Another form for this question might be “Must we “hear” about (as well as believe in) Jesus to be connected to God?”
THE CASE OF A FIRST CENTURY GENTILE NAMED CORNELIUS
Acts chapter 10 provides interesting insight for what a biblical point of view on this might include. In chapter 10, Luke introduces us to a 1st century man named Cornelius. Cornelius was a gentile who had neither heard about nor believed in Jesus. He was not a part of the Christ following community. Had he lived in the 21st century, we would say he was a non Christian.
Cornelius and all of his family are described by Luke as “devout and God fearing.” Cornelius was marked by the habits of giving generously to the poor and praying to God (10.2).
Cornelius receives a vision from God because his prayers and giving inspired God. Luke says it like this:
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” (10.4)
The angel instructs Cornelius, “Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.” (10.5)
God wants Cornelius to hear the gospel. But there is a lot we can learn about the God of mission before that happens. This text pulls back the curtain on the life of a man who is connected to God but not yet a follower of Jesus. In other words, there is such a thing as connection to God before Jesus is embraced and the gospel is believed.
In fact, my premise is that before there can be an acceptance of certain truths (such as the resurrection of Jesus) or an adherence to a humane life (such as giving to the poor or prayer) there must be a prior connection to God. Based on that premise, and on the basis of this story, I suggest that all Christians would be served by moving from “closed set” thinking to “centered set” thinking.
CLOSED SET AND CENTERED SET THINKING
Many of us think of the church in terms of a bounded or closed set of numbers or letters.
Imagine a set with the letters (X, Y, and Z) in it. The letters X, Y, and Z may stand for belief, customs, rules, or rituals.
In closed-set thinking, everyone who believes or practices X, Y, and Z is in the set. If a person, for example, believes the right doctrines (X, Y, and Z), he or she becomes part of the set.
The issue here is –who is “in” and who is “out”.
Ok, that’s closed set thinking…Now
CENTERED SET THINKING…OR MOVING TOWARDS THE MAN ON THE HORIZON
Luke’s story demonstrates a God who creates centered sets, not closed ones.
Imagine a person standing on the horizon. The person standing on the horizon is God in Christ who wishes to reconcile the world to himself.
He has started a set that will include everyone and anyone who will move toward him.
People surround him in every direction, both on our side of the horizon and on the other side of the horizon.
Some people are standing quite close to him and others are quite far away. Those standing closer to him are better able than those far away to know some of the detail of his life and person.
Everyone is either facing him, facing away from him, or facing somewhere in between. Everybody is moving in the direction they are facing.
Standing quite near to the person on the horizon is someone who happens to be in the closed set (X, Y, and Z) perhaps a church leader, a longtime church member, or even a pastor. He believes all the right doctrines that qualify him for inclusion in most local Christian churches, but he is turned away from the person standing on the horizon. With every step he moves farther and farther away from the person on the horizon.
Far away from the man on the horizon stands someone who is not part of the closed set (X, Y, and Z). This may be someone like Cornelius in Acts 10, or a Hindu in India. This person is outside the membership of a Christian church. She or he has no clue about the historical events that surround the Christ-following faith but is responsive to the voice of God that woos every person and is thus turning and moving in the direction of the person standing on the horizon.
God woos every person, no matter how close or far, to face and walk toward the person on the horizon. It is conceivable that an outsider someone who does not yet know Jesus and may not affirm or even recognize Christian doctrine may be facing and moving in a direction toward the man on the horizon (whom we believe to be Jesus) and that an insider who knows all the right doctrinal positions may be facing and moving away from Jesus.
The issue here is –in what direction are you moving.
THE VISIBLE IS ONLY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Many of us think we are “made human again” by correct doctrine or teaching. Others of us believe that we are saved by leading humane lives. Before our dogma (doctrine) or our direction (humanity), there is the prior initiative and work of God among us. There is (before we comprehend true doctrine and before we embrace true humanity) a prior act of love on our behalf.
The issue here is –before we cognitively grasp anything, before we move in any direction, before we even breath, God is at work among us (the Cornelius’ of the world) whether we are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or secularist.
Knowledge that God is at work in the world at large and not just in the religious institution of Christianity is a basis for a wider hope for the inclusion of the nations in the human future.
Our activity of proclaiming the gospel and forming churches is the tip of the iceberg. God’s invisible activity to make the world human again is the deep and invisible underbelly that supports our efforts. There are Cornelius’ out there whose connection to God may be greater than the connections of many Christians who have grown up close to the truth that makes the world human but harden their hearts against it.
What do you think?
See you in the mystic…
If you like these ideas, pre-order you copy of Making the World Human Again, by Alex McManus
Join me (and others) in Orlando, Fl on Feb 5-6 for more conversation on frameworks for mission at the HUMAN EVENT.