Developing a Theology of Receiving

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The church has a long history of sending people “to the ends of the earth.” Christians are often considered a missional group, with Christian missionaries living in every corner of the globe. However, over the years, we have also developed a dangerously limiting stereotype of missions: that the job of the missionary is to go into the far, foreign, difficult places to preach the gospel because this kind of mission requires someone who is willing to take risks—someone courageous, bold, and relentlessly faithful. We then send these bold warriors of the faith forward—supporting them, prayerfully and financially—to do the hard work of evangelism (sharing the wealth) in the world.

In our world today, this vision is too narrow. I want us to expand the traditional “sending” model. The church needs to recognize a broader truth: God sends people from everywhere, to everywhere. In other words, we are all sent. And today in His sovereignty, God has not only sent believers to nonbelievers . . . but nonbelievers to believers, as we recognize the trends of immigration and globalization in the world.

You Have a Mission

If you are a Christian, you have been sent on a mission, by Jesus Himself, whose famous last words to His friends (according to the book of Matthew) were:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28: 18b–20)

We call these words the Great Commission, and though at times, church members would like to defer this responsibility to the paid pastors, the church staff, the bold missionaries, and the wise elders, the truth is, the charge to “make disciples” is the responsibility of each and every believer. I will admit, at times I get frustrated with the experts and the scholars and the theologians who want to sit around and discuss doctrine and only doctrine. If I’m being honest, sometimes my internal response sounds a little bit like: “Are you making disciples? No? Okay, see you later.” We are not commanded to be just hearers of God’s Word, but also doers (James 1:22). I’d take the average guy who sincerely wants to obey Jesus any day of the week over the best expert in Islam or the most intelligent theologian who does little to actually share the gospel with others.

We Must Send And Receive

The church has a strong sending theology, but it also needs a strong receiving one.

I live in Chicago—but I’m not “from” Chicago—I am a foreigner here. But now I’ve made this my home. And my receiving theology tells me how to welcome other people into the family. With continued advances in technology, the world is becoming more global at an unprecedented rate. We live at a time in history in which the world is not some place “out there”—rather, God has brought the world to our very doorstep. Yes, I live in one of the most diverse urban neighborhoods in the United States, but just south of me, I know there are many rural communities with growing populations of immigrants too—populations from Mexico, Congo, Haiti, and more. The “harvest of souls” is here—not figuratively, but literally, geographically, right here, all around us. The question is, will we receive it? Will we receive them?

Think of the way a typical church might invest in their missionaries. There is usually testing and training involved; there are maturity measures; there is typically immense financial backing; there is prayerful support and regular ongoing communication efforts. The missionaries who go often spend years learning language and culture; they often inconvenience their entire family or make enormous sacrifices to be sent out.

“God’s heart for the marginalized in society is abundantly clear”

What if we received people with the same effort that we sent them out? What would it look like to take each item from the list above and explore whether we are receiving people with the same intentionality that we are sending them out?

Over the years, we have put so much effort into thinking things like, “How are we going to go reach Mexicans in Mexico?” But the reality is, we have Mexican immigrants in our community, literally living next door. How will we reach out to them in Christ by receiving them well? Instead of putting all of our efforts into sending out a missionary to be integrated into that culture—how will we integrate these strangers into the culture of our own local church families? A strong sending model is still vital—but what would it look like for the church to put just as much effort into a receiving model?

God’s heart for the marginalized in society is abundantly clear, even from the earliest Scriptures. There are numerous passages about caring for poor or disadvantaged people in society—more specifically, widows, orphans, and sojourners:

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)

The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. (Ps. 146:9)

“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zech. 7:10)

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. (Deut. 10:18)

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:19–20)

Learning From Peter

When Paul says there is “neither Jew nor Gentile,” this is incredibly significant. Paul was often called “the apostle to the Gentiles”— at that time, the word “Gentile” was a cultural term used to denote a non-Jewish person. While the word started out as a simple cultural distinction, in the days of the early church, the term was used with contempt, as Gentiles were scorned by the Jews as unclean. Even the apostle Peter was unsure about their inclusion in the church at first, as we read in the book of Acts.

Think about that—Peter himself almost missed the good news! Think about all that Peter had been through with Jesus—think about Peter witnessing Pentecost, the birth of the church, and watching as people abandoned their cultural beliefs and perhaps even their home countries to come live together as Christians in Jerusalem. Even after all of this, God still needed to convict Peter and warn him to no longer call anyone impure or unclean. Is it possible, if God tried to get Peter’s attention in this way, that He also needs to get our attention too?

If you need conviction in this area, you’re just like Peter . . . and if you get Peter’s heart after hearing this story, then God can use you just like He used Peter to build His church! I know it can be tempting to skip over long quotations and Scriptures when reading, but please slow down and allow this crucial moment in Christian history to sink in, as God uses a vision to bring Peter to the doorstep of the house of a Gentile named Cornelius:

While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” (Acts 10:27–33)

Peter then shares the gospel with the Gentiles there, and while he is still speaking, something important happens:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (Acts 10:44–48)

Why would Peter make this statement here at the end? Because without even realizing it, Peter had been standing in the way of his brothers and sisters in Christ being baptized! Peter, the leader of the church, had held a position that was actually in direct opposition to God’s plan! Is it possible that the leaders of the modern church could fall into the same trap? Peter clearly sees that these Gentiles have already been baptized by the Holy Spirit, the same confirming miracle that he had witnessed on the day of Pentecost. But to be baptized by water means that they are also now a part of the local church. On the day of Pentecost, Peter had spoken to Jewish leaders; but now, he is speaking to Gentiles, to outsiders and enemies—people of the oppressor culture. When Peter finally steps out of the way, these outsiders are now able to fully participate in the body of Christ. Again, if Peter was getting in the way, is it possible that you might be doing the same thing?

God beautifully orchestrated this divine appointment. And He did so to reach two men, not one. Yes, God was reaching out to Cornelius with salvation, but He was also reaching out to Peter with an opportunity for personal growth. This story reminds us all that even the most Spirit-filled Christians (like the apostle Peter) can have blind spots and even deep prejudices. Peter could have become the bottleneck of the gospel—and yet, by the grace of God, he became an open door. Perhaps there are similar prejudices buried in the hearts and minds of even the most Spirit-filled Christians we know today. Perhaps we are in similar danger of bottlenecking the modern-day church.

We Don’t Have to Wait

People often wait to hear a special revelation from God before they act. Maybe they are waiting to see a sign or experience a vision, like Peter did, or to hear an audible voice, or to receive some other kind of confirmation about their participation in a specific outreach program. Unfortunately, they are waiting to gain clarity that can already be assumed.

My children don’t need extra special instruction not to hurt each other. I don’t have to tell them, “At school today, don’t hurt anyone!” Even though they’re little, treating others kindly is assumed. It doesn’t matter what skin color the other kid has, or how they speak, or how they dress, my kids know not to hurt them. It’s the same idea as my child saying to me, “Well, you didn’t specifically tell me not to hit this particular kid.” I shouldn’t have to. It’s already assumed. Love is already assumed. So many of us are wanting and waiting to hear from God. Start by listening to what He has already told you. The first step is not necessarily to go out and become a missionary to the foreign peoples in your neighborhood. The first step is to take a good long look at your own heart—do you really see people the way God sees them?

God shows Peter that the Gentile—the unclean stranger, the scorned foreigner—is now his family. Do you look at people this way? When we learn to see people as our potential brothers and sisters in Christ then our motivation to reach them and to overcome cultural barriers grows exponentially. In short, it becomes easier to love people when we start by believing they could become our future family.

For Further Reading:

The Stranger at Our Shore

by Joshua Sherif

A gripping tale of escape from Egypt, The Stranger at Our Shore is the true story of one young man’s journey out of Islam into new life...

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