No Undesirables! What the Pharisees and the Church Often Have in Common

In Jesus’ day, the religious had turned God’s guidelines into fences. You had to wear, do your hair, eat your lunch, wash your hands their way— or else: you were on the wrong side of the fence. The sign on the fence read: NO UNDESIRABLES!

There was a long list of those who were, well, undesirable. Many things could make you unclean, unacceptable. The label defined who was in and who was out.

Now, there is nothing wrong with defining who we are, but there is something terribly wrong with ‘labeling.’ Labeling is what we do with things. Labels are, in fact, quite useful. We need labels for streets and containers.

But they were never intended for people!

People have names. Things have labels.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees (and the church?) have frequently neglected that distinction. They pasted labels on people turning other human beings into things. People became objects, not subjects. These were objects that can be rejected, dismissed and disregarded without qualms.

Divine Intervention

Jesus’ followers had lived with such labels all their lives. They didn’t even have qualms with their labels. It required Divine intervention for them to remove their labels and discover that other people, not just Jews, were subjects made in God’s image, for whom God loved and died.

In Acts 10-11, we find such an intervention. A “man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort” who “was a devout man who feared God with all his household; [who] gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:1-2).

Wait a minute! Did you catch that? A PAGAN ROMAN SOLDIER WAS A DEVOUT, GOD FEARING, GENEROUS GUY! Wait a minute! A gentile with genuine spiritual interest… who does good things… — that description rips off every label on the ancient Jew’s fence!

In verse 4, we go on to discover that this ‘outsider’ has received a vision from God. Again, we are struck by how this is “out of the box.” Our God speaking to non Jews, the unclean?! Might God speak today to ‘out of the box’ people in ‘out of the box’ ways to those we label ‘non-Christians’, ‘unbelievers?’ Could our neighbors ‘outside of the church’ be acceptable to God (10:35) as they seek after Him and reflect His Kingdom values without yet knowing the King?

Peter also receives a vision from God. He sees an unholy mix of clean and unclean animals; everything in the sheet is contaminated by the ‘other.’ Peter is appalled (10:14), but God has something to say (3 times!) about such a false understanding: “Peter, take off your labels, now.” Pause, ask yourself, ask God….who have I labeled personally and as ‘the churched?”

Whom do I/we avoid… in our neighbourhoods because of the labels I/we have put on them?

What God has made clean, you must not call profane… “In my kingdom there are NO UNDESIRABLES!”

It would be easier if there were.

If we could sort out the wheat from the weeds, label those in and out, build fences and walls and just be concerned with ourselves, being a Christian would be a lot less complicated.

But that would not be love.

And God is love.

Whose Love?

Love is always about the other. It is unconditionally, unreservedly about the other, inclusive and accepting. So the Spirit says to Peter and to us, let your labels be taken up in ‘the sheet’ and go “without hesitation” (10:20) to the homes and the table fellowships of the other (10:24-29).

Peter goes, because he’s learned that much by now. It is exactly in this uncomfortable place of the ‘other’ where, much to his and his coworkers’ surprise, God shows up. In fact, God had already been at work. But before we get to the end of the story, let’s appreciate that Peter, the Jew, got up and WENT TO THE HOUSE OF A GENTILE!! The church left the building and went to hang out with, to stay and to eat with the unclean next door neighbour and his whole household and relationship circle.

Friends, this is huge.

This story isn’t just about the conversion of Cornelius. This story is about the conversion of Peter and of us. It’s so important that Luke spends so much time on it (66 verses, the story told 3 times)!

Do you ever wonder about that? In Acts 8, we get around 20 verses about the Samaritans being converted, then there are about a dozen verses for the account of Philip’s Divine appointment with the Ethiopian Eunuch. You’d think these stories might get more attention. They are, after all, they are the fulfillment of Acts 1:8, the Gospel being proclaimed throughout Judea, to Samaria and now on its way to Ethiopia, ‘and to end of the earth.’ But no…

Why so much more time on this conversion story? I believe it is because the biggest barrier to the spreading and receiving of the Good News, then and now, is US- those who think they are clean, those who claim to be insiders, those with the labels.

“We” need a conversion as much as “they” do.

We need to take down our fences and tear off our labels. “We” need to quit claiming that we have all the right answers. We need to stop claiming exclusive rights to God and happen to be the only place where God is at work, the only people whom God loves. How did we ever get to be so presumptuous?

For God so loved the world.

On behalf of the Church, I want to publicly confess, apologize and repent.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Are any righteous? Are any undefiled? No, not one. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8:7).

Peter gets it. He understands how the presumptions that he and his people have asserted for centuries have not only distorted his perception of others, but also others’ perception of God, his people and His ways. He exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34).”

In the very next chapter, we’re back to where we started.

The churched wants to reassert the labels: “But he’s a sinner.” “But she hasn’t said the prayer.”

How can you go to the bar? Why do you hang out with those neighbors, aren’t they gluttons and drunks? Shouldn’t you be at church?

Shouldn’t you be the church!

May the Spirit fall upon us as we step out and into the lives and places of our neighbors, like Peter, such that “when the church hears [of what God is doing], ‘the saints’ may be silenced. And praise God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the [you fill in the blank] –the repentance that leads to life!’” (11:18)

A Prayer of Repentance

May the Spirit fall upon us as we step out and into the lives and places of our neighbours. May we, like Peter, so that “when the church hears [of what God is doing], ‘the saints’ maImagine a Kingdom in which
every tribe and nation,
every rank and station,
every red and yellow,
black and white…
every handsome knight and little sprite…
Is named
Child of God
Precious one
Holy, forgiven,
Daughter, son
My loved one
Chosen, royal,
My image bearer
No lesser, no fairer….

God, hear our prayer
Thank you that no one is undesirable
in your Kingdom
Thank you that you are able
To change us, remake us
Thank you that you send us
And go before…
In a way we can’t ignore
Don’t let us ignore
Instead renew, restore
The passion, the attention,
Your intention
Bringing light, making new
Showing us
what is true
That all might praise You…

As we come to Your table
Where you have wiped away every label…
May we dine together
As one
for the work is done
Through the Cross of Your Son
Jesus, be our bread of life
Our new wine
That renews and refines
Your Church
And Spirit, empower us to bring
This life giving meal
To all who need you still…

And may Your Name sing
In our hearts
as we heed your beckoning
and go
To BE who you’ve already made us to be
Among and with
–that our neighbours might see
Your Kingdom come, Your will being done
For the sake of Your Name
And in the power of the Same,
We pray–

So be it, Amen.

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Dr. Karen Wilk
Dr. Karen Wilk is a National Team Member of Forge Canada’s Missional Training Network, and a Missional Leader Developer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Karen is the Lead Catalyser of Neighbourhood Life/NEW (Neighbourhood Engagement Workers) Community in Alberta, where she actively engages church leadership in moving their congregations out into neighborhoods. She has been a pastor in Edmonton for almost 28 years and completed a Doctorate in Missional Leadership at Northern Seminary in Chicago. Karen is the author of Don’t Invite Them To Church: Moving From a Come and See to a Go and Be Church. She is also a neighbor, wife, mom, and minister who is leading her own neighborhood community.
Dr. Karen Wilk

1 Comment

  1. Mark Votava Nov 12, 2014 Reply

    Great thoughts Karen!

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