In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment. He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God.
I was minding my own business, all alone at a ministry conference in Atlanta. After a long day in workshops, I was ready for bed and logged in on my laptop to check the online course I was teaching. After pecking away at my keyboard for a while, I was startled suddenly by someone pounding on my door. I peered through the peephole and with all the machismo I could muster, I said in a deep voice, “Who is it?” My unknown visitor replied, “I’m the hotel detective. Our records indicate this room should be vacant tonight, but our security system recognized someone turning on the lights earlier. I need to see your identification.”
Having checked into the hotel legitimately earlier in the day, I wrestled with what I should do. Standing there in my boxer shorts, part of me wondered if the hotel detective himself was legit – so I picked up the phone and dialed the front desk operator.
I explained the situation to the concierge, who then checked the hotel’s records. After a few moments, he apologized for the mistake, saying that the hotel’s detective had come to the wrong room by mistake. Once my heart rate dropped back down under stroke range, I returned to my computer and finally went to bed. The next evening when I returned to my room, I found a beautiful guest basket on the desk courtesy of the hotel, with a signed apology note from the hotel concierge.
That was the first and only time I’ve ever used the services of a hotel concierge. Maybe it’s because the budget motels my family and I normally use don’t have much in the way of staff, except for the person behind the bulletproof glass. Concierges typically work at higher caliber hotels – something with three or more stars above what my budget typically allows. A concierge is someone who makes the impossible, possible. At top-tier hotels, concierges are the ultimate insiders with connections to Broadway show tickets and uber-trendy restaurant reservations. At times, their guests make bizarre requests: Salvador Dali, the father of surrealist art, was known for bringing wild animals along as hotel guests. Once he had the concierge deliver a horse to his room, and another time he ordered up an entire herd of sheep. When the concierge brought them in, Dali pulled out a starter pistol and began firing blanks at the lambs! When he checked out, he tipped the concierge with his own signed artwork, which is worth a fortune today.
The book of Acts tells the stories of the church’s first generations, and how with God, the impossible was made possible. In Acts 10, a Roman soldier named Cornelius had been minding his own business, and then one afternoon an angel suddenly appeared to him out of nowhere. God had noticed the man’s prayers, as well as his care for the poor. Not only that, God wanted to make a connection: “Send some men over to Joppa and bring Simon Peter back,” the angel commanded.
In Joppa, Peter was hungrily anticipating lunch. He too was minding his own business, when he was startled by a vision. In this case, the message came in the form of an object lesson similar to something that Salvador Dali might conjure up: all kinds of non-Kosher food being lowered down before Peter in a large sheet – strange animals, birds, and reptiles – food that was forbidden for good Jewish people to eat. When Peter protested this dinner invitation on the basis of his religious tradition, a voice replied: “Don’t call something unclean if God has made it clean.” Three more times, the vision was repeated.
At that same time, Cornelius’s friends arrived at Peter’s gate. Being prompted by the Holy Spirit, Peter played concierge to them by offering them a place to stay, then he headed back with them the next day to meet Cornelius for himself. When they met in Caesarea the next day, Cornelius recounted his miraculous vision to Peter, concluding “Now we are all here, waiting before God to hear the message the Lord has given you.”
At Cornelius’s house, in Caesarea, Peter recognized that God does not show favoritism. God had taught him that he could no longer think of Gentile people as unclean. Then, before Peter could even finish speaking, the Holy Spirit visited every Gentile who was within earshot.
Isn’t it amazing how we can be minding our own business, when God suddenly invades the scene and drastically changes everything?
Nearly every person who has a relationship with God, owes it in some way to this little interchange between Peter and Cornelius, for this Roman soldier’s transformation marked an entirely new opportunity for non-Jewish folks. Here in Acts 10, it becomes clear that God’s grace extends to all people, not only to those of Abraham’s covenant. God does not play favorites – what a bizarre, unbelievable notion! Could it be that what the early Christians thought was unclean could actually be made clean by God? Is it possible that God’s Spirit could be poured out on Gentiles, too?
Have you ever noticed that there seem to be some people outside the bubble of the Church who appear to be more loving and more generous than folks you know inside the bubble? How can this be? It seems this was the case with Cornelius: he was devout, he revered God, he prayed, and he gave generously to others. Could it be that God wants to teach us generous living from folks who live outside the bubble of the Church?
For a long time, my problem was that my thinking was tied into collections: somehow, I had been taught that my faith was primarily about me collecting myself with other followers of Jesus, so that they could rub off on me and I could look more like Jesus. The only trouble was that too often, I ended up looking more like them than like Jesus.
To complicate matters even more, my Bible reminds me how Jesus seems to spend his time hanging out with the wrong kind of people – he definitely does not play favorites, does he? Instead, Jesus accepted people as they were, but He didn’t leave them as they were. Too often, we approach God like Salvador Dali summoned his concierge. Fortunately, Jesus looks beyond our bizarre requests because, unlike a concierge, Jesus is far less interested in collecting tips than in connecting lives.
When we focus more on collecting Christians inside the church than on connecting people outside the bubble, we run the great risk of missing what God is doing on both sides of the bubble. I know that at times my neighbor’s ways seem strange to me, but I am finding that God wants me to look deeper. After all, if God could make me clean, then certainly it’s possible for them, too!
Even more, could it be that our neighbors outside the bubble have something to teach us about generous living? What if we changed our mindset about collecting people inside our churches in hopes of somehow changing them? Instead, what if we decided that we were going to connect with our neighbors outside the bubble, intentionally choosing first to learn from them about what triggers their generosity? Rather than coming up with our own great plans to reach our community, what if pastors and parishioners intentionally asked people outside the bubble how they would like to make a difference – and then we joined them in making that difference a reality?
What if we simply tried to find out who are neighbors are by asking some simple questions: Here are just a couple of ideas – I suspect you could come up with some even better ones if you put your mind to it:
- What kind of neighborhood would you like ours to be?
- If you could know what God wanted to do in our community, would you want to be part of it?
The difference in this approach is that all of a sudden, we’re partners together in this thing. We can actually become concierges who help make our neighbors’ best dreams a reality. And as we make these connections, we find opportunities to help our neighbors outside the bubble recognize that all along, God has already been reaching out to them right where they’ve been. In the Church of the Nazarene, this is nothing new to us – John Wesley called it “prevenient grace.”
God’s holy love has been reaching out to all people from even before the moment of our inception. As Peter says in Acts 10.35, there is peace with God through Christ. Jesus is the ultimate in making the impossible possible, both for you and for your neighbor.
But here’s something even more bizarre, even more unbelievable: God wants to use folks like Peter, like you, and like me to make connections to neighbors like Cornelius outside the bubble – and perhaps our friends outside the bubble have something to teach us about generous living. It’s time we stop minding our own business and find out what inspires our neighbors’ generosity so that maybe – just maybe – some of their generosity could rub off on us in the process, as we make the connection together.
Dr. Jay Richard Akkerman is associate professor of preaching and missional theology at Northwest Nazarene University, where he also directs the university’s graduate theological online education programs.