The call to build peace by welcoming outsiders and loving enemies can be uncomfortable and off-putting. But it’s not only difficult for us now – it’s been difficult for God’s people from the beginning. God’s call to love indiscriminately is so…not human. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways (Is. 55).
The story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 shows us how God continued to teach his people to become like Jesus by loving enemies and welcoming outsiders. Their interaction is a great model for us today.
well, that’s awkward…
Acts 10 tells the story of the interaction between Peter, a Jesus-follower and a righteous Jew, and Cornelius, a (well-respected) Gentile. After God pushes Peter out of his comfort zone and challenges his exclusive boundaries as a Jewish follower of Jesus, Peter and Cornelius start their first meeting on a pretty awkward foot. Cornelius tries to worship Peter when he arrives at his house, and after Peter tells him not to, Peter tells Cornelius that it’s illegal for him to even associate with people like Cornelius (i.e. Gentiles). Not the best way to begin a conversation, much less a new relationship…!
honest questions and deep listening
But there’s hope for us here. After those first few awkward moments where two worlds and world views collide, Peter asks Cornelius a question and listens to his experience. Peter doesn’t make any comments or offer any answers before he is invited by Cornelius to speak himself. Actually, from what we can gather from the story, it doesn’t sound like Peter has any intention to convert Cornelius to Judaism or shape his worldview in any way. God just tells him to go meet with this guy, and he shows up. Yet as he makes space to listen to Cornelius, Peter discovers something wonderful and very unexpected – he can no longer view Cornelius as just a Gentile, but as someone who also just had a direct encounter with the living God.
a model of mutual transformation
From their conversation, both Cornelius and Peter are transformed: Cornelius and everyone in his house receives the Holy Spirit, and the entire trajectory of the early church is changed through Peter’s experience by the inclusion of Gentiles like Cornelius.
Sure, starting conversations with people who are clearly different from us can be awkward and challenging. But here are a few of the key take-aways for us, from Peter’s experience:
- Push through the initial awkwardness of a relationship with someone who is different.
- Listen to the other person and recognize our own limited understanding of how God is already moving in their life.
- Open ourselves up to the possibility that we will be transformed as we learn about what God is doing in our new friend’s life.
- Watch for common ground to be able to build mutual understanding and share our experiences (Peter shared about his experience of God through Jesus after learning about Cornelius’ experience of God).
A friend once told me that in cross-cultural work, no matter how hard you try, you will eventually offend the other person (!). We all come from different world views and backgrounds, so we can’t always predict how our words and actions will be understood. But if we are well-intentioned, try to learn, and are loving to the best of our abilities, that is what will be communicated far stronger than any of our cultural or religious missteps.
God will move and transform us and our new friends in ways that far exceed our expectations when we simply show up, listen, open ourselves up to learn and grow, and watch for common ground. As we live as peace builders, God works both in and through us to reconcile all people and things.