A Tale of Two Houses | Acts 10
Virgil Tanner | June 30, 2019
Hi, friends! Good morning! It’s very good to be here. We have strong feelings about you. We pastored in Nashville for awhile (I’m giving those of you who don’t know us just a little bit of background so you have context for some of the stuff I say). When I say we, it kind of makes it Joy’s fault, too, but the bad things I say will be my fault, and the good stuff is Joy’s fault. Let’s do that.
So we pastored in Nashville for nine years, and then moved from Nashville to Central Asia. (If this is being recorded I don’t say the country we were in.) We were in Central Asia for eight years. We led a church-planting team. About four years into that, Jesus kind of shifted us from a role leading church-planting teams to leading the general work in the country, providing leadership for all of the organizations that we’re working with.
Two years ago, we moved to Spain. I can say that we work with Crossworld; I didn’t use to say that in the microphone but I can say that now. We work with Crossworld, and we oversee everything Crossworld does in Islamic contexts globally. That’s what we do, with some people; we do it as a team. I’ll describe that a little bit in a second.
What I want to say to you before I describe that--can you hear me? A couple people have given me the ear. Okay, we’re good. Alright. I’m going to be kind of exploring this talk with you as we go. I had a plan, and then when I was traveling back from Detroit (I went to Detroit to see my sisters and my dad; my mom passed a couple weeks ago), I was driving back and talking to Jesus about the talk, and he had other thoughts for this morning. So I abandoned the original plan--and I’m not winging it. I have a plan, but part of the plan is at certain moments to listen and see what’s next. You’ll notice me pause, it’s not me stroking out, it’s me listening to Jesus.
The church that sent us was the church we pastored, and before they started supporting us, you, you are our first supporting church. You might not know that. You were the very first fellowship that said, “We want to get behind what you’re doing, we want to partner with you,” and that has meant a great deal to us. You have been faithful and steady, generous, and you will always have been the first, especially to us.
To me you’re also special because you’re the only church that ever did this. Churches frequently have us stand up in front, and they’re like, “Hey, you’ve been gone for four years; why don’t you take two minutes and tell us everything!” You know? But you guys stood me up one time and you said, “We want to know what you’ve learned.” That was big. It might not strike you as big, but no other fellowship in North America anywhere has brought us up and said, “We would like to hear what the wide world has taught you.”
Since you are special in that way, that’s actually the invitation Jesus gave me, is to live in this passage, Acts 10, to live in this story (it’s narrative Scripture, so we’re not meant to pull lessons, we’re meant to be in the story), and to take this opportunity to kind of share with you some of the things that we’ve learned. Not all the things that we’ve learned, hopefully; hopefully we’ve learned more than five things. But five or six things that we’ve learned. Is that okay with you?
Okay, so our role now is a little different than before. Right now, our job, we do three things. I’m the abbot of an intentional community (and I do that with Joy and some others) that sustains three initiatives: we direct everything our organization does in Islamic contexts from Indiana to Indonesia (that’s lots of people), we develop new workers and current works for Islamic fields.
When someone says, “I want to be a missionary and I want to work in a Muslim context”; for every ten people that say that, only two last more than two years. You can really train into people, and still the attrition rate is about 80 per cent. So we’re faced with that question: “How do we cultivate people who can live in these profoundly caustic environments?”
What we’re learning is it’s not just the environment, it’s the story that they bring with them. It’s their understanding of themselves is caustic. The way they think about their work, what they think they’re supposed to be doing in the world, also grinds them down. Yes?
So we direct working in a Muslim context, we develop new workers, and then we work currently, actively, with the diaspora population. You know that word, diaspora? When people are forced to run from their homes or large numbers of people leave their native country and they fly to the four winds, that’s called a diaspora, an explosion of peoples out of their native land into other places.
[For example,] Syria. Most of Syria doesn’t live in Syria anymore, right? The Lorihinga. Many, many people groups are being pushed out of where they’re from into other places. It’s on the news all the time, it’s just always on the news in weird ways, like, “The Muslims are invading Europe,” you know. They’re kind of doing that because people are blowing up their houses, right? They have to go someplace.
So, we work with a diaspora population in southern Spain, people who have had to run from their homes and leave their homes and are looking for a new place and a new story to live. So it’s in those contexts that we have new questions emerging. Are you still with me? Yes? Bright lights, can’t tell, need feedback; kind of needy emotionally, need to know.
Here are some of the questions that we’re facing now. The questions we used to face were, “How are we going to learn this local language? I don’t know how to hold the teacup properly. Why is everyone so frustrated with me? I don’t know how to stop being rude. I don’t know what to do. How do you operate this bathroom?” Those were the questions that we were living in before.
Then a little bit later it was like, “What do I say to this guy who keeps getting fired from his job because he’s a believer? What do I say to this family that can’t feed themselves because her husband was imprisoned and she has five children and now--” Those were the next set of questions.
The new questions we’re in now are questions like these: “Why can’t workers stay in their contexts? It’s not because they’re bad or weak, but what’s up with resiliency? Can we build people who are robust enough and brave enough and can inhabit joy deeply enough that they can go to the backside of a dark place and stand? Why are we always late to the game?” It seems like every missiological opportunity that pops up, every massive opportunity that we get, we’re about three years behind actually getting there.
All of the immigrants were rushing into Bulgaria, right? They were rushing into Budapest. People saw that and were like, “We have to respond to the immigrants!” So they carefully took three years and came up with a very intelligent plan to work with the Muslim immigrants in Budapest, and then they raised their money for another two years, and five years after the moment that they actually had, they arrived, and they’ve all left. They’ve all moved, they’ve all intrenched. The opportunity’s gone. We’re consistently late to the game. Can we be more agile? Can we be people who can respond to opportunities quickly, with energy and verb and joy, right?
Then, what kinds of people can do what’s left? People talk about finishing the task or the task that remains or the unreached people groups that are still on the planet. You know, that list has been basically the same for about 15 years. When you look at the last hundred years of mission history, the numbers of unreached peoples that are now reached, we haven’t moved the needle at all. We’ve gone backwards as much as forwards. On the whole, we keep throwing money and effort at practices and postures that are not actually doing the trick. Some people have to begin to think, “What else? What difference? How are we inhabiting this story in a way that’s slowing us down? Can we do it differently?”
So those are the questions we inhabit, and from those questions, living in those questions, I’m going to talk with you. Are you ready? Yes? Okay? Raise your hand if you just want to leave, none of that tickles your fancy. That’s good, because if you did that, we would have just judged you. I saw your hand! Yes, I see it. But I know you. Okay, next slide.
This passage is going to be--this is a story that occurs across four days and two houses and two cities. I’m going to rough in the story for you, and then I’m going to tell you why it’s important. We’re going to read the story. We’re actually going to read the Bible, I promise.
There’s this guy named Cornelius, and he’s a Roman centurion. He’s responsible for a lot of people who push Jews around and persecute Christians. That’s his job. But he loves God, and he’s been practicing Judaism for a long time. One day, while he’s practicing the daily office (if you don’t know what that term is, don’t worry, it’s going to come up later, I promise). He’s practicing the daily office, and he has a vision. An angel says, “Go get this Peter guy.” So he’s like, “Alright.” So he gets another soldier and gets some of his servants, and off they go to find Peter. It’s about a day’s journey away.
A day later, we find Peter on top of a house of another guy named Simon. Apparently there are only five names in the New Testament, and everyone shares them, right? So here’s Simon, he’s staying at Simon’s house. This is Simon Tanner, so, I’m not related. So, Simon Tanner is hosting Simon Peter. Simon Peter’s on the house praying the daily office, and he has a vision. It’s vision day, right?
So he has a vision, and God drops a sheet and says, “Eat these animals that you’re not allowed to eat.” Peter’s like, “No!” So God says it again; “No!” He’s like, “If I said this is clean, it’s clean. It doesn’t matter what I said before, I’m saying this now.”
Then the vision goes away and Peter’s sitting there thinking about it, reflecting, which is a good practice. Sit still and think, right? So he’s reflecting on it, and then the Spirit, who somehow is different than the angel, says to Peter in a way that he can recognize as the Holy Spirit, “Three guys are coming, they’re at the door; go with them, I sent them.” Right? Of course, we all are really familiar with that experience, where the Holy Spirit talks to us in complete sentences and we instantaneously know that it’s totally okay; go with that soldier, he’s not going to throw you in jail; right?
So he goes downstairs and he says, “Here I am; what do you want?” They’re like, “We want you, because our boss said that you’re supposed to help him, because God said it in a vision--I don’t know, man; I do what the guy says.”
So they go, and Peter shows up and is like, “I don’t know why I’m here, but I’m going to tell you what God said to me so far,” and then the other guy’s like, “Well, I kind of need you to tell me about whatever you want to tell me; I don’t know either. God’s not really given us the whole story, we’re just both here.”
Peter says, “Oh, now I get it! I was completely wrong about God. Let me tell you about Jesus.” He tells him about Jesus. While he’s talking, the Holy Spirit descends and everybody starts speaking in tongues, and Peter’s like, “Well apparently, the gospel’s for everybody. Let’s baptize them.” Right? That’s how the story’s going to go. We’ll read it; it’ll be better when it’s actually from the Bible, I promise.
This is referred to by some as Peter’s second use of the keys to the kingdom. This is really important, really an important passage; it’s pivotal in the entire New Testament story.
You remember Jesus says to Peter, to Simon, “Your name’s Simon, but now I’m going to call you Peter, and upon this rock I’ll build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I give to you the keys to the kingdom.” People refer to Pentecost as the first using of the keys to the kingdom. Peter preaches, and then everybody--the Holy Spirit--lots of excitement and miraculous power.
This is the second such event, and Peter actually in the next chapter will say this was just like Pentecost, except this time with Gentiles. It’s not too much to say that we have the gospel and you have Jesus because of the way Peter inhabited this encounter. That means, for a strategist like me, that’s a lot of ripples. That’s a whole bunch of impact right there. I’m in Jesus in part because Peter had this encounter. Because of the way Peter inhabited it, he didn’t have to do this this way.
Let’s pay attention to this, right, and I’m going to try to go fast. There’s no clock on the back wall, and that typically tells me culturally, as a church, you don’t really care what time we finish, so that’s good news. Alright, let’s hit it!
“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his household--” This is the word oikos (οικος); that’s really important. I’m not going to say anything about it, but if you want to know about why oikoi are important, pin me down someplace. Not when my wife wants to go to lunch, though. Okay.
“He and all his household were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God without ceasing. One day around the ninth hour he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, ‘Cornelius!’” I don’t know if he sounded like that, but he does in my head.
“Cornelius stared at him in fear. ‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked.
“The angel answered, ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.’” Like, here’s the address, right? “When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.”
Look, there’s more!
“About the sixth hour the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
“‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’” This guy, right? It’s like, I open my prayer with “Heavenly Father,” and he always opens his prayers with, “No, Jesus!” Right?
“The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’
“This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
“While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
“While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.’
“Peter went down and said to the men, ‘I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?’
“The men replied, ‘We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say,’” because who doesn’t say that, right? “Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.”
We’ll stop there, and we’re going to do some more with it.
1. The Initiative is God’s
So, lesson number one for us that the initiative is God’s. This is Luke’s lesson through the whole book of Acts. Everything that happens in this little vignette is like a microcosm of everything that happens in the whole book of Acts. Everything in this story is basically the whole book of Acts in one chapter. So congrats, we’re not doing the whole book of Acts. Kind of we are.
So, the initiative is God’s, and we always say that. Everybody says that. I always said that. But I kind of lived like a functional atheist. I kind of lived like the initiative was mine. It was my job to make a plan, my job to work the plan, it was my job to communicate the plan in a way that my teammates would be inspired. It was my job to help my teammates stay with the plan. It was my job to measure adherence to the plan. It was my job to make up the reasons why we weren’t seeing results when we worked the plan. It was my job to adjust the plan. But the initiative all the time in this belongs with God, and it often starts with the other person, not you.
If your practice of the faith and your life in ministry doesn’t feel light and easy, then it’s not Jesus’s yoke. “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” for I’m a nice guy? “It’s light and easy,” yes?
Life is hard. That doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong. But the way we inhabit ministry doesn’t have to be a grind. It can be a constant series of Titanic discoveries. It can be one long, looping trip of wonder, if we can accept that the initiative might be outside us. The story doesn’t open with Peter’s vision, the story opens with Cornelius’s vision. This happened frequently. This happens all over the place right now.
What happens is God acts somewhere, and he says, “Hey, I’m working, and if you can drop your plan and just get over there, just get there, open up your eyes, you’re going to see something wonderful.” Right? “I don’t know, I need a really vivid imagination of what I’m going to do when I get there.” No.
There were two different times where another organization’s team would approach us and say, “We’re all falling apart; we don’t know what to do.” In both situations, what had happened was they had been from a sending church in the States (which are wonderful things; we love you guys), and they built a plan, carefully built a plan, and they built their whole plan in Indiana, in Illinois. They built their whole plan, and then they moved to Central Asia and tried to work a plan that they had built in another country, which is just ridiculous.
What if they had just been like, “Yes, we’re going to go”?
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, but it’s going to be cool!”
Everybody was like, “That’s cool; have money,” and then they got on a plane and flew there and spent some time being quiet and looking around to see, “Where has God already initiated? Where are the green shoots of grace popping up?”
This vision that Cornelius has… The God that I grew up with would have said something different to Cornelius. He would have said this. An angel would have appeared and he would have said, “Cornelius!” It would have been exactly the same accent. And he would have said, “Your prayers and your alms to the poor have ascended to God and are a stink in his nostrils because your righteousness is as filthy rags. Allow me to take ten minutes and use the Ten Commandments to explain to you why you are profoundly lost, and get you really convinced that you’re a sinner, and feeling as bad about that as I can. Then go find Peter.” Right? That’s how the angel talk would have gone. That’s the God I grew up with--no, that’s not. That’s a misunderstanding of the God I grew up with.
God’s happier with a lot more people than I thought he was. That’s a big lesson for me. There’s a twinkle in God’s eye.
So, Cornelius gets the yes and amen of Jesus even before he’s ready to yes and amen Jesus back, which is really the only reason I ever had the courage to yes and amen Jesus back, because I had it before I knew it.
Alright, so lesson one. There’s stuff going on out there, and you’re supposed to find it. You’re not supposed to start it. You are an explorer, not an entrepreneur, of the Jesus way. Go find it.
2. Listen/Obey Beats Plan/Execute
Okay, lesson two. Listen/obey beats plan/execute every time. Peter has a vision, right, and then he has some words from the Spirit, and there’s very little data in this. “Here’s a zoo on a table; eat it.” And then the Holy Spirit says to him nothing about any food. He says, “Three guys are coming; take him to dinner and make sure it’s an elephant you eat.” He said nothing like that! It’s, “Three guys are coming; go with them. I sent them.”
Consider the agility that is necessary right now. Consider what Peter has to let go of in order to follow Jesus. We exist to glorify God by following Jesus in the Spirit’s power for the redemption of the world. This is a story about that. So Peter has to let go of cultural identity. Peter has to let go of his understanding of what is right and what is wrong. He has to allow for the possibility of an adjustment to his ethic.
Peter has to entertain the possibility that he’s been wrong about God and that his people have been wrong about God kind of the whole time. Then, while he’s reflecting, he has to do this--listen! This guy’s been arrested once, he’s been beaten before. He watched Jesus get dragged away and crucified by Romans. One of the men at the door is a Roman soldier.
This never dawned on me until I had been questioned by the KGB. The day after I had been questioned by the KGB, I really had a different view of what was happening in this conversation with Peter. After you’ve been cinched up and pretty sure you might go to jail, you respond differently to the police.
So, we were going camping somewhere. So I realized that my kids were beginning to inhabit a narrative that was appropriate to where we lived, and little bit more similar to Peter’s narrative, because we were driving and we had our friends behind us. They were local, and the police pulled this guy over because of his rims. They wanted to bribe him or get some money from him because he had rims on his car. Do you remember this, baby?
The kids look out the back window and they go, “Oh no!” I’m like, “What’s wrong?”
“The police have captured Mr. Raveel! The police captured him!” The police capture people? Not pull them over; he’s been caught. Their view of authority was they try to catch you, they try to chain you up.
Peter had to overcome that, and all he got was just a word that he could have thought was hunger. Remember, he hasn’t eaten. He could have just thought, “Oh, I’m hungry, that’s my stomach growling.” “Three guys are at the door; go with them.”
What does a disciple have to be able to do? You can answer. Be flexible; this is good. Give me some more. Follow. Listen. Learn. Alright, very good. So, a simple presupposition about discipleship is that a basic skill for a disciple is the ability to hear when his teacher’s talking, right? Be able to discern the voice of the teacher, and be able to then recklessly do whatever the teacher says.
I wasn’t taught to listen. I was taught to read my Bible and find correct answers, but I was not taught how to listen for the voice. I was not taught how to discern the voice of the Spirit versus my own inner noise, or the pressures of my traditions, assertions about what I’m supposed to do. I was not taught to be courageous in my attempts to obey the voice. I was taught to be extremely cautious. “Make sure you don’t get it wrong.” An entire tradition paralyzed by the fear of error.
But if you’re going to be a disciple, your first skill shouldn’t be accuracy. Your first skill should be listening. If you’re going to make disciples, you have to be able to teach people how to listen to Jesus. This is the foundational skill. This is the base skill.
How many of us were actually taught, concretely, systematically, how to hear? And why not? Why weren’t we? Why was that not the basement skill? How many of us spend more than 50 per cent of our time in prayer listening? How many of us spend more than 50 seconds listening? It’s not a moralistic thing, but how have we misdefined discipleship to such a profound degree that we don’t assume that disciples know how to listen to Jesus? Making disciples is basically just teaching people how to hear and see Jesus and then respond to him in obedience. Why isn’t it that?
Then this last thing: nationalism, ethnocentrism, and rigid theology could easily have gotten in Peter’s way. We see a lot of this on the news, don’t we, especially around issues of immigration and refugees. A lot of nationalism, a lot of ethnocentrism, and a lot of rigidness preventing us from being agile and responsive to the single greatest missiological opportunity in the history of the planet in the last 500 years. The largest social force in the history of planet earth since the Renaissance is the western migration of Islam. It is the biggest opportunity we have ever had, and largely have spent, as evangelicals, we have spent the vast majority of our energy arguing over whether or not that’s a good thing, and whether or not we’re supposed to be afraid.
I have an answer for you: you’re not supposed to be afraid. Are bad things not going to happen to you? Who cares! You follow a guy who got himself killed on purpose. That’s what you do.
We are here to see to the redemption of the world, not the safety of ourselves. Nationalism, when it bumps up against Jesus’s healing the planet, is not alright. I just want to say that and then tell you to vote for whoever you want.
3. The Ordinariness of the Extraordinary
Okay, next slide! Lesson three: the ordinariness of the extraordinary. Cornelius has a vision, Peter has a vision.
I have this friend named Nijat in some country that might have a name, and I was working with him a lot, you know. One day Joy, because Joy hears Jesus--Joy hears Jesus! It’s pretty terrific. I’m beginning to learn to listen to her, yes? Just starting. So, she says to the kids, “Your daddy’s going to meet with Mr. Nijat this week. Let’s pray that he has a vision of Jesus.”
So, really frequently in the Muslim world, before someone has an encounter with a Jesus-follower they have a vision of the risen Jesus saying, you know, “I’m going to send somebody to you; pay attention!” It’s super common. It’s very common.
One of the things I love--I’m not going to pick on this, except I’m doing it right now--we in the West look at that and go, “Yes, that happens over there, with those backwards people. They don’t have cool things like science and Bibles, so God has to come to them in visions.” I’m not sure it just happens over there. I just think they might pay attention. I think we’re the wrong ones. We’re the folks that are just blinded by our surety that we already have all the answers. They have questions, so Jesus answers their questions. We have answers, so Jesus sits quietly until we stagger upon a good question.
So Joy prays, Joy has the kids pray, and then Nijat and I go to tea, as we always do. We drink a lot of tea, get super caffeinated, try to talk. Try to talk while your heart’s pounding in your chest, because I cannot keep up with these guys and their tea. He says, “Hey, I want to tell you, I saw that glowing guy.”
“You saw the who?”
“The glow-man. The man-glow. The glow-man? How do you say?”
“I don’t know, but not like that! I don’t know how we say it. Whatever it is, it’s not that.”
He says, “The man from the show.”
“The show about Jesus.”
“Which man from the show?”
“Which man from the show about Jesus?”
“Okay, so you saw a glowing Jesus-man?”
“Yes, I saw the glow-Jesus.” We’re getting really, really odd now, right? So finally he’s like, “It was the face…” He looked at me like I’m the idiot. “It was the face from the show, but it was glowing, on a whole man that was glowing.”
Now I have the picture, and I realize I was the idiot. He was right the whole time. Glowing Jesus. I said, “What did glowing Jesus say to you?”
He said, “You can’t trust your friends. Come to me.”
So I said to him, “Nijat! You had a vision of the risen Jesus! What do you think you should do?”
“I don’t know, I have to think about it.”
Whereupon I wanted to say, “Well, you should not trust your friends and go to him!”
Thankfully, Jesus actually sometimes also talks to me. “Shh,” you know. So, “I’ll be praying for you as you reflect on that, but I want you to understand something, Nijat. I’ve never had a vision of the risen Jesus, so you will one day be judged at least based on what you do with this communication of Jesus. I hope you do not ignore it.”
There’s a woman in a country that I won’t name. She’s a schoolteacher and she’s a believer, and her principal found out she was a believer and started to make up lies that she was proselytizing children and ruining families. So she got her fired. That’s not good, because you’re fired and the police come take all your money, and now you don’t have a job and it’s a little village, so you’re ostracized. You have no way to get work, you have no way to eat, you have children; you’re in a bad way. It doesn’t take a lot to persecute a person into a position where they have no options.
Someone sent up a prayer request that went all over the world, everyone’s praying. The next update I got, which I got last month (this is a recent story), her principal invites her to tea. Of course, because what doesn’t help reconciliation like caffeine, right? She invites her to tea, and she shows up, and all the teachers are there and the principal’s there. They’re drinking tea, and there’s a big giant cake, which is very expensive in the village. She cuts her cake and she gives her cake and she gives her tea.
This lady has some sense. She doesn’t go, “Hey, remember how you were persecuting me? What’s up with that?” She says, “Oh, well thank you for inviting me!” You never say anything directly where I used to live. “What’s the occasion?”
She said, “Well, I wanted you to know I had a dream, and a glowing man said to me, ‘Why are you persecuting me? Why have you persecuted my servant?’ So I wanted to have tea with you and apologize for that, and to give you an opportunity. Do you know this man?”
“Yes, I do.” So she just spends some time unpacking.
This is real. We don’t just get together on Sundays to sing songs and feel better and make stuff up and act like we’re learning things. This stuff’s real and normative. The extraordinary is supposed to be ordinary.
Now, when I used to hear people say that, then I used to go try to drum up extraordinary things. Calm down. I was actually trying to validate my own sense of calling. “If I don’t see extraordinary things, I must not be what I thought I was!”
What if we just keep our eyes open, and when something looks like it might be a bush on fire, what if we turn aside, take off our shoes, and listen a minute? What if we do that? Why don’t we, when we’re looking inside here on our inner journey, what if we just pause when something sticks out? What if we just pause and take off our shoes and listen? When something is extraordinary, it always bears notice, and notice takes a moment. Let’s become people who take moments. Yes?
Alright. I don’t know when I’m supposed to stop, but I know I have to keep going. Slide four! Really, how much time is there, because I want to pick and choose. All my time. I’m going to take my time, and all of yours, yes? That’s good!
4. Praying the Hours
So, Cornelius is referred to--in some translations it says he prayed regularly to God or he prayed continually. It’s a phrase that translates probably best as “prayed without ceasing,” or maybe, “prayed without break.” Now remember, he’s a centurion, so what he’s not doing is walking around praying all the time. He runs a hundred soldiers in the largest empire the world had known at that time.
So what does “pray without ceasing” mean, and why is it important to Luke to tell us what time on the clock things were happening? He says it happened at the ninth hour and it happened at the sixth hour.
This reminds me of another story. Do you know the children’s song,
“Peter and John went to pray;
They met a lame man on the way.
He asked for alms and held out his palms,
And this is what Peter did say.”
It doesn’t say that. The Bible doesn’t say that. It’s heretical! The song is--it’s pretty close. It doesn’t say Peter and John went to pray; it says Peter and John went to the prayers. The prayers. Which were held six a.m., nine a.m., noon, three p.m., and six p.m. every day, all the time.
People hauled off and prayed, but prayer was first a communal reality. When the disciples said to Jesus, “Jesus, would you teach us to pray?” what did he say? “When you pray say, ‘Our Father…’”
So here are a couple things to note. He didn’t say, “When you pray, kind of have these attitudes.” He said, “Say these words.” Did you know it’s okay to pray words someone else prayed? It’s alright. It’s not incumbent upon you to be the sole source of spiritual creativity in the cosmos at every moment that you open your mouth to God.
Every night before we go to sleep, regardless of how hard we fought that day with our children or each other or the demons or the devil or the government--regardless of what happened that day, Joy and I say, “Good night, you’re my best friend, I love you.” And every night when I pray for the kids I say, “God, I pray that you give them good dreams or no dreams, but no bad dreams.” If I depart from that formula, my kids have a nervous breakdown and are confident that they will have terrible dreams and it will be my fault. If we’re thousands of miles apart, we’ll text, you know, with no data. Like, “Beep-beep-beep, beep, beep.” “Good night, you’re my best friend, I love you.” It’s okay to say the same words other people say.
I had a dark year where I was pretty sure God didn’t exist, and the only thing that kept me praying was I didn’t have to come up with the words. I prayed the words the others prayed.
So, what’s happening here, prayer without ceasing. Near Eastern commentators, when they look at Paul’s command to pray without ceasing, they interpret it to mean, “Don’t miss the prayers.” God’s people, for thousands of years, or bunches of years, 1500-ish, and then after that, they prayed primarily together at set times, and then also on their own. I grew up praying primarily whenever I could remember to do it, and then occasionally pretending to pray with other people, shutting my eyes while other people prayed. I had no idea how to pray communally, I had no idea how to keep a rhythm.
This has been really important to us, and this passage isn’t here trying to teach you to pray the hours, but I want to give you a picture of what’s going on here. Peter goes up on the roof for midday prayers, and because he has this rhythm, he’s in a position to receive a contemplative experience, right? To receive an ecstatic, extraordinary experience, which he cannot explain and takes awhile to even be able to express. But he’s able to inhabit his faith in a way that goes, experience something, reflect on it until you can express it, reflect on it until you can explain it. I grew up with a faith that went like this: explain stuff, explain stuff, explain stuff; occasionally, in a worship song, try to express it; and once in a great while you might experience it, maybe. Complete inversion.
For us, for our house and our team, we pray three of the seven traditional hours, or the five traditional hours, based on who you listen to. This is important us in particular, working with Muslims. Muslims pray namaz. You know what namaz is? It’s one of the pillars, it's one of the things they have to do in order to earn God’s favor, and it’s praying five times a day at set times.
Do you know where they got that? Mohammed was a merchant, and he observed the early Christians observing the hours of prayer, and he said, “That’s good.” From that they took namaz. So as we train people to work with Muslims, we’re training them to inhabit the hours, because it’s common ground. “Come pray with me when you pray. See what I pray when we pray.” As you pray it over and over again, you’ll find that slowly, slowly, you might come to believe some of the things we’re praying.
So, praying the hours. There was a stretch where my family was really unstable. Not like robbing liquor stores unstable, but we weren’t okay. We had just gotten kicked out of a country, then we got back in, and we were moving to Spain, and there were health things, and mid-life crisis, the emotional noise, where you lose your mind and then you find out, “No, everyone loses their mind at 40. It’s okay.” Get some counseling, figure it out. Living in people’s basements, traveling around. One of our donors was half of our support, and he lost his business, so we lost half of our support in an instant, so when we were supposed to be resting we were driving around trying to raise more money.
Deb mentioned The Book of the Dun Cow, which is a novel by Walter Wangerin. I read it, and there was a rooster that tells people, “It’s time to pray. It’s prayer-time. It’s prayer-time. It’s prayer-time.”
I didn’t know what to do, it just spoke to me, so I got a whiteboard and I wrote the times of prayer up. I’d been praying the daily office myself, by myself, but I stopped asking my family would they like to and I told them they would like to. And we did, and it stabilized everybody.
So we kept it when we moved. When we got into Spain, we kept it, and it’s our team’s rhythm. We find that God speaks to us a lot more frequently--no. We hear God talking a lot more frequently, because instead of cramming prayer into the corners of our lives, we build our day around praying.
Last thing I want to say about this, and then I promise to accelerate through the other ones. I mean, I say I promise, but I have the microphone and you have to listen to everything I say. I’ll try to go faster.
There was a guy named Jim. He worked in the country I lived in. He’s a cool guy. He’s a good friend. I’m about to throw him under the bus, but understand that I really like him and respect him, but for this story he’s the bad guy. You ready?
He would always come to me and say, “We need to pray extraordinarily. Extraordinary prayer, extraordinary prayer. Extraordinary, extraordinary prayer, extraordinary prayer.”
We were like, “Jim, why are you saying this?”
He would say, “Well, read the literature.”
There was this book called Seed to Fruit, and it’s this Vision 59 group has been studying people movements, whole bunches of people coming to Jesus among Muslim populations all over the world. They found out what the teams that were working with those movements have in common, on the ridiculous North American assumption that this is happening because these people are doing this! We honestly think everything is cause and effect. Sometimes it’s you just happen to be there when something cool happened, right? So the moral of the story is be someplace.
But one of the things was extraordinary prayer. So he would say, “We have to pray extraordinarily!”
We’re like, “What’s it mean to pray extraordinarily?”
He was like, “I don’t know; whatever you pray, pray more, because that’s extraordinary,” you know.
I just--I like to pray, I believe in all the theology around we pray and stuff happens when we pray, because we pray...when we pray...something...cosmic wonders, mysteries, foreordination, I don’t know… But I started to pay attention to my feelings when he talked, and he would say, “We have to do extraordinary prayer,” and I would feel like this: [dejected sigh]. Right? Or occasionally this: [growl]. Those were the two feelings I had. I don’t know what the emotion words for that are; I’m still building my emotional intelligence. It looked a little bit like “deflated dude wants to punch his friend in the teeth.”
What does that mean, pray extraordinarily? Do you pray it again? Pray it again faster? Pray as many reps as possible? Pray every minute on the minute? Pray like crossfit? Pray it and really mean it? Last time we didn’t mean it enough; we need to mean it more. Mean it more. Pray more, mean it. Mean it more, more meaning. Mean it more! When you finally mean it, God will act, because he’s a miserly jerk that just really wants you in a fervor before he does the kind things that are supposed to be in his heart.
I don’t know; I just don’t like any of that. None of that seems like the Jesus I met that one time, or lived with my whole life. What if instead of extraordinary prayer we tried to pray ordinary prayer extra? What if we just prayer so ordinary that all of our lives were built around moments of praying?
8:50, time to pray. What’s going on? We’re in a fight? We’ll stop; we’re praying. 1:30, time to pray. What are we doing? Praying. 8:50, it’s time for praying. What are we doing? Praying. “But the kids aren’t ready, we haven’t brushed their teeth.” Well, their teeth will still be there at the end, unless they keep talking while we pray, then they might be missing a few of their teeth!
Some of you know a woman named Liza who now works in the country I won’t name. She said I could share this. She came to us for six weeks of training before she mobilized to the Middle East. When she came, we did a wellness check. “How are you emotionally, spiritually, physically, cognitively, relationally?” She wasn’t well.
She had a coach that was working with her through transition stuff, and about four or five weeks into her six weeks she came to me and she said, “Hey, we did a wellness wheel, and I noticed that my wheel’s completely full.”
I said, “That’s fantastic! I’m so glad to hear that!”
She said, “Yes, I wanted to tell you this, though: when Sarah asked me what accounts for the fullness of the wheel, before I had time to think about it I said, ‘The daily office.’” The daily office is the praying the hours, it’s ordering your day around the axle of prayer.
I said, “How is that?”
She said, “I don’t know. It’s like it’s a mystery, but by inhabiting time differently time sanctified me differently.”
Yes. That’s kind of cool. That’s how it works. We inhabit space-time. Let’s sanctify it.
Alright, that was a long time on that slide. I’m going to go to the next one. Oh, it’s good, it’s more Bible!
So the next day Peter started--Peter’s like, “Come stay with me, Roman officer and dudes,” right? Then they leave, and what I like about this, because you hear it in chapter 11, they leave and they walk a long time. Peter could have abandoned ship at any time. He could have been like, “This is unreasonable! I was doing Jesus stuff at Simon Tanner’s house! I’m a Jesus guy! This isn’t my idea! I’m an apostle. Am I not the boss? Am I not supposed to be doing stuff besides going, literally, to a Roman jail?” He could have abandoned ship at any time.
Something I think that kind of bolstered his confidence, we learn in chapter 11, is that three guys came to get him, and he went with them with six other dudes. I feel like he kind of brought the posse, just in case it went sideways, you know? A little back-pocket insurance.
Alright, so Peter and a bunch of other big dudes started with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. “Some believers from Joppa.” The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself.’
“While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?’”
He didn’t even know what they wanted, and he walked a day with a soldier, to a soldier’s house, just to see what might be up.
“Cornelius answered: ‘Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.”’” This guy’s really reporting this accurately. “‘So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.’”
Peter has been given no instructions on what to say. All he was told was, “Eat pigs,” right? So he’s like, “Well, I mean, everybody get up and eat something!” That’s all he was told to say, right?
“Then Peter began to speak: ‘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. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
“‘We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him—” Isn’t this good? He could have said you killed him. The Romans killed him—no, they killed him “by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” They heard them doing Pentecost again.
“Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered—” this is the first apostolic authority in the story. This is the first time Peter was like, “Now I got it. I got this. Thanks Jesus! Now I got it. Baptize these people.” “...baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.”
5. Discovery Over Delivery
Next slide. Discovery over delivery. This is the big lesson. I’ll go fast. I’m going to stop looking at Brian, because I’m just only going to remember that he told me to keep going, and I’m not going to look, in case he’s telling me to stop.
Discovery over delivery. We are North American. Most of us are North American. Everybody grows up in a story. You grew up in a story of capitalism. So did I. Capitalism isn’t a bad economic theory; it’s a terrible way to inhabit the Jesus way, though. It’s a terrible root theology, terrible root system of understanding.
As a result, we mission people treat mission as exporting Jesus. We get our Jesus and we get our answers, and then we go with answers and the responsibility to make other people ask the right questions so we can give them our answers. We go and try to drum up market, and then see who will be interested in our Jesus product. We don’t say it like that, but that’s how we accidentally think about it. We do everything that way. We often do church that way, we do renewal ministries that way. We have a product, and we come and we try to give you the product and see if it meets your need.
What if, instead, we showed up and assumed this: God was here before us doing some things, and our job is not how to find out how to push our product to people, but to find out where are the green shoots of grace where God has already been acting, and just cooperate with those. Just water those. What if we’re not meant to deliver the gospel? What if we’re meant to announce Jesus?
Part of that means announcing what Jesus did, but also announcing what we see him doing right in front of us. “Now we are all gathered here to hear what God commanded you to say,” and what Peter says is nothing God commanded. What Peter says is, “Here’s what I’m discovering right now. I’m discovering that God is choosing you, too, not just us.” Peter inhabited the story of his work in the world as an explorer, not as an entrepreneur trying to start Jesus franchises. He moved around looking for what Jesus was flashing up in front of him and announcing that and inviting people to respond.
Many years in Central Asia, it was a dark place with a lead sky. It was gray a lot, and it was a spiritual oppression that pushes down on you. You would wake up and you would think about all of these lost people, and you would try to consider, “Do I have enough language to tell them the story? Do I have enough language to make it? How many times am I going to talk to Tofeeq before he’s going to get it? How many times am I going to share it?” People have done research; typically it takes a hundred times for a Muslim to hear the gospel before they respond to it one time. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s discouraging research.
You go out and you’re like, “How do I make this city believe? How do I deliver the story in a compelling way?”
I began to notice that some days I woke up and I was in a whole different world. Same lead sky, but instead of having to go out carrying my answers, driven by a plan, I could go out carrying questions, drawn by wonder. Where is Jesus flashing possibilities in front of me? Where are people who are doing goodness in the world? Instead of having to start everything from scratch, where are people already being kind? Where are people already demonstrating a Godwardness? What if I don’t have to get the world lost in order to get them saved? What if Christ is at play in 10,000 places and my job is to discover him?
Life as an explorer is way better than life as a deliverer. I wonder if that can unloose one or two of you. If you’re walking around feeling like, “I have to find a way to push this gospel into my teenage kid,” “I have to find a way to push this gospel into my coworker,” “I have to find a way to make these answers understandable”; I wonder if we could, instead, ask, “Jesus, what are the questions that I can ask that can help this person and me discover something beautiful about you at the same time?” What if evangelism was less about announcement, less about push, and more about inviting discovery?
I think that your tolerance—the number of yawns I saw in the same moment tells me we have reached your time limit. So let’s slip through a couple of slides, and then I’m going to call the ball.
What facilitated Peter’s ability to bring the gospel to you was, he had a loose grip on his theology and a tight grip on Jesus, and he was willing to obey, even when it was offensive to him. What could have gotten in Peter’s way was a firm plan, a rigid strategy, a rigid theology, and a fierce commitment to protecting himself and staying safe.
As we train workers, one of the things we’re asking them to do is, “Please put yourself in harm’s way. Please get in trouble. Please get unsafe quickly. But follow Jesus recklessly. Hold your theology loosely. Disrupt your theology, cling to Jesus, the glowing Jesus.”
So I wonder if there are some invitations for you. I’m just going to pray the invitations. What I’d like you to do is I’d like you to just see if you can take your hands and imagine a notepad in them, shut your eyes, imagine a notepad, and just ask Jesus to jot you a note. Okay?
Lord Jesus, we have been talking for awhile. We have been talking for quite awhile, so they’re fatigued, I’m feeling great. Is there an invitation for anyone to practice the hours with their family, with their household, to order their lives around praying? Is there an invitation for anyone to consider giving up cautious in favor of curious? Is there an invitation for anyone to begin to look around for the burning bush? Where is the extraordinary? The last thing I want to ask is, what is the conversation that you want to have with us? Would you on some of the notepads that are given to you now, would you just jot down, what do you want to talk about?
We do ask you, Lord, that you would fill each of these beautiful people with an awareness of your yes and your amen. Would you help each of them—would you give each of them a glimpse into how much more they are, how much more beautiful they are than they know, how much wonder is there? Would you lighten their eyes as they look inside, make them easy with themselves as you are easy with them? Would you make them easy with their world as you are easy with it?
We want to take table, Jesus, and we don’t know what happens to us when we put that in our mouths, and we like it like that. We know it’s not just something, we know it’s not just something else. We know that you can do lots of things through this that we don’t know through the power that is uniquely yours. So come to us in our deep places and touch the places that we can’t touch through our reason and through our knowing. Connect us more thoroughly with you, weave more tightly that band. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.