said, “Wow. Tell me more.”

She said, “Afterward, I wanted to listen to Christian music, so I found some online. My boyfriend couldn’t stand it. It was like I was being pulled toward a bright light and he didn’t enjoy the light, so I don’t know what to do about that.”

I read a book in the bible called Mark. Have you read it? It’s unbelievable! It’s so good what Jesus did! Do you think it’s real? Like, Jesus, and prayer, and God, and forgiveness?

My friend said, “Yes. Yes, I do.” They talked about bible study, prayer, and having an ongoing conversation about faith development.

God is out there in the lives of so many people, just waiting to connect them to loving, open-minded Christians who will extend to them a gracious welcome.

God is busy doing the same things God has always been doing. There are people in your life right now who are praying. They are earnestly seeking God. They are by many definitions “good people,” but they need a spiritual family and they the teachings of Jesus, because he is the clearest definition of redemption and forgiveness from God.

It seems to me that the question is will the Church take a journey with God from our comfort to our knees and then our knees to open the door to the mission field waiting outside?

  1. How Us Religious Composition Has Changed. The Rise of the Religious Unaffiliated. The Decline Continues. ↩︎

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