I was a lifeguard for one summer and not everyday is a “Baywatch” sort of day. The truth is that many days are cold and rainy and I would absolutely dread going into the water. Could you imagine if a child started to drown and I sat there watching thinking, “I know exactly what to do but there’s no way I’m going into that water on this cold of a day!” The thought of a lifeguard being unwilling to get uncomfortable in order to save a child is absolutely appalling to us. So why is it we are not equally appalled when we are unwilling to get uncomfortable in order to share the gospel with a lost sinner?
Acts chapter 10 tells the story of Peter going to visit Cornelius. Peter had been brought up understanding the difference between clean and unclean things. It was God’s way of teaching His people that there should be a difference between them and the rest of the world. At some point this daily reminder of God’s holiness became an end in itself. Instead of these practices pointing to God, they were simply followed for their own sake and became a sort of comfort zone for God’s people. As long as they stuck to this list of rules they were fine. It didn’t matter if they were completely ignoring the one to whom the rules pointed.
Cornelius was a Gentile and did not follow these rules. In fact, these rules meant that Peter could not even go to Cornelius’ house and certainly not eat any of his food. The early followers of Jesus assumed that people had to first accept the Jewish rules and then could come to God through Christ. They understood these rules and were comfortable with them. They knew God had worked through these rules in the past so didn’t He have to work this way in the future? But the Gospel Mission in Acts often leads God’s people into uncharted waters. God teaches Peter that He (God – not Peter!) is in control of what is clean and unclean. God is not bound by what keeps us comfortable.
Comfort Zones are a form of protection. We put up walls in our lives saying we are willing to be stretched so far but not any farther. Life within those walls seems safe and predictable because we know it and understand how it works.
In the sermon I described three steps that God uses in getting us out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission. The first step is to LEARN – God teaches us something about Him and His work in the world. God was teaching Peter something new – that God was making things clean that were unclean before. Peter had to learn this important lesson if he was to follow where God was leading.
The second step God uses in getting us out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission is to give us an opportunity to RESPOND. Peter was faced with a choice. He could have stayed home and not gone to Cornelius’ house. He could have stayed in his comfort zone, but he would have missed out on the incredible opportunity to see God at work in a powerful way. But Peter did respond – he went to Cornelius’ house and he told Cornelius and his entire household about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The third step God uses in getting us out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission is to give us a new EXPERIENCE of His work. Peter witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit on these “unclean” Gentiles. Peter assumed that these people would first need to become Jewish, but God was at work and clearly accepted these people only on the basis of what Christ did on the cross. This opened a whole new opportunity for the Gospel Mission. The gospel could be taken straight to people that had no connection at all with the Jewish rules.
So when we LEARN something about God we must RESPOND to what we are learning by faith and obedience and this leads to a new EXPERIENCE of who God is and what He is doing in this world. Then, and this is the really cool part, this EXPERIENCE means that we LEARN something new – which means we should RESPOND and then EXPERIENCE and….well, you get the point. It’s a cycle. LEARN, RESPOND, EXPERIENCE, REPEAT…
Peter makes an interesting statement in Acts 11:17 when he is being questioned by fellow believers as to why he would go and stay with a Gentile. He says, “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God.” That last phrase really challenges me. If we stick to our comfort zones and assume that God has to work in ways that are comfortable to us, then we might actually be in opposition to God.
As I was preaching this sermon, I could almost imagine the younger generations shouting “Amen.” Churches are still struggling with the whole traditional vs. contemporary issue and I think a sermon like this could be taken as a challenge to the traditional mindset that thinks that the way things were done in the past is necessarily the best way. I think this is a good application, but it is only part of the picture. The truth is that the contemporary style of church is just as comfortable for those who like it. Sometimes the efforts to change a traditional church are simply to bring the church in line with a new comfort zone! It’s like a lifeguard trading the fuzzy hoodie and sweatpants for an electric heater – much more contemporary, but still unwilling to get in the water!
We don’t get out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission on our terms. Too often we seek an experience with God without ever truly learning from His Word and responding to Him in faith and obedience. This leads to shallow and ineffectual experiences that are only our own poor imitations of God’s real work and it leads to people who are “converted” to our comfort zones rather than being truly converted by the saving power of the gospel.
Throughout this sermon series, people have asked me why God doesn’t work with the same power today that He did in Acts. Trust me, He does. But He does so on His terms, not ours. Maybe the reason we don’t see (or experience) it is that we are too busy rearranging our comfort zones. May we be like Peter and be willing to get out of our comfort zone and into the Gospel Mission as we learn, respond to, and experience more of what God is doing.