Rev. David Collins
May 28, 2023
Scripture: Acts 10-11
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day when we remember and celebrate that one day, around 2000 years ago, while the first apostles were gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, (or Shavuoat in Hebrew) that the Holy Spirit descended on them in a new way. That day began a new era for God’s people, which is chronicled in the book of Acts, in which God’s promises to his people Israel were expanded out to those who of us were not fortunate enough to be born Jewish.
We wear red because on that Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire, which enabled the gathered disciples to speak languages they never learned, or maybe it enabled the hearers to hear in their own language, but rather than try and recreate the miracle, it’s easier to just wear red.
The scripture we’re going to dig into today is not the story of that Pentecost, but around 10 years later. After the good news had been taken from Jerusalem into Samaria, then to the very ends of the Earth, through the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. Saul, the vile persecutor of the early church has already become Paul, God’s chosen instrument. And now here, in Acts 10, is the pivot point in this long drama of redemption. The main character, the main actor in this story, isn’t Peter or anyone else named, but the Holy Spirit, who acts outside of the script, and God’s people just try to keep up. Which is the same story we’re all living today.
1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called.
Cornelius was not Jewish. He was about as not Jewish as they come. Not only was he in the Roman army, you know the same military force that was occupying Jerusalem at the time, he was an officer in that army, in charge of 100 men. But…
2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.
There are good people everywhere. As much as we try to sum people up, or push them aside, by the categories they fill, we are always on the cusp of being very surprised, shocked even, by how wrong we are, and how good they are.
3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ 4 He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.
Cornelius is the only Gentile that Luke describes as seeing an angel. And this angel calls him by name, and tells him that God has taken notice of him! Then he is told what to do.
5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’
There’s two Simons, but you want the one who goes by Peter. Bring him back here.
7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
Now Peter was a part of what we’d call the Jerusalem contingent of the early church. He was a faithful Jew who saw in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. He wasn’t a Gentile sympathizer. He didn’t eat with them. He wouldn’t have married one. He didn’t hate them, but he didn’t have much to say or do with them.
9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 14 But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’
It’s a mistake to think that all that was at stake for Peter was his feeling of righteousness…his ability to pat himself on the back.
It’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like to be a part of a religious minority. Since we are a part of the majority in our culture, we can be as careless with our traditions and rules as we want and feel like we will never lose our identity. We’re wrong, but that’s how we act anyway. But for Peter, and every Jew back then, the temptation to acquiesce, to blend in, must have been a daily struggle. Wouldn’t life just be easier with a bit of pork, and just the tiniest pinch of incense on the altar to Caesar? The neighbors might stop staring. That would be nice. But the cost would be enormous. What you ate, and who you ate with, showed the world, and your self, who you were. It was your identity.
We can relate to that, right? We still make identities out of what we don’t eat.
Do you know how you can tell if someone is a vegan? You don’t have to. They’ll let you know.
I can make that joke because I was a vegan once. And I embodied that joke while I was.
Peter didn’t just have his beliefs about food challenged. His beliefs about food intersected with his identity, with his sense of belonging.
15 The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Then to prevent Peter from misinterpreting this vision, without giving Peter the answer directly, God worked the timing out just so, so that Peter sees clearly that his vision about food was not just about food.
17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?’
Peter’s first words to them are a little cold. A little cautious. The way you answer the phone when you don’t recognize the number, if you answered it at all.
22 They answered, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.’
Now his vision is starting to make a little more sense. It wasn’t about how good bacon was. Although, if Peter knew how good bacon was, he probably would have been much more excited about that part of it. No, Peter was a smart guy, and he could already see the connection.
God was using a change of interpretation about one point in scripture (the kosher laws) to bring about a change of attitude and doctrine towards an entire group of people (the Gentiles). One change was meant to lead to another.
But isn’t it fascinating, and so like God, that Peter’s vision wasn’t more straightforward. God didn’t just show up and say, “Look Pete, Gentiles are okay now. Get with the changes or get out.” No, God wanted to help Peter see it for himself. It’s not about blind obedience with God.
God wants us to understand, and come along side of him. This whole story is absolutely orchestrated by God, but God never gives Peter a script. He gives him a vision, sure, and he supplements it with some perfectly timed messengers. But Peter’s words are always his own. Including the next ones.
23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.
Immediately, Peter starts spending time with these new and different people. He gives them food from his table, a place to sleep, and we can assume, spends that time getting to know them, and learn about their families and stories.
The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’
Stand up, Cornelius, I’m a man just like you. I’m not special, but God has brought us together for a special reason. Let’s find out what that is.
27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, ‘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.
Peter’s Bible said one thing. But his vision and his experience showed him another. His tradition, and his parents and grandparents, and Hebrew school teachers, taught him one thing. But he had an experience that showed him something else. And he’s going with his experience. He’s trusting his eyes, and his spirit.
Notice here that while what God showed him was directly about food, he has already taken it a step further and applied it to people. One change does indeed lead to another. Grace is a slippery slope.
28b ‘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. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’
It’s not a rhetorical question! Peter knows he doesn’t have the answer. So he asks the people who at the beginning of the week, he believed were profane and unclean, to educate him!
30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality,
That’s a quote from Deuteronomy 10:17. But in Deut 10:17, it’s not about Gentiles. It’s about God not showing partiality to the rich or the poor within Israel. Once again, Peter’s experience is pushing him to reinterpret his tradition, and take the best part of his tradition and apply it in new ways.
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.
Look at how Peters responses have changed in this story. At first he is uncommitted “I am the one you are looking for.” Then he says “He should not call anyone profane or unclean” You know, there’s no reason to judge anyone. Then he goes even farther, that he now sees there is no partiality with God. That God loves everyone and plays no favorites. And then he goes all the way to logical and spiritual conclusion, that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
“He is Lord of all” means not only that there is no other Lord but that no one can be excluded from that lordship. No one! Jesus died and rose again for all, so he has a claim on everyone.
37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and 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 ordained by God 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.’
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
So Peter gives his Acts stump sermon. And wow does it ever do the trick. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit fell on ALL who heard the word.
Now back in verse 35, after meeting the famously upright and pious Cornelius, Peter seemed to limit God’s favor for Gentiles to “anyone who fears him and does what is right”. But when the Spirit acts, it acts not only on the carefully described pious Cornelius, but on the whole household and friends whose loyalties Luke makes no attempt to describe.
If you had a party at your house, would you be able to say that everyone there “feared God and did what was right”, even the ones using the bathroom you said was off limits? But that’s who the Holy Spirit fell upon that day, with witnesses. Later on, when Peter has to explain himself to the other church leaders, watch how he no longer uses the limiting phrase about doing what is right.
45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.
This is the only time in the book of Acts when people receive the Holy Spirit before being baptized.
Then Peter said, 47 ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Notice here that Peter and the other leaders don’t decide to include the Gentiles. They don’t sneak away into the next room and have a meeting where the motion gets made, seconded and discussed. They are not in charge. God is! The Holy Spirit has already decided and acted. The “church” just acts in response after the Holy Spirit has dramatically indicated that the decision has already been made.
So Peter and the believers who came with him from Joppa baptized every last one of them.
Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Several! This is no driving separate to brunch after. This is no passing acceptance. From start to finish, Peter spent a week with these people he just met, and no doubt left with forever friends that he never would have had, if he had stayed in his little bubble, comfortable with the people he’d always known and the beliefs he’d always had.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Peter is not a free agent. He is accountable to the whole church. That’s what we hear about next.
Acts 11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step,
Peter told them the story we just heard. But then he finishes it with colors and details that only come with reflection.
15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.
These Gentiles…these people I once thought unclean and profane are no different than us! And by us, he means Jesus’ original disciples, the first apostles.
16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’
18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
That’s the end of the story. And it was the beginning of a whole new story for the Church. God showed Peter and everyone else who was included in his family. And they saw if they stood in the way, the best they could do would be to hinder what God was doing. There was no way they could stop it.
Peter saw for himself that it was not up to him to determine Who’s In?
The only thing he could decide was whether or not he was.