Text: Acts 10:34-43
Professor James Thompson says that the conversion of Cornelius, the story we hear a small portion of this morning, is the pivotal text in the pair of books written by Luke – the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In the story, a Roman leader receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is baptized along with his household. It’s safe to say that this story changed the course of the early Christian movement, opening the practice of faith in Jesus to those who were not Jewish.
There are two related concepts that are important for us as we strive to understand this story and what it means for us. The first is that God shows no partiality because people from every nation who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. The second is that this good news about who is welcome came through Jesus, who preached peace.
This morning, we’ll start by looking at the whole story of Cornelius, since we pick it up in the middle! Then, after know the whole story, we’ll explore these two phrases and what they mean for us today.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, responsible for a group of 100 Roman soldiers. We are told at the start of his story that he feared God, gave alms, and prayed constantly. One afternoon, while praying, he had a vision and was told to send for Peter, who was in Joppa. The following day, while he was praying, Peter also had a vision. In it, he saw a sheet filled with animals considered to be unclean, being lowered from heaven. A voice told him to take and eat. After he protested, the voice repeated itself. After a repeated protestation, Peter head the voice of God say, "Nothing I make is unclean."
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. The Cornelius' servants were there to bring him to Cornelius. When they arrived in Caesarea, at Cornelius' home, Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision. Peter responded with the passage that we heard this morning. At the conclusion of his speech, the Holy Spirit entered the room and landed on Cornelius and his household. Peter then called for the Gentiles to be baptized.
This is a remarkable story. In the first century, Jews and Gentiles did not associate with one another at all. It was illegal, according to Jewish law, for a Jewish person to visit the home of a Gentile or to share a meal with them. And, Cornelius is part of the Roman occupying army – he wasn’t just any Gentile, he was literally an enemy to Peter. Imagine, then, what it would have been like to hear Peter say, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” and then go on to say that in EVERY NATION those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. These words would have been shocking to both Jews and Gentiles.
It was an important and pivotal teaching then – and remains one today. What makes us acceptable to God has nothing to do with externals and everything to do with who we are inside. It’s not about race or class or culture. What makes us acceptable to God is reverence (that’s a better translation of the word fear) which leads to our acting accordance with God’s will because of that reverence. At the very start of Cornelius’s story, we hear three things that Cornelius does: he fears God, he gives alms, and he prays constantly. Cornelius’ almsgiving and prayer follow from his “fear” or reverence.
Secondly, Peter says that this teaching came through Jesus, who was “preaching peace.” We tend to think of the word peace as the absence of war. The Hebrew word shalom has a much fuller definition. It can mean: completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, and safety. When Jesus came preaching peace, he wasn’t talking about an absence of war. In Luke’s Gospel, He begins his earthly ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the kind of peace or shalom that Jesus preached consistently in his Gospel.
It’s not a surprise then that Professor Thompson sees this story as so pivotal. Cornelius and his family are acceptable to God because of their faith, which informs their actions. Peter, going against all that he had been taught, recognized God and the Holy Spirit at work, and welcomed them into the Way of Jesus. The early church saw God at work, and opened the way of the Gospel to all people. Without Cornelius and Peter, the work of Paul in spreading the Gospel might not have happened. Without Cornelius and Peter, we might not be here!
What does this story mean for us? It seems to me that we are very good at dividing the world up into us vs. them. We are black or white. We are gay or straight. We are Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, legal or illegal, from here or away…. You name it, and we can place ourselves in one category or another and then take sides against those who differ from us. It does seem to a part of human nature. Maybe at some point divisions served an evolutionary purpose, but they don’t serve us now.
God shows no partiality. Those who fear God and do what is right, as shown by Jesus who came preaching peace, are acceptable to God. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to see God at work in the lives of people who are like us and people who are very different from us. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to recognize that worshipping God and doing God’s will are the two things that God requires of us and of all people. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to step out beyond our comfort to embrace those whom God finds acceptable.
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I'm Fran Gardner-Smith. I'm an Episcopal priest, a wife, a grandmother, a feminist, a writer, and an artist.