A couple of weeks ago, as is my ritual most Sunday mornings, I rolled out of bed and wandered off to Watershed. The community is incredible and I really appreciate the teaching and general feel of the place. It’s more about relationship than religion. I always expect to leave Watershed feeling validated in my “wide-open” approach to questions of faith, but always challenged enough that it isn’t just reinforcing anything “wrong.”
On the particular day, Matt O’Neil was speaking during the “Blind Spot” series – and focused on the blind spot of “not learning.” When we started, I really had no idea where that was going – but I stayed tuned in.
It turned out to be incredible.
He began by talking about Cornelius: a Roman Soldier, a devout gentile who had conversations with God. To those of us who believe that there is a God who wants to have conversation with us, this seems completely reasonable. To a first century Jew like Peter, a ROMAN SOLDIER GENTILE is exactly the type of person that God would NOT want to talk to. It was completely earth shattering that this would be the case.
At about the same time that we see Cornelius get introduced, we flash to Peter who has a vision of God telling him to eat non-kosher food that good jews had been told for thousands of years to avoid – to never eat under threat of random penalties. Instead God says this:
What I have cleansed, you must not call “unclean”
This was earth-shattering.
Even more earth-shattering…. Cornelius wants to be baptized. As unclean of a man as a gentile, Roman soldier was, Cornelius felt as though it was right for him to be baptized.
This seemingly innocent “conversion” is a turning point in annuls of history and most of us miss it’s significance. What God has made clean, we must NOT call “unclean.”
The question was asked of Peter: “Is there any reason why this man should NOT be baptized?”
We haphazardly declare that people of various faiths, or histories, or criminal backgrounds, or sexual orientations are not clean, are not “ready” for God because they’re hanging on to some “unclean” aspect of their lives. But these are based on OUR standards. WE call them unclean. God calls them beloved and perfect children.
God asked us to unlearn the rule book several times. Jesus said to love him and love each other and we’re covered. But we in our modern mindsets we are driven by data and rules and a concreteness that form the antitheses of loving relationships. In trying to follow the first of the two updated rules that Jesus gave us, we constantly break the second.
Peter was challenged by God to unlearn the rule book. He did it. Now we reinforce it. We have communities of people that seem to thrive on rules because of the tangibility that it provides. The more we follow the rules, the more we think we can gauge the likelihood of us escaping hell. We monitor ourselves relative to each other in much the same way that when running from a bear, we don’t need to be the fastest, we just can’t be the slowest.
Nothing that God has made is unclean.
I have written in my Moleskine that “This is THE profound truth that so many of us in the church miss.” What I found to be completely telling after letting this profound truth sink in was the thought that God did not make the church.
Man made the church.
The church can therefore be unclean. It almost certainly is.
We treat so many people as if they’re second class members of God’s family because they don’t have it together according to our standards.
We made the standards.
It may be that I’m a heretic. I’ve asked myself several times in the past two weeks how it can be that with the rise and fall of so many devoted church communities we have missed this profound truth? Perhaps I’m spewing theological garbage.
But I can’t resolve that the Jesus who befriended criminals on the cross, ate with tax collectors, willingly touched all kinds of lawfully “unclean” folks without any preconceptions or further requirements, would want us to do anything different than to love.
Love. Plain. Simple.
It so easy to see the rules and think that God has burdened us with following them rather than to live in the freedom that He has granted to us from worrying about them.
Our love validates. Our love embraces. Our love is all-encompassing.
Why? Why on earth would God do this? Why would he love criminals and cheaters and the corrupt and the greedy? Why does this make sense to Him?
In the final exclamation point on this incredible message, Matt finished his prayer with thanks to God that “There is NO why.”
His love simply is.