Acts 10:1-33: In chapter eight we begin to see the gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ expanding beyond the Jewish community. Philip preaches in Samaria and then reaches out to an Ethiopian eunuch. But in both these instances, these people have some relationship to Judaism. The eunuch may have been a convert, but at least he was a seeker within the Jewish faith. The Samarians shared a common religious heritage with the Jews. In chapter nine, Saul is moved to become a follower of the way of Jesus and begins reaching out to people, though all Jews. There are hints that more may follow, just as there are hints in the end of the chapter that Peter’s work outside of Jerusalem may take him to even more new places. Here it happens. Our story does not begin with Peter, but with a man named Cornelius.
Cornelius is a centurion of the Italian cohort residing in Caesarea. Caesarea was the Roman provincial capital for Judea. Cornelius is a Gentile, though described as “a devout man who feared God.” He was a Gentile sympathetic to Judaism, part of a group known at the time as “God-fearers.” They were impressed with Jewish monotheism and ethics and sometimes attended the synagogue, but remained Gentiles, were not circumcised, and did not keep the Jewish food laws. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Cornelius’ life of prayer and generosity are evident, and his way of life opens him to a vision from God – a vision in which he is told to send for Peter in Joppa.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch – meanwhile Peter is in Joppa - hungry and praying - and falls into a trance. In it, he sees a great sheet filled with animals – animals considered unclean for eating. Like circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, observance of the food laws was an essential mark of the people of God, a part of their witness to the nations. Jewish martyrs had died rather than dissolve Jewish identity by eating prohibited food (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Peter is given a strange instruction – get up, kill and eat. Peter objects, but he is told “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” This happens three times. The necessity of repeating this three times is important. It demonstrates that Peter took his Jewish faith seriously and no matter the power of a vision, he needed to ponder all this – discernment and deeper understanding were called for. Sometimes powerful religious experiences can also lead us in unhealthy directions. We always need to think through with others the meaning of such experiences, and think through them in the light of the traditions of our faith. The traditions are not always right, and need revision, but they should not be dumped out as easily as old trash.
We may wonder about these wonderfully coincidental visions. Did things happen just this way? For the people of the time, to have visions in which God communicated to Gods’ people would not have been odd. We need to remember that. We also need to remember that they are really secondary to the main story – that two lives, Peter and Cornelius, will come together in a remarkable way, in a way that will change the Jesus movement forever.
Peter wonders about the meaning of his vision when the men from Cornelius arrive at this door. Peter goes with the men to Caesarea, to the home of Cornelius. Just entering his home, Peter is violating Jewish law. Yet the meaning of Peter’s earlier vision becomes clear to him. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The cryptic vision becomes clear in light of subsequent circumstances. That happens to us, too. Later events clarify earlier ones. Now that he is here, Peter wonders why he was sent for and Cornelius shares his vision story. All of Cornelius’ household is gathered to hear what Peter has to say.
Acts 10:34-43: Peter is changed here as much as anyone. He has a new understanding of God’s purposes. God is open to all who respond to God’s Spirit – God shows no partiality. If that is the case, then these people, too, should hear the good news. God preached “peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.” This is startling language in a Gentile setting. Peace was guaranteed by Rome and the Emperor was lord of all. How did this message come from God through Jesus? “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Luke succinctly summarizes the message of the early Christian movement. God was up to something special in Jesus. But Jesus was put to death – though that was not the end. “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” The resurrection is God’s gracious act that reverses the human act of the rejection of Jesus (Peoples New Testament Commentary). That Jesus ate with them is not only a testimony to the tangible experience of the resurrection (“tangible” may have many nuances) but also a reminder of the importance of table fellowship for the ministry of Jesus. This Jesus is “the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” One way of pointing to the significance of Jesus is to represent Christ as the one who exercises God’s final judgment (Peoples New Testament Commentary). In Jesus forgiveness is available, whatever separates one from God and from God’s dream for their lives and the world, can be overcome.
Acts 10:44-48: The message Peter preaches is important. As noted, Luke uses it to summarize important themes in the early Christian presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ. Something important, vitally important and universally significant, happened in Jesus – something that challenges the way the world is often organized (something other than the peace of Rome and the lordship of the Emperor). In Jesus there is peace, healing, forgiveness, relationship with God, a new way of life – and not even the death of Jesus killed this dream. But as important as the message itself was the appearance of the Holy Spirit along with it. The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard Peter, much to the astonishment of “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter.” The Holy Spirit was poured out “even on the Gentiles.” Baptism follows. Gentiles are now fully a part of the Jesus movement.
It is difficult for us today to understand the deep significance of this story. The Jesus movement was probably seen as a reform movement within Judaism, and though there was much debate about it, acrimonious debate at times, it was intra-Judaic debate. Now the Jesus movement would incorporate Gentiles. I believe this story challenges the church in all times and places to ask profound questions about inclusivity. Throughout its history the church has excluded or given second-class status to persons because of their race or their gender. Now the church is intensely debating issues around sexual orientation and gender identity. From my point of view, the deep faith I see in GLBT Christians, the fact that I see the Holy Spirit at work in their lives causes me to think that we have excluded these persons from the church inappropriately.
Acts 11:1-18: So significant is the incorporation of Gentiles into the Jesus movement, the early Christian community of faith, that Luke retells it in another context. Here Peter reports what has happened to the Jesus community in Jerusalem. Jerusalem remains the headquarters of the movement, the place from which the apostles extend their ministry. Peter justifies his action of baptizing Gentiles with these words. “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?” All the community could answer is “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” This is yet another summary statement of the Christian message – change of heart and mind that leads to life.
Acts 11:19-30: While God was reaching out to the Gentiles through Peter, the message about Jesus was being spread geographically through others – to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. This last city was a large seaport and seat of the Roman government in Syria. It was a Gentile city with a large Jewish population and it would become the center of the spread of the gospel toward Rome. The mission is focused on the Jews in these communities. It was extended slightly to Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists), and perhaps beyond to other Greek speakers, including Gentiles. Word of these missionary efforts also gets back to Jerusalem and they send Barnabas. “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Barnabas is presented as a model for discipleship – open to seeing God’s grace at work, encouraging others in their faith, a person of good character, a person filled with faith and God’s Spirit. Barnabas encourages this group of believers and then goes to find another who may be of help to this ministry – Saul of Tarsus. Barnabas and Saul stay in Antioch and teach the community there for a year. Luke notes that it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” “The term Christian is a Greek adjective with a Latin ending, connoting ‘one belonging to Christ.’” (New Interpreters Study Bible) To be a Christian is to be a part of this fascinating story, this beautifully complex history, and in that to belong to Christ.
Part of that story is that Christians help one another. When famine strikes Judea, relief is to be sent from other Christian communities.