It seems this lesson has made it's way all the way into our lives today. We are wary of involving (inviting even) those of other backgrounds into the faith that we cherish so deeply. It is revealing to think about, but may I admonish us to think of how we accept others from the outside, who have not grown up into our traditions, but still claim to be followers of Jesus. This is what Peter was contending with when he returned from his ministry trip to the Gentiles. As mentioned in a previous post, the Gentiles were seen as outsiders to the Jews and not welcome into the traditions and cultural heritage that they held so dear. And yet, some how, some way, the LORD broke in and Peter, having met Cornelius and his relatives, was convinced that they truly were open to receiving the gift of salvation, even though they had not come from a tradition that even he was familiar with. This truly was a lesson for Peter (as we've already looked at), but please note how the experience convinced the doubters that Peter was confronted with once he returned from this experience.
The Spirit, more specifically the pouring out of the Spirit, was what convinced the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea that their conversions were real. Because they had a similar experience (see chapter 2 of Acts), they accepted that these Gentiles were truly touched by the same Spirit and they could welcome their experience as a bonafide symbol of conversion (note: they didn't see it first-hand, but had to trust Peter's word). And yet, I think we need to bring our own stories into this lesson.
Do you ever wonder, when presented with someone of another cultural heritage than your own, if they are truly a believer in Jesus Christ? I will most definitely step on toes with these question but here goes...
What takes place in your heart when you meet someone of another culture. Do you question the teachings that they received to follow Jesus as Saviour? What if you learned that this person actually was from another religious tradition, say Islamic or Buddhist, and was discipled by a missionary, came to faith, and now has been given an opportunity of sharing their story of faith with you and your church? What do you listen for when they share their story with you? What keys are you waiting for that convince you that they are truly believers? I need to dig my heal in your foot with these next questions...
What about meeting someone for the first time from another church denomination - especially form a tradition that you strongly are opposed to that make as a majority-belief in their church on certain doctrinal traditions? Do you question their faith? How do you measure whether they are true followers of Jesus then?
My apologizes for these questions, but I believe they get at the heart of what we see in this text today. You see, we cannot understand the confusion and even the prejudicial attitudes that those of the early church had (unless we come from a Jewish heritage and are struggling with the same things they were) but we can bring these issues into our 21st Century lives with the questions that I've asked above. How would you respond to these questions? What measure of acceptance would you offer someone of another background then yours? How quickly would you feel the need to introduce someone to them that could lead them down a better path or desire to guide them yourself? What sheet would be brought down in front of you, of traditions and beliefs not your own, but that the LORD is presenting you with, in order to convince you that there are others that need to hear of this life-saving message as well.
The 'test', if you will, of whether these people were true believers was their experience of the pouring out of the Spirit. I understand that this is very abstract, and we can't really 'test it' - it takes faith, which I think is exactly the point. I believe we need to be more than ready to respond to people of other traditions because it is clear to me that the LORD is not finished building His Church...and it just might surprise us who He lets in.