That which is different is scary. But in most cases, it’s not bad. It’s just different.
I was reminded of this when preaching on the account of the interaction between Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and Peter, the disciple and leader of the early church. All of Acts 10 is the narrative of the two being brought together by God.
Cornelius is a “God-fearer,” which is a specific New Testament technical term for a Gentile who came to believe that the God of the Jews was, in fact, the one true God, but who did not fully adopt the Jewish culture. In Acts 10, God gives Cornelius a vision to send for Peter. And God also gives Peter a vision about a wild, “unclean” buffet of animals that God wants Peter to kill and eat. Peter, always one to tell God how to do his job, responds that he would NEVER do such a horrible thing as defile himself by eating unclean meat (Acts 10:14). God then plays the trump card and says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Peter goes downstairs and Cornelius’ messengers show up, so Peter goes to visit Cornelius. When Peter arrives and learns the faithfulness of Cornelius and the other God-fearers there, marked especially by the obvious outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44), he says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)
By saying, “I now realize,” somewhat surprisingly, Peter is suggesting that prior to this occasion, he didn’t understand that God didn’t show favoritism. In other words, before Peter witnessed a faithful, God-Fearing Gentile in action, he was inclined to believe that God was much more likely to accept some people over others based on their culture. In fact, elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Gal. 2), we learn that Peter had some latent, underlying racism – a Jewish cultural superiority complex – that God was trying to get him over.
In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit is trying to convince us then that, by nature, we struggle with the exact same problem Peter did. But we rarely realize it. Peter had no idea he was a racist until he stepped foot into the house and life of someone different from him. It’s not like Cornelius was a hardened criminal. He was a Roman centurion. Consider him something similar to the CEO of a company of a hundred employees. He’s successful, he’s highly moral, and he’s socially compassionate. The only problem is…he’s different from Peter. And different is scary, confusing, and sometimes frustrating to fallen humanity.
What Does This Mean?
I think there are several very practical lessons here about embracing a culture different from yours for the sake of the gospel. So, let me offer 3 encouragements:
Embrace someone different from you with the gospel because…
Our World is Changing Demographically
Most projections over the past decade are suggesting that by the year 2050, the white population in the U.S. will become a minority (in the sense that the American population will consist of less than 50% white people). If you are like me and belong to a church body with a Lutheran theological tradition, you are at the bottom of ethnic diversity in American religion. Please understand that I’m not suggesting a church or church body should become more diverse merely for the purpose of surviving, but as white birth rates continue to drop, it is going to become exceedingly difficult for predominantly white churches to maintain numbers.
This isn’t completely unlike what was seen in the Early Christian Church. Justo Gonzalez does a great job explaining in The Story of Christianity that the church, in its infancy, existed purely of converted Jews. Gentiles didn’t start making up the majority of the church until the 2nd century. At the outset you had almost exclusively Jewish converts. But within that group of converts you had two subdivisions – the Hebrews and the Hellenists. The Hebrews maintained a rigid loyalty to Jewish customs. The Hellenists were Jews who were open to embracing Greek culture like the rest of the Roman Empire, without embracing the immorality that often pervaded the culture.
Not surprisingly, the Hellenist churches were significantly more successful at eventually converting the Gentiles, because they didn’t put cultural obstacles in the way of coming to Christ.
The basic lesson here is that it’s wise not to add culture to Christian faith.
Second, embrace a different culture with the gospel because…
2) It Fights Against Self-Righteousness
Evangelizing to people culturally different from you (which is essentially ALL evangelism), is beneficial not only for those whom you witness to, but it’s also a way by which God continues to shape you. The reason for that is because when you see someone culturally different from you demonstrate faith in Jesus, it helps clarify what the gospel is NOT. The gospel is not a language or a musical style or a haircut or a skin color. Islam certainly is. You cannot truly practice the Muslim faith without knowing the Quran in Arabic. But Christianity has no manmade defined culture. Rather, it infuses manmade culture with grace.
Why is it so important for us to learn this? Because every sinful human heart (Peter, the Jews, and us too) unwittingly create manmade categories that we easily fit into as requirements for being “good” believers. The reason we do this is because human hearts are naturally resistant to Jesus Christ alone as our Savior (Rom. 8:7). So, if we make our own categories that put us closer to God apart from Christ, i.e. self-righteousness, we are then taking some credit for our salvation.
The benefit to you of embracing a culture different from yours with the gospel is that you then discover what biases and gospel distortions you formerly didn’t realize you had. Say, for instance, you grew up in a church where everyone wore the same style of clothes, had the same basic haircut, preferred the same type of music, and liked the same forms of entertainment. In all likelihood, you’d subconsciously develop a belief that some of those neutral things were “right” (or “righter”) than other neutral forms. You might even passionately defend that some of those neutral things are better than others. But God would say something to the effect of “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Consequently, when you encounter another Christian who preferred worshipping with a different style of music or wore a different style of clothes, who was just as much a Christian as you, it would confuse you a bit at first, but clarify the gospel for you. You’d realize you were likely adding manmade categories in the past and be compelled to repent of adding to Scripture (Mark 7:6-8; Rev. 22:18-19).
The basic lesson is that it’s theologically accurate to not add manmade culture to Christian faith.
Finally, embrace a different culture with the gospel because…
3) It Images Christ
What was the work of Jesus Christ? The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that a holy God who was completely unlike us came to live with us. He had everything in common with God, but he came to hang out with man. He was rejected because he was misunderstood. He was despised because he hung out with losers. And then he was killed under the worst culturally preferred torment the Romans had, crucifixion. Why? Jesus embraced you who were different from him because he loved you undeservedly, unreasonably, and recklessly. He walked into our house so that we could live forever in his. To the degree that we understand that, we will walk into the lives of people different than us with undeserved love as well.
Jesus didn’t just cross cultural borders, he crossed over from heaven to earth. But because he did, you have forgiveness for any cultural elitism, you have hope for a perfect future society of love and equality that you can start working towards today, and you have a clear path and model to serving others with the gospel.
Cross earthly cultural borders with the gospel and anticipate the Spirit coming down (Acts 10:44).