Recent events in my life have reminded me what it feels like to be a new member of a church community.
The new person begins his membership as a visitor, a stranger who has perhaps found the church through research but is a complete stranger to the community. A stranger is in a vulnerable position and can feel alone even if the church is full of people. It can be a frightening experience made even more frightening by the order of the worship service, the style of music, and the arrangement of the seating that are unique to that community. A new place can feel like a different planet.
The transition from visitor to community member can be short or it can take months depending on the community. How accepting are the parishioners? Are they willing to let in someone who is from a different place? More importantly, are they willing to show the visitor around and help him learn the nuances of their spiritual community?
Today’s passage in Acts serves as a guide for church communities, but it is also a reassuring message for people who are strangers to a new spiritual home. Peter’s willingness to baptize gentiles highlights a central feature of the Christian faith: everyone is welcome to the community. Christians have the obligation to show everyone the love that God gives to all of us, but it is easy for Christians to fail in this obligation.
Today’s reading says, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” The passage suggests that the Jewish members of the early church were astonished that people from other faiths can have a connection with God. My mind wonders if much has changed all of these years later. Would I be astounded if Jesus appeared to a Buddhist friend of mine? What if my friend is so moved by the experience that he chooses to follow Jesus’ teachings but at the same time chooses to remain a practicing Buddhist? Should I then consider my Buddhist friend a member of my church community, or is he still outside of my church community?
God does not follow our labels, and this truth should be at the center of the Christian way of life. A Christian must accept a world full of different people–diversity should not be a mere goal for this faith: it is an unambiguous command.
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.