What's the culture that causes you the greatest personal difficulty?
When you see someone from this culture, or even think about it, you feel something negative. Your feelings may range from revulsion to sympathy, from distaste to fear. So which culture is it?
It could be a person from the 'biker' culture. All you see are big, scruffy, intimidating brutes astride noisy choppers.
Maybe its people from a Muslim culture. All you see are people committed to hate your culture.
You may have chosen people from a culture in your city. Maybe it's a culture in which people beg and live on the streets. Maybe it's a culture of flamboyant, high-rolling business types.
It doesn't matter the culture you chose. Of the examples given I know followers of Jesus who are reaching into each of those cultures and connecting with people hungry and receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe that reaching out in this way brings us into that place of healthy tension between faithfulness to our God and relevance to each of those cultures.
Peter's great difficulty
What was the culture that probably gave Peter the greatest personal difficulty?
He was born and raised in the culture of a 1st century Palestinian Jew. In that culture almost everyone shared a common ethnicity, language, history, and religion. Their practices included the circumcision of males, keeping Sabbath, and dietary laws (i.e., what was kosher or clean, and what wasn't).
Those who were not part of their culture were goyim – Gentiles. Gentiles were avoided; they were enemies; they were against the Jewish culture; they were like big, scruffy, intimidating brutes.
For Peter, I imagine his greatest personal difficulty would be reaching out to Gentiles. But we could make it worse. What about a Gentile who was an officer in the Roman army occupying his beloved Israel – an invasive culture that even renamed a Jewish city 'Caesarea' after its emperor?
Here's how Acts 10 opens: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. I think we've just been introduced to a person from the culture that caused Peter the 'greatest personal difficulty'.
Peter is about to learn a big lesson.
Take a few moments to read and reacquaint yourself with Acts 10:1-11:18.
Although this narrative is loaded with significance on many fronts, I want to focus on Peter's internal movements through this 'story'. Concentrate on what is happening in Peter's heart and mind within the complex matrix of what is going on around him – history, tradition, culture, biblical text and community, manifestations of the Lord and the Spirit.
The record begins with an angel of God giving a message to Cornelius, a Gentile. In response, Cornelius sends servants to locate and return with the apostle Peter. The focus shifts to Peter in Joppa, a city linked with the Old Testament prophet Jonah, the reluctant Israelite prophet to Gentiles. Peter is hungry as he prays in surroundings saturated with the stench of a tannery. He has a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven accompanied by a voice commanding him to kill and eat. Peter responds from the convictions of his religious tradition: Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean (10:13-15).
Surely not, Lord! is a contradiction – "no" is something one shouldn't say to one's "Lord." And yet Peter has done this before (see Matthew 16:22). It is something Peter says because what he is hearing contradicts what he believes. The Lord's command to kill and eat unclean animals is contrary to Peter's engrained dietary practices – cultural traditions drawn from the Old Testament.
While Cornelius' servants pull up at the tannery, Peter is wondering about the meaning of the vision (10:17). The word translated wondering may also be rendered perplexed or confused. A tension has arisen that disorients Peter: his life-long religious and cultural consciousness seemingly contradicted by a commanding voice that Peter identifies as the Lord. How could this tension exist? What did it mean?
Life does not conveniently pause, for while Peter was still thinking about the vision (10:19) the Spirit gives him additional information about Cornelius’ men and a command: do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them (10:20). The words translated do not hesitate carry the sense of not evaluating or disputing – in other words, "just do it!"
There are times when we have to act in sensitive obedience even though we have not intellectually unraveled the purpose or meaning of what the Lord commands. At such times it is enough to "just do it!"
Peter practices a holy curiosity. He asks questions: Why have you come? and May I ask why you sent for me? (10:21, 29). The responses give him insights into how God is working in the wider way. Peter is beginning to see how God is drawing him toward His mission to reach His world.
As Peter listens, wonders, thinks, asks, and (most importantly) obeys, his disorientation evolves into reorientation with a larger, richer grasp of God and His mission.
At one point Peter says God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean (10:28). He has made the link between the vision and these Gentiles. After hearing Cornelius's response, Peter's reorientation takes firmer shape: I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (10:34-35).
Sometime later, Peter is criticized for his actions (11:1-3). Peter's explanation of his actions confirms he has experienced a complete reorientation from an insular 1st century Jewish exclusivist's view of the world to an expansive Christ-honoring inclusivist's view (11:4-17). To have 'stayed put' in his view of Gentiles would have been to oppose God (11:17). No culture – no one – is outside God's love and His invitation to His kingdom through Jesus Christ.
In this new orientation Peter proclaims the gospel. The reach of the gospel leaps the ethno-religious cultural barrier of the ‘circumcised’. The Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles. The tension Peter was experiencing begins to evaporate as it takes on a new and more expansive shape. This is confirmed as the reorientation aligns perfectly with the Spirit's actions in Acts 2 (10:47) and the Lord's words in Acts 1 (11:16).
'My' great difficulty
Earlier, you identified people from a culture that is your 'greatest personal difficulty'. Who knows, you or I may soon be brought face-to-face with a person from that culture. How will we react?
Like Peter, we can expect to enter a place of some disorientation, perplexity, and confusion. We may choose to explain away the confusion and 'stay put' in our little world. We can do this in a number of ways. For instance, we may conclude "those street people choose to live that way, and there's a social welfare system, and it's not my problem." Or, we may think "those Muslim people hate me so I'm not going to reach out to them."
But what if you and I, like Peter, choose to embrace the disorientation, perplexity, and confusion as something from God to lead us closer to Him and His mission in this world?
As a result we begin to observe and listen to our experiences more closely. We see a person standing at a corner, or meet a new neighbor, or work with a colleague. We begin wondering and thinking about our connections with others and our life-experiences within the matrix of Scripture, prayer, Christian community, and culture.
We receive an invitation or a command to go with this person. We practice holy curiosity – seeking to hear and understand (e.g., "How did you come to be living like this?"; "What is the reason you dislike western culture?"). We begin to understand what God has shown us and we have an 'aha' moment when we can say, I now realize ... .
So, like Peter, we grow from smallness and disorientation toward God's mission and reorientation.
What do you think?
Until next Friday,
John, a brother
[i] I've put the text of the New International Version (1984) in italics for ease of identification from this point on.
Helpful resources provided to 'living theology' subscribers.YES!