Embracing the Newcomer

Sermon Series: Challenges for the Growing Church

Embracing the Newcomer

May 26, 2005 - May 29, 2005

Acts 10

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Harry Heintz

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There are moments of insight that change everything.  History is marked by them.  I’m not thinking of inventions, but insights.  We don’t invent these insights as much as we recognize them.  Once we recognize them, our thinking begins changing.  When our thinking is changing, our behavior begins changing.  When our behavior is changing, our world begins changing.  We all know some of these.  That fire has power.  That the earth is round and revolves around the sun.  That splitting the atom releases energy.  That bell bottoms will always come back into style.  That people yearn to be free.  That gravity pulls everything.  Take gravity.  How do we know that Isaac Newton was the first person to recognize what we call gravity?  Did he recognize gravity, as cartoons have it, because an apple fell on his unsuspecting head in 1665?  Did others have that flash of insight first, but never get the credit that
Newton
does?  Maybe someone in
China
had a pear fall on her head and she figured it out, but in our Western mindset, we didn’t even know it.

 

Here is an insight that God gave to Peter that changed everything.  “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 he sent to the people of
Israel
, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.”  (Acts 10:34-36.)  That is a stunning insight.  It is not too much to say that it changed everything for the young Church.  There were already clues everywhere, but this strange vision, and this conversation between an insider named Peter, who had once been something of an outsider, and an outsider named Cornelius, and the conversion of Cornelius and his welcome into the Church, changed everything.  The wall between Jews and Gentiles had been building for centuries.  There was distrust and animosity.  As classes of people, they didn’t like each other.  They didn’t want to live in the same neighborhoods, have their children attend the same schools, and certainly not sit in the same pews.  Add to that that Cornelius was a Roman soldier, which meant he represented armed oppression from a foreign power, and only a new insight could bring Peter and Cornelius together as brothers.

 

The first section of the Bible makes clear God’s design from the beginning.  When God calls Abraham and Sarah to start the faith family, God gives this promise to them,

“. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Genesis 12:3.)  From the beginning of the covenant nation, the call is to bless all nations.  We remember that reluctant prophet Jonah.  When God calls him to go the great city of
Nineveh
to share God’s Good News, Jonah, knowing that
Nineveh
was a foreign city and a pagan city, goes the other direction.  When finally he obeys God,
Nineveh
repents and experiences God’s grace, while Jonah sulks in self-pity rather than welcome the newcomers God is welcoming.  His prophetic ministry was of no profit to him.  To the prophet Isaiah God says these words,  “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant--these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  (Isaiah 56:6-7.)


We’re all related.  It took two parents to conceive each of us and four to conceive them.  If we trace back just eight generations, to
Lincoln
’s day, 256 people are in our direct lineage.  Go back to Shakespeare’s day and we are directly descended from over 16,000 people.  Look back 64 generations, to the time of the New Testament, and each of us has a thousand trillion ancestors.  And that’s more than all the people that have ever lived!  Which means we’re all related.  Turn and greet your cousin.  The Apostle Paul understood this when he addressed a crowd of philosophers in Athens: “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”  (Acts 17:26-27.)  Ultimately we share the same set of parents, Adam and Eve.  We all proceed from one creator, the God of the universe.

 

Jesus prepared them for this.  When Jesus was a baby and old Jew named Simeon took him into his arms and said, “ . . .for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:30-32.)  While his three-year ministry was localized to one small nation and its inhabitants, Jesus welcomed all kinds of people from every part of society.  He prepared his disciples to reach out to the world.  Just before he ascended he told them that they would be his witnesses in
Jerusalem
,
Judea,
Samaria
, and to the ends of the earth.  He commissioned us to make disciples in all nations.  Our marching orders are local and global, or as one person put it, “glocal.”  We are called to reach out with Good News to all people, to all nations, to all cultures, and to all generations.  That is in good part why we are expanding our building—we believe there are more people to welcome with the Good News of Jesus, people near and far.  We believe the Church is called to grow and must always be thinking of those not yet in the faith family.

 

The “Today Show” told the story of a nine-year old boy in
Massachusetts
who was visiting the cemetery in which his World War 2 veteran grandfather was buried.  He noticed that some veterans’ graves had flowers, but not others, including Revolutionary War veterans.  He started collecting money from friends so that every veteran’s grave had flowers.  The supervisor was fine with this, but the trustees found that it violated some rule.  One trustee was quoted speaking these icy words: “I don’t care if they’ve been dead a thousand years.  We have rules and we have regulations.  And we aren’t going to bend them now.”  Peter once knew religion defined by rules and regulations about who was welcome and who wasn’t.  Then God gave him a flash of insight.  Everything changed.

“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 he sent to the people of
Israel
, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.”  Let’s allow that insight to change our thinking, our behavior, and our world.  I’m tired of hearing that the most racially segregated hour in the
United States
in Sunday morning at .  But I’m not denying the reality of that observation.  I hope it isn’t true, but it’s probably truer than I want to admit.  I want the Church to honor its God-given charter: to bless all nations, to proclaim the Good News to all peoples, to welcome everyone, to be a place of prayer for all peoples.  For that vision I’m willing to go out on a limb.  I’m willing to rock the boat.  I’m willing to press for greater understanding and sacrificial response.  It is my heart’s desire that
Brunswick Church be a faithful, vital, growing expression of the Good News of Jesus for all people, a place of welcome for everyone.

We’re all newcomers.  And latecomers.  We were once outsiders.  Now there is a place for us.  We are welcomed by God.  The Bible is the story of God gathering insiders and outsiders, early comers and late comers, old comers and newcomers, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, old and young.  The heavenly worship depicted in the Revelation, the final book of the Bible, gives us a glimpse of the reach of God’s welcome:  “They sing a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God. . . .’” (Revelation 5:9-10.)

I began a sermon here four weeks ago with these words.  Multicultural is, for us, not a code word to satisfy the political correctness police.  Multicultural is, for us, not an attempt to be warm and fuzzy so everyone will feel better.  Multicultural is, for us, not a way of alleviating guilt about the racism of our ancestors or perhaps ourselves.  Multicultural is the New Testament understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ.  We see it all through the Acts of the Apostles and all through the New Testament.  Jesus welcomes all manner of people and sends his disciples into all the world to make disciples of all nations.  We have crafted a statement of our intent in
Brunswick
, one written on the back of our worship guide each weekend and often said aloud in worship:  “We seek to be a multigenerational and multicultural congregation with growing influence for Jesus Christ in the Town of
Brunswick
, throughout
Rensselaer 
County
, across the Capital region, and around the world.”  At the heart of our Embrace the Spirit building campaign is the desire, the hope, the vision to be a church of Good News for all people, ever growing in the grace of God and seeing more and more people come to embrace Jesus.

 

To contact Harry Heintz about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180