Monday, March 26, 2012

Enlarging our Dreams

Sometimes our dreams are dwarfed by our own limited perspectives. We may have a dream in our hearts and believe it’s God-given. Later we may discover God’s dream is much larger than the dream we have in mind. The Bible contains numerous stories of God trying to get his people to dream larger dreams. God’s dreams usually exceed the capacity of our imaginations. God’s dreams are far more creative and far more encompassing than we could ever imagine. The apostle Peter had a dream and later discovered that God’s dream exceeded his own dream. God dreamed of a church where all people would be welcomed. Since the beginning, God’s dream was that all people would worship Him together with joy, regardless of gender, age, race, class, appearance, weight, and all the marks that we use to include and exclude.
God wanted to created a church, where, in the words of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” God’s dream for his church is inclusive. God didn’t want there to be racial distinctions, class distinctions, or gender distinctions. God told our spiritual father, Abraham, “All peoples on earth shall be blessed through you”! (Gen. 12:3). God is crazy about you, and about each and every one of us. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you’ve done.
But leaders in the early church had great difficulty embracing the scope of God’s dream. Church leaders in the New Testament allowed cultural prejudices to limit the membership of the church to a select group of people. When the church first began in Acts 2, it started as an outgrowth of Judaism. The church that began at Pentecost was composed of people within Judaism who came to believe in Jesus. They limited their picture of the church to include only Jews. Yet, God’s dream from the beginning was that from this one group, everyone would be made aware of God’s love. Peter and other church leaders failed to grasp the dream. In an effort to reach only people like themselves, their dream was dwarfed.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on these narrow-minded church leaders, because each and every one of us here have our own prejudices. Some of us carry racial prejudice. Probably many more carry class prejudice. Some are prejudiced against people who are overweight. Others are prejudiced against people who speak with a southern accent, subconsciously equating a twang with a lack of intelligence or sophistication.  I have prejudices I’m not even aware of yet. Prejudices sneak up on us.
Often we think in terms of race, class, gender, culture, ethnicity, patterns of speech, weight, appearance, etc. We tend to include or excluded on the basis of these non-essentials. I don’t mean our backgrounds are unimportant: they matter. But these things don’t determine our worth or our eligibility for God’s kingdom.
Acts 10 is the story of God’s enlarging Peter’s dream and, in turn, enlarging the church’s dream.  It is a turning point in the history of the church, because in Acts 10 we see the first Gentile become a full-fledged member of the church.   That  doesn’t sound like a big deal because most of us are Gentiles.  But in the first century this was a big deal.  In first-century Judea there was a huge gulf between the Jews and Gentiles. The Jews hated the Gentiles, and the Gentiles returned the favor. Among the Jews there was exclusivism. They identified themselves as “God’s chosen people.” And as God’s chosen people they forgot that their role was to bless all people. Instead of loving others, they hated them. The Jews said that help should not be given to a Gentile woman in labor, because that would only bring one more Gentile into the world. They regarded the Gentiles as sinners and didn’t want to be polluted by contact with them.
In the book of Acts, God made it clear that He wanted His people to reach out into Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and the uttermost parts. But his people stayed in Jerusalem. What happens? Persecution comes to the church. Listen to Acts 8:2: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Where did God want them to go? “Judea and Samaria.” But the church didn’t want to go there. But when the persecution came, they had to go there. Yet when they got there, they were reluctant to reach out, and God had to remind them to reach out to those who were different.
The church isn’t to be worldly, but it is to look like the world in all its rich diversity.  The Kingdom of God is not characterized by bland sameness.  We may feel more comfortable around people exactly like us, but the Kingdom isn’t for our comfort, but for our transformation.

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