The Struggle With Being Uncomfortable
Last week we began a series looking into the struggle the early church had as new people were added into the body of believers. I shared with you from Acts 9 that the early church wanted to grow but only if it meant that people they approved of were allowed to join. My intention through this series is to be honest with the scriptures and some of the fears that I have had in my life. I find a great deal of peace when I realize that I am not alone and that we are not the first to ever struggle with the growth of the church.
I believe that we all want the church to grow because it is God’s plan but if we are totally honest with one another we will also have to admit that there are some people that we might want to keep out. In Acts 9 we saw that the church struggled with people like Saul of Tarsus who they were afraid of. It is that type of struggle that often times leaves us in what the Bible calls the “Ought a Gap”.
The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 5:12: For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
You see in my Christian life there is often a difference between where I am and where I ought to be. I have been a Christian for 32 years, and honestly I ought to be farther along than I am. Maybe you understand the feeling because you ought to be farther along than you are as well.
If I were to ask you if you want the church to grow, I am sure that every one here would agree. I know that we want the Lord’s Church to grow because we believe what Jesus taught and we understand that Jesus taught that His church would grow.
In Matthew 13 we read two parables that describe the growth process of a healthy church. The first parable is found in verses 31-32: Another parable He put forth to them, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.
The Church started off as a very small seed; as a matter of fact it started off with 11 Apostles and a small group of disciples of about 120 in an upper room waiting on the gift of the Holy Spirit. But a few days later we see the Church exploding. According to Acts 2 during the first sermon, about 3,000 were added but the church was still a small seed. Over the weeks and months it still felt the explosion of growth that was occurring but as the membership reached 10,000 and then 20,000 the church was still a small seed.
I have often heard preachers and Elders talk about how wonderful it would be if the church could see that type of growth today. How wonderful it would be if revival would sweep through the land and we could tell others about how God’s kingdom has grown by 3,000 brothers and sisters in a day. But then they always seem to smile and slip back into reality and say yes but it will never happen.
It is in these moments of reality we talk about 100 reasons why the church will never see first century type of growth again. But I believe that Jesus is teaching that it can and will if there are a few that are willing to work for it.
I believe that’s why Jesus told the next parable, which is found in Matthew 13:33: Another parable He spoke to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened"
In this parable a small lump of dough, about the size of a golf ball, is left on the hearth overnight while the yeast grows. In the morning you can take that lump and you can mix it with about ½ bushel of flour and this lump will cause it to rise.
What will it take for this town to see revival? What will it take for this community to experience 1st century type of growth? A small lump of leaven. If this one church will be about our Fathers business, Jesus teaches that we can have a huge impact on our town.
But growth is scary and that’s why I am in the “Ought a Gap”. I ought to show the grace that God has shown me to others but then there is no telling who will walk in that back door. And if we were to be honest there are some people out there that I don’t really want in here.
Last time we looked at the struggles of the first century church dealing with someone they were afraid of. Today I want to look at how the first century church dealt with those who were not the same culture. Because they wanted the church to grow but they didn’t really want someone who was from a different culture.
In Acts 10 we see Peter is on the roof praying, Let’s start in verse 10: And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat!" But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." And again a voice came to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
I love Peter’s self righteousness, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Peter was so interested in being right he missed the point.
It takes two more visions, a trip to Joppa, and hearing of Cornelius’ vision before Peter finally understands and makes this statement in verses 34-35: I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him.
Now that’s a big step for someone who was taught his whole life that he was God’s chosen and the Gentiles were dogs at best. It is a harsh reality that in God’s eyes we are all loved equally.
So we end Chapter 10 with the baptism of Cornelius and his household but now Peter had to go back to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, he was not greeted with open arms. As a matter of fact I can just see them sitting on the front porch waiting for Peter’s return. Picking up in verse 11:1: Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them."
Can you just see the whole episode unfold? Peter is coming back to Jerusalem feeling pretty good about what happened and he was met with questions.
The chapter continues with Peter explaining the events of the past few days and in verse 18 you see that they accepted and even praised God that He would even save the Gentiles. It looks like the problem has been solved. And then we get to verse 19: So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.
After Peter explained what God desired, the early Church seemed to be excited that God had opened the doors to the Gentiles. But that excitement seemed to die down as life got back to normal. It was ok for the church to grow and even to include Gentiles, as long as it didn’t grow here.
Now I was raised in the southeast culture of our country. While the Civil rights was debated in other parts of the country, it was fought tooth and nail in the cities and towns where I have grown up and lived. I can honestly say that I have only met one man in my life that said God did not love and would not be willing to save a non-white person but sadly I have met many who are reluctant to accept God's will in this matter.
It might be a bit healthy for all of us to admit it that we struggle a bit with folks who are a different color than us. I try to be pretty open, but a few weeks ago in our Men’s Bible Study Artie asked us a great question that made me uncomfortable. He asked, imagine that on a Sunday morning a young black man, maybe a senior from the high school with sagging pants, tattoos on his arms and neck, and long dreadlocks pulled back in a red bandana were to walk in the front door. What would your first reaction be? Before we could answer Artie asked, Now what would you do if another young black man came in wearing a suit, no tattoos, and short cut hair? Who would you accept and who are you afraid of?
Now before you say that’s not fair, I believe that it’s a question that we need to at least think about, and be honest about. While many of us would declare that there is not a raciest bone in our bodies; we might want to check that out. I don’t mean that we are members of a hate group, but when we make distinctions based on the color of someone’s skin, that’s a little bit raciest.
When many of us talk about race we immediately think about white verse black verse latino verse asian, but there are other ways we make distinctions about people, like the part of the world they grew up in.
When we worked with the Berry’s Chapel congregation one of the four elders was a foreigner. Dennis and his wife Emma were both born in Michigan and when the Saturn plant opened in Spring Hill his family were transplanted into the south. By the time we got there, there was this running joke that Dennis was the Yankee Elder. There were even times when a discussion came up in the elders meetings and if Dennis had a different point of view or idea someone said, well of course, you’re the Yankee Elder. And everyone laughed, well not everyone. One night in a minister and elder Bible study Emma confessed that she hated being referred to as the yankee elder, it made them feel less than and not wanted.
Now do you think that the congregation didn’t love Dennis and Emma? They were an essential part of that church. They were involved in the lives of the members, if a new family showed up they were the first to meet them. When Dennis retired from Saturn he started to work with the church full time. You see sometimes we make distinctions about people not on the color of their skin, but from the part of the world they grew up in. We might say it’s just harmless fun, but there is a bit of truth in every joke.
And then other times we make distinctions about people who are in a different economic class. When neighborhoods begin to change churches are some of the first to get out. It is very hard for some people to put their arm around a smelly, dirty, little child and show them the love of Christ. Instead of compassion we wonder why didn’t they take a bath, or brush their teeth, or comb their hair. We wonder why they can’t sit quietly during worship and see them as more of a distraction than a blessing.
But the opposite side of the coin is true as well, when we are surrounded by people who have opulence we tend to struggle with the things that we don’t have. I have a good friend whose family built a multi million dollar company. While they came from nothing, they were able to build an empire and they made folks nervous. They scare folks at church because they are seen as dollar signs instead of souls.
In the last 3 years there have been multiple studies about the resegregation of America. It seems since the desegregation laws were lifted back in 1990 schools and communities have re-segregated. We have this innate desire to be with people who look, talk, act, and think like we do. So when given the choice we tend to gravitate to folks who make us comfortable, and that’s true in our churches as well.
In 1963 Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. was speaking at Western Michigan University. During a question and answer session, the University President asked Dr. King if integration could be started and realized in the Christian church?
Dr. King responded, We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing … we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this.
Dr. King's statement still rings true. We like to attend a church that is comfortable with people that make me comfortable, kind of like an old sweatshirt. The problem with that is that Jesus did not teach that idea, As a matter of fact Jesus knows that underneath we are all the same, and we all need a Savior. That’s why He said in Luke 9:23-24, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it"
I believe that we want to the church to grow, but the question is do we want any more people?
Let me remind you what type of people God wants in His church.
All who are burdened with sin.
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" Matthew 11 :28-30
All who want to be saved.
And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely Revelation 22: 17
Every of color, social, and economic class.
"In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. Acts 10:34 or as we teach our children Red, and Yellow, Black, and White. They are precious in His sight. The question we must ask ourselves is “Are we willing to cooperate with Him?”