West Yellowstone Montana was the most tourist-centric town I have ever lived in. People would joke about how many hotels there were in town and how they had a really high ratio of beds per resident. (There were lots of places to buy Yellowstone souvenir t-shirts, old faithful key chains, and coon-skin-hats, I don’t remember a place to buy tube socks.)
As touristy as it was … there were actually neighborhoods … schools … churches … and locals.
The first part of that year I lived I didn’t have a car … I walked everywhere I went. When it got to be winter a family from the church noticed me walking through all the snow and sub-zero temperatures and offered to let me use an old truck they didn’t drive all that much. They called the beat up and ragged old white truck, “the OJ.” (I bet you can guess it’s make and model.) They warned me not to drive it more than 30 minutes away from town because they didn’t think it was worth what it would cost to have it towed back. (To this day, it one of my favorite vehicles!)
One time I bought gas from a different gas station than usual. When I went to pay, the clerk mentioned something about the family who owned the truck and said that since the Dunbars must have known me well enough to let me drive “the OJ” he would give me the “local’s discount.” It was cool to pay less for gas … but at the same time it bugged me. Everywhere else in my life, even if I felt like I didn’t fit in all that well, I had at least been a “local,” or at least a “native” … but in West Yellowstone I had no history or family connections …
I only got the local discount because I was driving the Dunbars’ truck … It wasn’t because he saw me as a local … or someone who fit in.
I really liked that town … I lived there for a while … I did my best to be involved … to get to know people …
I felt like I was in someone else’s space … like such an outsider.
I kept wondering what would it take to be a local?
The world around the early church, had definite lines that divided insiders and outsiders. Jesus’ life and teaching had done so much to break down these insider/outsider lines … after his resurrection, in many ways, the church struggled to catch up to Jesus.
Jesus was Jewish and his first disciples were Jews. As the church grew and spread Gentiles (non-Jewish people) started to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and respond to it with faith. This led to some difficult conversations and decisions … the church had to figure out which parts of Jewish identity and which of their customs Gentiles who converted to Christianity needed to take on.
So much of their identity was about setting them apart from other people and other cultures … the laws they obeyed, like keeping the sabbath, the company they kept … the food they ate –– maybe eating together was the hardest thing the church had to navigate. Normally Jews and Gentiles wouldn’t eat together, but a big part of the early church’s fellowship had to do with sharing meals. This led to one of the big questions Christians wrestled with and fought over – Could Jewish and Gentile Christ followers eat together?
In the book of Acts we come across the story of a Jewish guy named Peter and a Roman (Gentile guy) named Cornelius … these guys were so different from each other … yet their story went a long way to shape how the church navigated insider/outsider boundaries.
One day around three o’clock (the time traditionally reserved for afternoon prayer) in Caesarea, a Gentile man named Cornelius had a vision … Cornelius was a Roman soldier … scripture says he was devout, generous, and prayerful. But because he was a Gentile … a Roman-soldier-Gentile at that, he was still an outsider in his faith community. In this vision an angel spoke to Cornelius. The angel told Cornelius that God noticed his generosity … God heard his prayers … and that Cornelius was supposed to send some of his men to a town by the sea called Joppa to find a man named Simon Peter and invite him to come and visit Cornelius’ home.
There was one problem … Cornelius was a Gentile and Peter was a Jew. How would Peter respond to the invitation?
Cornelius’ invitation challenged tradition and history.
Cornelius took a risk and sent his men to Joppa.
The next day, around noon, as Cornelius’ men approached Joppa, the Apostle Peter was on a rooftop praying … he became hungry … while someone was putting together lunch Peter had a vision.
It was jarring … Peter saw something like a large sheet being lowered from heaven … there were all kinds of creatures on the sheet – four-footed creatures, birds, and reptiles. A voice spoke to Peter – it said, “Get up, Peter … kill and eat.” Peter was shocked. There were animals no obedient, observant, Jew would ever eat on that sheet.
“No way, Lord!” Peter said. “I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.” The voice spoke again, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter saw this vision three times … he didn’t know what to make of it.
Just then, the men Cornelius sent appeared. They called out, asking for Simon Peter. Peter was still trying to figure out the vision. The Holy Spirit spoke to Peter, “Three men are searching for you. Go with them without hesitation for I have sent them.”
The men told Peter about Cornelius … about his invitation … Peter invited them to stay the night.
The next day they traveled to Caesarea. Peter’s vision started to make more sense. If Jesus really was King of all the earth … if he really and truly gave his life and rose from the dead to show God’s love for all people … all people were going to have to learn how to be together … how to live, worship, work, and even, eat together.
God was breaking down the walls and divisions that had separated these people from each other for so long.
Then Peter spoke to Cornelius and all the people who had gathered in his home –
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Through Peter’s experience with Jesus … through his conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead … through his vision with that weird sheet with all the animals on it … through his relationship with Cornelius, Peter was convinced that his life, Cornelius’ life, the life of the whole world was different … and Peter let go the divisions that were so much a part of his world … he crossed a line and built a friendship with Cornelius.
… Because of the good news of Easter morning, because Christ has been raised from the dead on the third day, God is bringing all of these people together to create something new … a community where the divisions between insiders and outsiders are broken down … where everyone has a place and is at home … where there are no “local discounts,” where because of Christ’s love, everyone has a place, where everyone belongs.
As Christ’s “Easter people” … as Christ’s disciples, we have a place, and as Christ’s church we are witnesses … we pass along the message, God does not show favoritism … God does not show partiality … as we follow Christ, we are drawn together into the church … we have a community where we can be loved and accepted … where everyone can be a local.