The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened
—Acts 11:1-4, NIV
The Scope of the Gospel is Bigger Than We Thought
Peter had gone to the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius and had preached the gospel to gentiles. Now Peter has to account for himself. It never entered into anyone’s mind that gentiles were fit receptacles for the gospel. Oh, gentiles are people of infinite worth before God, make no mistake about it; but can they actually be spirit-filled? Would we want one to pastor our church or teach in our Sunday school?
Peter justifies his actions based on divine direction and experiential confirmation. The Christian community learned that the scope of the gospel was a lot larger than they thought, and it was for this reason that the ancient church called itself “catholic,” which is a Greek word that means “universal.” It is a shame that we have surrendered the term “catholic” to sectarian use and have not restored it, as if it were a registered trademark we are not allowed to use. In the original patristic sense, all Christians are catholics, because we believe that the gospel that saves us is catholic; that is to say, universal: anyone can become a Christian, regardless of nationality, race, ethnic group, station in life, or any other criterion we might think up.
The issue of gentiles in the church wasn’t settled on that day when Peter spoke of his experiences at Joppa. It became a controversy in which the Holy Spirit continued to pull at the edges of the church to enlarge it. We still have controversies about who can be inside the church and who must be outside of it—as it was in the beginning, it is now, and it will probably always be that way. These controversies do not arise from human weakness, but from the Holy Spirit, who still pulls at the edges of the church to enlarge it.
If our god is not greater than we are, then we are worshipping no god at all; for how could anything that is smaller than us be a god? In truth, God is not limited by the capacity of our intellect or the boundaries of our heart. Just as God is larger than our brain, His love is greater than our heart.
Have you ever made a pie crust from scratch? As you roll out the dough, it shrinks right back. It fights you. It does not want to stretch to fit the pie pan. Sometimes it even splits to protest, but eventually you put it all together and prevail. The church is like the pie dough, the Holy Spirit wields the rolling pin, and the pie pan is the glory to come.
Looking back, it was always so!
The earliest Christians were all Jews. As they welcomed the gentiles into the church, they realized something that should have been obvious all along. God did not choose the Jews to be smug that God loved them and no one else; God chose the Jews to spread the news of His love to all people!
In the same way, the church is not the community of saved, so much as it is the community of the saving. If we sit inside our churches, feeling embattled by the world, awaiting Jesus to airlift us out, we are burying the talent with which He entrusted us. He will not be pleased.
The people of Israel are close to God’s heart, but in Psalm 148 the psalmist calls upon the entire heavenly host, the entire created world, and all people praise the Lord. Therefore Scripture backs up Peter on this point: God includes more than we do.
How great our glory will be!
Okay, did you get the pie-dough analogy? In Revelation, John tells us of the uncountable multitudes (the dough, stretched out), in this passage he tells us about the new universe (the pie pan):
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.
—Revelation 21:1-6, NIV
Even though most of us have a pre-Christian neo-Platonic concept that the afterlife is immaterial, none of us would ever say, “Why did you step on that foot? I was using it.” Instead we would say, “You hurt me!” Even as we intellectually deny that our bodies participate in the afterlife, we still include our body parts in our concept of self. Our unrehearsed reactions are more biblical and more Christian than our intellectual contemplations.
The Bible teaches us that our bodies (which God created and are good) are just as much part of us as our spirits are. In fact, in Genesis, the soul is the union of the spirit with the body: Adam became a living soul when God added spirit to the flesh.
Our bodies are not designed for eternity. It seems like every time you go to the doctor, there’s one more pill you have to take every day for the rest of your life. Our bodies age, they wear out, and they die. Once in every Christian’s life, people pray for us to get well, but we die anyway. Imagine being 500 years old, crippled with osteoarthritis, mostly blind, mostly deaf, bent over, and constantly fatigued, begging people to stop praying for us so we could finally die! It is God’s mercy that we are permitted to die.
We are not truly ourselves without our bodies. We need a resurrection, in which our bodies are transformed and fitted for eternity, and that is what Jesus not only promises us but demonstrates He can give us. (For more, see What Happens To Me When I Die?)
John presupposes all of this in this passage, which has echoes in Romans 8:18-22. John tells us about the new universe in which our resurrected bodies will live. And yes, your dog is going to heaven. The entire creation is going to be redeemed, and your dog is part of the creation. The difference between you and your dog is not who is going to heaven, but who has to choose it.
Our present universe is separate from the courts of heaven. In the new, redeemed universe, the there is no separation; it is no longer needed, because all the people who live in the new universe have chosen fellowship with God.
Enough of this “Pie in the Sky”! How do we get there from here?
Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
—John 13:31-35, NIV
Okay, all this talk about future glory is edifying; the idea that the controversies in the church are really the Holy Spirit’s way of stretching us is reassuring, if a bit unsettling; and the fact that all this is firmly grounded in history and in Scripture is a tad satisfying, but what shall we actually do so that we can be part of the solution instead of the problem?
The gospel passage is part of a discourse at the Last Supper; it serves us as a flashback to Holy Week. The disciples were not equipped to understand it at the time that Jesus said it; it is only in retrospect that they understood what He meant. The crucifixion is His glory, because in overcoming it He demonstrates who He is and what authority He has. In the same sense, all the controversies in the Church—all branches of it, not just our denomination—are our glory. Just as the crucifixion became Jesus’ glory in His resurrection, our controversies will become our glory in their resolution. And God’s wisdom is behind it all; His purpose is to include as many as possible in the uncountable multitudes.
At the time of the discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus was on the point of descending into the realm of the dead and of ascending on the fortieth day into the courts of heaven; these are places the disciples could not go as yet—particularly since the new heavens and the new earth do not yet exist.
In the meantime, Jesus commands them to love one another. This is not a suggestion. It is not a tip for happy living. It is not something they can do if they have the time and inclination; it is a commandment.
Now imagine that two people have the same stock broker. The stock broker tells them to invest in a certain stock. Both people have adequate funds and both can afford the investment. One purchases the stock, the other does not. Which one trusts the stockbroker?
I observe that if you trust someone, you take their advice; and if you do not trust them, you ignore their advice. That being true, how can you claim to have faith in Jesus Christ if you decline baptism, if you do not obey His commandments, and if you do not lift a finger to carry other people’s burdens? If you do not love others, as Jesus commanded, in what way can you possibly say that you have faith in Jesus Christ?
But wait a moment, let’s back up. When Jesus told them to love one another, what was the scope of His commandment? Did He mean, “You twelve disciples, love one another”? Did He mean, “You Christians, love one another?” Or did He perhaps mean, “You human beings, love one another?”
Do you think Jesus would be upset if we had too much love for too many people?
Perhaps we should err on the large side, and take the commandment to mean, “You human beings, love one another.” In doing that, we work with the Holy Spirit to stretch the dough to fit the pan.
I don’t know what flavor the pie in the sky will be, but I’m sure it will be grand.