This past weekend I spoke three times at a men's retreat about discipleship, disillusionment and the things that make up a disciple's day. I junked my third talk in favor of talking further about some stuff that had come up with the guys, so I'm posting it in chunks here instead. Part one can be found below; here's part two. Part three is coming.
We return to Peter, who’s been a helpful guide this weekend through a day in the life of a disciple. Peter, who told Jesus to go away but who was then invited by Jesus to stop catching fish and start catching people. Peter, who struggled to embrace the label “rock” in a way that accepted both its limitations and the full redemptive possibilities of it, to the point where he could invite all of us to be rocks like him. Peter, who returned again and again to the waters of chaos because at least he understood them, but who was called again and again by God to leave the waters, even to walk on the water, as an act of discipleship. Peter’s path to his vocation was filled with fits and starts, but if I were to characterize it I would call it an invitation out of his limited vision into a much fuller vision of the world God has created and his place in it.
The best example of this, I think, is found in Acts 10. Peter, now the de facto leader of the apostles and, by extension, the early church, is in one corner. In the other corner stands Cornelius, a God-fearing centurion in the Italian regiment. God-fearers were a special category of gentiles, but they were one degree removed from the covenant community to whom Peter and the apostles belonged. Peter and Cornelius could be neighbors, but according to the understanding of the early church, they couldn’t be brothers in Christ.
And yet Cornelius had this vision, and a message from an angel of the Lord directing him to Peter. Was Cornelius one of the men that Jesus had called on Peter to catch?
Peter had his own vision, challenging his understanding of what it meant to be devout. Staying within the boundaries and prescriptions of the faith Peter was raised in was, in Peter’s mind, an act of piety, of worship. To serve God was to stay safely within the confines of his religious practice. But the word of the Lord came to Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” I’d like to suggest that we have failed to acknowledge the “cleanness” of the work that God has called us to, work that takes place outside the ordained offices of the church, and so have had obstructed vision about what God would have us do in the world.
The clean jobs we recognize in the church community are too often those that are ordained and funded, and so the work attended to by those who are ordained and funded, from the preaching of the Word to the teaching of children’s Sunday school to the maintaining of the physical plant of the church, float near the top of our lists when we think of serving God and following Jesus. And these are all important and significant contributions to the vitality of the contemporary church and its sustainability into the future. But these are only a small part of the totality that God has in mind for his church.
Jesus told his disciples, before his ascension to heaven, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is a worldwide commission, one that simply can’t be accomplished by the special few ordained or funded by the church. Neither can it be accomplished solely from the pulpit or on the campus of any given church. The great commission—a challenge to introduce the whole world to the kingdom of God and his righteousness—is a mandate to everyone who has entered into a discipleship relationship.
Peter was challenged to set aside the parameters he had been enculturated into and invited to see the Spirit at work in the lives of people historically outside the reach of the kingdom of God. The scandal of this encounter was such that Peter had to go back to Jerusalem and explain himself. And explain himself he does, such that Acts 11 is almost a mirror of Acts 10. Reading Acts 11 feels like a redundancy until you consider that everyone, even Peter himself, was awestruck by the grace of God demonstrated in the lives of Cornelius and his household.
This is the invitation that God extends to us as his disciples. It begins with disillusionment; we cast aside the illusion that the particularities of our faith experience exempt us from a real encounter with people God loves who live outside the walls of our faith experience—that the special status we’ve afforded to a clerical class grants us dispensation from the commission Jesus laid out for his church, that the magical power we’ve assigned to a church building gives us permission to not bear witness to the work of Christ when we’re in our neighborhoods or among our friends and coworkers. Peter’s encounter of the Holy Spirit at work in the household of Cornelius radically changed the focus of the church; we are reminded by this encounter that the earth (not just the church) is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (not just the parts that fit comfortably alongside church culture).