There was a man named Cornelius who lived with his family in the town of Caesarea on the coast of Samaria. Cornelius was a soldier… a centurion, in fact, of the Italian Cohort. He was not a Jew, but we understand from Acts, Chapter 10 that he “feared God . . . gave generously . . . and prayed constantly (vv. 1-3). Roman soldiers were required to swear their loyalty to the “cult of the Emperor”—that was their religion of record, but they could practice whatever sort of piety that they wanted on their off time. And Cornelius feared God. That’s God with a capital “G,” not one of the plethora of lesser deities whose shrines were scattered about Roman Palestine during that time. From Luke’s (likely the author of Acts) perspective, God with a capital “G” is singular—very singular—and refers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Moses and David. The God of the Jews.
When Luke says that Cornelius “feared God,” he is placing him in an “in between” category of believer… by no means a proselyte Jew. Cornelius had not signed on to all 613 mitzvot of the Jewish Law and, certainly, he had not been circumcised. And yet, something drew him to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he was not alone: writers of the time refer to the presence of “God-fearers” in and around synagogues throughout the region; not Jews, but devout in their own ways, who gave generously and prayed regularly to God (with a capital “G”). And it was during his prayers one day that Cornelius had a vision: an angel sent from God said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now, send men to Joppa (which was about thirty-six miles south of Caesarea) for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” That was it. The angel offered no other explanation or instructions. And Cornelius feared God, so he sent a small party, including one of his soldiers, who was also a believer, to Joppa to collect Peter (Acts 10:4-8).
These were heady days for Peter. Jesus had forgiven him for things done and left undone, and had added specificity to his commission to become “the rock” upon which the Church would be built: “Feed my lambs . . . Tend my sheep . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). And indeed, after Jesus had ascended, Peter became chief of the Jerusalem church, guiding its movement and purpose in ways that he could never have imagined only a few short weeks before. Peter had heard the violent, rushing wind, seen the fires of Pentecost, and interpreted the coming of the Holy Spirit to the crowd of Jews that had gathered, “amazed and astonished,” wondering what it all meant. Peter had seen the first three thousand converts to Christ’s church baptized (Acts 2:1-42). He had healed the sick… and even raised the dead.
So, the day after Cornelius’ vision, Peter was at prayer on the roof of the house in which he was staying in Joppa… and he had a vision. Only, Peter’s vision was a little more complicated. He saw something like a sheet… for our purposes, let’s say it was a big square picnic blanket, gathered together at the four corners to make a sling. In it were all sorts of different animals, some clean in accordance with Jewish purity codes, and others definitely unclean, all of which were mish-mashed together in close proximity to one another. “Eat up, Peter!” said a voice from heaven. Now Peter was hungry, but he wasn’t hungry enough to infringe upon the purity codes he had observed since his childhood. Not only could a practicing Jew not eat something that was unclean, he couldn’t even eat something that was nominally allowed… but that had touched something that was unclean… without extensive preparations to make it kosher. Rules were rules, and so Peter turned up his nose. “Not so fast…” said the voice. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
While Peter was scratching his head about what that meant, the Spirit announced the arrival of the messengers from Cornelius and, having discerned through his vision that God was up to something, Peter broke from tradition, from the rules which prohibited close association between Jews and Gentiles, and accepted Cornelius’ invitation to visit him at his home in Caesarea. And he took some friends. And then something amazing happened. As Peter preached the Good News of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and his household, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word . . . and they began speaking in tongues and extolling God.” A Gentile Pentecost! “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have?” Peter asked, of no one in particular; and then he ordered that Cornelius and his household be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:9-48).
Well, as we heard in today’s reading from Acts, some members of the Jerusalem church were pretty unhappy that Peter had unilaterally opened the path to salvation to folks who weren’t practicing Jews. There was plenty of disagreement and infighting between the various sects that constituted “mainline” Judaism at that time; but there was one thing that they all could agree on… and that was that, as Jews, they were better, purer and more beloved of God than any Gentile. Sound familiar? Peter had some splainin’ to do. And he did. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” he concluded. If God sees fit to bless someone… anyone… with the gift that leads to life, who are we to hinder God? Who are we to judge? And on that day, and in that place, the church got it.
Good on them. I am regularly amazed at how often we, who profess to be followers of Christ—the one who ate and drank with sinners and associated with outcasts—try to be the arbiters of who does, and who does not, receive “the gift that leads to life.” We have our own ideas about what constitutes “clean and unclean” in our own day and age. We are quick to question, or even disparage, the “purity codes” of other cultures and other generations and yet… we have our own prejudices, don’t we? We judge people by their faith, and their good works… or lack thereof. We judge them by how well they exercise stewardship over their bodies, their money, and the environment. By what they do for a living… or whether they work at all. We make careful note of their apparent inability to cope with their demons… as if we have none of our own. We roll our eyes about how some people choose to exercise their patriotism… and about how they vote. We raise our eyebrows about folks’ sexual preference and gender identities, and whether or not they smoke! Heck, we even judge people for being judgmental. We seem to be afraid of some sort of “guilt by association” that will diminish us in the eyes of God.
But Jesus tells us that it is in judging our neighbors, even in the silence of our own hearts, that we are diminished. We were made to love one another, without limits and without reservations, just as we are loved by God. This is the best and truest way that we can spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is the way we will help bring about God’s Kingdom (John 13:31-35). This is also difficult stuff! We haven’t been given the benefit of a vision such as Peter’s (though I’m not sure Peter considered it a benefit at the time) to help us understand God’s movement and purpose in our lives and in the world. That said, one of the reasons that Peter was granted his vision was so that he could tell the story… to better lead the Jerusalem church on the path of God’s righteousness… and maybe also to help us discern how we can do a better job of being Church in our own day and age. Is there another Cornelius out there that you might know, who fears God, gives generously and prays constantly? And yet who is un-churched because he or she feels judged by the church… with a lower case “c”? What are we going to do about that? We don’t always know what is profane and what is clean. And, in any case, it’s not up to us to judge. That’s God’s job. Jesus told us that as Christians, we’re to love one another as he loves us. And that is enough.