Matthew’s Gospel ends, and Acts begins, with Jesus telling his disciples to go out into all the world and invite people to come join the fellowship of the Spirit created by God’s Good News! Jesus says it is God’s desire that they begin welcoming people who they never expected to share life with at all as equals into fellowship.
We who are trying to follow Jesus have often taken Jesus’ commandment to “Go” into all the world as proof that many in the world need to be “converted” to a new trust in what God has done through Jesus and to a new way of life. Without denying that this was, and is, one implication of Jesus’ instructions, I would like to mention a more commonly ignored implication of Jesus’ instructions.
I have been struck recently with an added perspective—reinforced by reading Willie James Jennings commentary on Acts and by my pastor’s sermon in which she raised the question “Who needs to be converted?”
In Acts 8, Samaritans respond with delight to the invitation to trust in Jesus, but will they accept the leadership of the Jewish apostles? An important question? But it is easy to miss an equally important question. Will these Jewish apostles accept the Samaritans as equals at Jesus’ Table? After all, they have considered the Samaritans to be religious heretics, political enemies, and racially inferior?
In Acts 9, Saul (Paul) who is persecuting followers of Jesus suddenly is prepared to join them. But, will Ananias, and then other followers of Jesus, accept Paul into equal fellowship in their circles? It apparently took many of them almost 10 years to do so, and they only began to do so then because Barnabas worked out a way to get Saul involved far away from the Jerusalem and its “elite” Christian leadership (Acts 13).
In Acts 10, the pagan Roman Centurion Cornelius, a leader in the enemy’s occupying army, quickly responds to God. He asks a Jew (an enemy of his people) to come tell him about Jesus. Peter on the other hand, argues vehemently from the Scriptures that he should not go to Cornelius home, eat at his table, or accept him as an equal. Then, in Acts 11, Peter has to argue with the rest of his fellow leaders in an attempt to convince them that he did not commit a grievous sin in deciding to treat Cornelius and his household as equals when he stayed in their home and ate at their non-kosher table for several days.
Acts 15 is all about the same issue on a larger scale. Now many Gentiles are joining the fellowship circles at Jesus’ Table in various parts of the Roman Empire. Are they really to be considered welcome and equal?
In Acts 16, Paul has a vision of a man beckoning him to come to Macedonia. He and his team ultimately conclude that this was a message from God telling them to change their plans and go. But, when they arrive, they are welcomed into the lives, not of a man, but of a wealthy female Gentile God-fearer and her household. Would they have gone to Macedonia at all if the dream had been that of a Gentile Woman beckoning them to come? And, how difficult was it for Paul to accept that she was God’s chosen leader of this new housechurch fellowship? “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us” (Acts 16:15). It sounds like it took some persuading for Paul and his team to move to where the Holy Spirit had already moved far out ahead of them.
In every case that I just mentioned in Acts, the “outsiders” to the fellowship of the Spirit were much quicker to cross the barriers that separated than were the leaders of the early church. So, what “conversions” do we who claim to be following Jesus need in order to cross the barriers Jesus would love to cross? In our local church? In our branch of “Christianity?” As followers of Jesus in the United States? As part of the world-wide community of Jesus followers? In what areas may we not be seeing who really needs to be converted?
I would love to hear your thoughts.