© 2016 Lynn Abbott
Absolutely unexpected. Yet, there it was. Two young California kids—newlyweds, in fact—moved to the American South.
Their story is fairly common, I suppose. During tough economic times, more and more young people must move greater and greater distances to find employment.
The young man, a youth pastor, had found a full-time position post-graduation and wedding. His bride said her tearful “goodbyes” to friends and family. And with high hopes, they set out on a grand adventure.
Their new home nestled in the foothills of a historic, Southern town. Picturesque church spires defined the skyline. And tradition provided a comfortable and secure boundary for the community’s social life.
In other words, the town exemplified all things Southern.
Without a doubt, its people epitomized hospitality.
Thus, with joyful anticipation, the young couple dressed for their first Sunday. She loved dressing up, and relished the opportunity to dress in formal Sunday attire.
But he was a California boy, through and through.
No suit and tie for him. Nope.
He told her that it wasn’t necessary. After all, he was a youth pastor, and young people would not relate to a “stuffed shirt.”
It was their first Sunday, she pressed. It might be best to dress especially for the occasion.
And so in deference to his bride, he wore a short-sleeved shirt, khakis and the only tie he owned. She smiled and reassured him that the vivid turquoise added a splash of trendy, coastal style.
All seemed well…until the young pastor received the first of many anonymous letters. He showed the crusty correspondence to his bride.
Incredulous, she read the missive.
Apparently, someone objected to trendsetting ties. In fact, the author of the letter expressed decided disapproval.
“Go back to California where you belong,” the letter concluded.
The young bride cried. They had exhausted their savings to make the move.
Excepting her new husband, she had left all her loved ones behind. The young couple called the community “home,” and yet, they did not belong.
Living on the outskirts.
Outsiders looking in.
Forced into back alley, hole-in-the walls rather than invited to five star dining.
Undoubtedly, he had violated an unspoken dress code. California bred, he didn’t have a clue.
Southern social customs, traditions and laws were beyond their experience. Dazed, they stumbled through their first six months.
Perhaps, you have found yourself periodically on the outside as well…
Living on the outside.
Side-swiped by unspoken expectations, you reel with emotional pain. Critical blows leave you gasping for air. Your best efforts fall short.
Yup. Been there; experienced that.
For this reason, after hearing his story, my heart broke for that young pastor. You see, the one place where he expected to find grace disappointed him.
It’s nothing new. For as long as people have found community with one another, there have also been those who have been shut out, pushed aside or separated by others from the major thoroughfares.
And at some point or another, all of us have been on the outside. Left out.
It’s not the way Yahweh intended it. He longed for a close walk with Adam and Eve…with all humanity.
But after that first couple rebelled, they hid from their heavenly Father. They lied and shut Him out. Their external departure from the garden simply demonstrated their internal spiritual departure.
Yet, Christ came “to seek and to save that which was lost,” (Luke 19:10).
Jesus himself sought out those who found themselves on the outskirts of Judaism.
Who can forget the horror of the “good ol’ boys”–the Pharisees and Sadducees–when Jesus dined with Zaccheus, a corrupt tax collector?
Without a doubt, our gracious God has a soft-spot for outsiders… I recall Joseph, the rejected sibling; Ehud, the left-handed judge; Ruth, the Moabite; David, the youngest son; the seemingly insignificant group of Bethlehem Shepherds… and so many others.
In light of such a list, it seems God’s people should never have difficulty accepting outsiders.
Unfortunately, despite adoption in God’s family, you and I nevertheless continue to stumble in this world. As we learn to walk in faith, we take our share of tumbles.
And the early church was no exception.
Things began well.
Peter preached to thousands on Pentecost. Speaking to his fellow Jews, he demonstrated from Old Testament Scripture that the Messiah must first suffer and die. He then proclaimed the good news: Christ, risen from the dead.
He spoke to his countrymen. Thus, Christianity, or The Way as it was called, remained a Jewish sect. They met in the temple for teaching. They continued to practice much of their traditional faith while simultaneously acknowledging Jesus as their resurrected Messiah.
It all seemed perfectly reasonable to Peter and the other disciples. Nothing seemed amiss. After all, the promise of the Messiah had been given to Israel. Gentiles were outsiders. They did not inherit the promises.
In fact, God’s blueprint for the temple had even designated an outer court for Gentiles who wished to discover more about the Hebrew faith. Obviously, Gentiles must remain in the outer court.
They were, so to speak, “unclean,” the uncircumcised outsiders. Such a hurdle seemed to high for Gentiles to ever clear.
Even so, during the final week before His crucifixion, Jesus referred to the “times of the Gentiles,” (Luke 21:24). But not even Peter could comprehend what Christ meant by that. To Peter, Christ’s words probably seemed to prophecy further Roman oppression.
And so it was. Had not Abba intervened in a town called Joppa, most of us would be outsiders still.
Paul notes this in Ephesians 2:12, “remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world…”
However, our God of Grace loves outsiders. And He had big plans for us. He planned the adoption of those on the outskirts; with great love and care, the Gardener grafted the outsiders into the vine, (Romans 11:24).
Indeed, it all began with Peter’s visit with Simon of Joppa. Apparently, during his stay, Peter–a follower of Jesus as well as a good Hebrew–went up on the rooftop to pray.
Acts 10:10 tells us that while praying, Peter became hungry as he waited on the meal’s preparation.
Scripture tells us that during that time Peter had a most unusual vision.
Of course, at first glance, it might not seem so unusual to us.
After all, Peter saw a sheet-like cloth come down from the sky and in it were all kinds of “four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air,” (Acts 10:12).
Who doesn’t dream of food when extremely hungry?
I probably would have been content to dream of a Chick-fil-A grilled chicken salad. But bold Peter dreamed an entire king’s banquet.
A voice directed, “‘Arise, Peter, kill and eat!'”
Don’t mind if I do. Thank you, Lord… most would respond.
But Peter was a devout Hebrew. And likely, pork was included in the vision. Pigs obviously have four feet.
“By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean,” Peter objected.
I suspect that Peter could hardly believe his eyes and ears. Understanding Peter’s bewilderment, God graciously repeated the command two more times.
I suspect Peter caught the significance.
Peter likely recalled denying Christ three times. In addition, after his resurrection, the Savior had not only asked “Peter, do you love me?” three times but had also thrice commanded Peter to “Feed my Sheep.”
Certainly, the thrice repeated message alerted Peter to its critical importance.
Yet, God further emphasized His point. As Peter pondered the vision, the Holy Spirit spoke to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. But arise, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself,” (Acts 10:19-20).
Three men… Gentiles, actually. The Peter of Pentecost would have considered them to be unclean. For Peter, to travel in the company of Gentiles required radical grace.
Although in the past, the Hebrews had avoided close association with their pagan neighbors lest the hearts of God’s people be draw away from Yahweh, God now commanded Peter to accompany three gentiles to their master’s home.
Peter would no longer push them away; instead, he would walk with them and guide their journey of faith.
The situation? Cornelius, a Roman centurion, sought God.
Without a doubt, grace sent Peter to deliver the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection…salvation by grace through faith in Christ, (Ephesians 2:8,9).
Of course, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, records the conversion of Cornelius and his household that day. Yet, the events of that day extended far beyond Cornelius and his family.
Peter said, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality…”
Yes, the Savior touched and healed lepers.
Christ forgave and spoke graciously to adulterers, prostitutes, corrupt politicians, children, fisherman and Samaritans.
But Christ didn’t stop there. He called Gentiles–the outsiders–as well.
Indeed. No one is too low or too high. No one is too lost. No sin too great that it cannot be forgiven. God so loved the WORLD.
Even its outsiders.
And for the one who earnestly and honestly seeks Him, Christ provides truth. Just as He did for Cornelius, the Roman centurion who had lived his life on the outskirts of Judaism.
Under such circumstances, how in the world would Cornelius discover Christ?
It seemed impossible.
The disciples did not preach to Gentiles. Yet, Abba saw Cornelius’ heart, and provided a way.
That’s right. What seems impossible for humanity is always possible for our infinite God of Grace.
Grace makes a way where there seems to be no way.
Perhaps, like me, at times you have found yourself on the outside. Maybe, you have felt undeserving or inadequate. Or you may feel you simply do not fit.
No worries. Our Savior welcomes this world’s misfits with open arms. Grace reassures us that a relationship with Christ isn’t based on anything we have or have not done.
It isn’t up to me. Instead, Christ took care of it all on the cross. His love so great it stretched out on a cross. He served as my substitute, took the punishment for my God-directed rebellion, my former insistence on going my own way, (Isaiah 53:6).
And now, He calls me; He adopts me as His own, (Romans 8:15).
Gently and tenderly, He says in words so familiar yet so revolutionary,”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).
Unquestionably, we were once strangers, living on the outskirts of Grace and needing a Savior.
Yet, Paul continued his message with hope, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,” (Ephesians 2:13-14).
Peter received a radical and revolutionary message that day in Joppa.
And because of that message, we have come to know the deep love and grace of the Eternal Creator.
You and I…once far off; now, brought near.
Christ calls us, “Friend. Beloved child,” (John 1:12; 15:15).
There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, (Romans 8:1).
Do I still sometimes feel inadequate? You bet.
But then, I recall this: although you and I once stood in the outer court, grace invited us into the throne room, (Romans 5:6). Indeed, as John wrote of our Savior, whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.
And also “… as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,” John writes.
Yes, grace embraces prodigals, outsiders… and calls the “whoevers” home. Once far off, you and I now run into the loving arms of the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace, (Isaiah 9:6).
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for ‘WHOEVER WILL CALL UPON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.'” ~Romans 10:11,12