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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Five Verses From Acts - 05/09/2021

Five verses from Acts do not seem to do the wider story of Cornelius justice.

Cornelius is a centurion commander of a foreign military force in Caesarea, a seaport on the Mediterranean Sea about 50 miles west of Jerusalem. He is charged with commanding a cohort or company of soldiers. They are part of an enormous system created to keep the Roman Empire in control, even in the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Cornelius is also known as the first Gentile convert. It’s an unlikely scenario, but I think we often see that God works in powerful and even subversive ways when it comes to what we might deem unlikely.

We don’t know how Cornelius was introduced to Judaism, but I think we can assume that he came to believe in the One God of the Jewish people during his foreign military assignment. The story says he was devout and known as a thoroughly good man. He gave alms generously. He lived in awe and humility of God and led his whole household in that way. He prayed constantly.

One afternoon, he had a vision. A messenger of God came to him. It terrorized him at first, but he composed himself and asked what the messenger wanted. “Your prayers and neighborly acts have brought you to God’s attention,” the messenger said. “Here’s what you are to do. Send men to Joppa to get Simon, the one everyone calls Peter.” (Acts 10.4-5, MSG)

I like how God says through this messenger “here’s what you are do to,” not what do you think about this…? Or would you please …? It’s direct and it must be compelling because Cornelius does what the messenger says. He sends two people from his household and one of his soldiers to find Peter and invite him back to Caesarea.

It took about a day to walk from Caesarea to Joppa, As Cornelius’ party was approaching the city around noon the next day, Simon, the one we call Peter, had gone to the rooftop of where he was staying to pray. He was hungry and lunch was being prepared. As he prayed, he had a vision. Three times in this vision God dropped something like an enormous sheet onto the ground. On it were every kind of animal, bird and reptile you can imagine. Now, for a hungry person of Jewish identity, this is a troublesome scene because one didn’t eat any of this food. It was either deemed unclean by Jewish law, or it had now been contaminated by hanging around with so much unclean food.

“Then a voice came: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ … Peter said, ‘Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.’… The voice came a second time: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’” (10.13-15)

By now, Cornelius’ party was arriving at the house. Peter was still on the roof trying to figure out what this vision meant, when a messenger of the Lord came to him and told him to get up and greet his guests.

“Three men are knocking at the door looking for you. Get down there and go with them. Don’t ask any questions. I sent them to get you.” (10. 19-20) Again, there is no consensus building or negotiating. Just a clear and apparently compelling “Go,” which Peter does.

The men sent by Cornelius told Peter how and why they came to be there. And so, Peter—a Jew—invited them—converted Gentile household servants and a soldier—into the home and gave them food, lodging.

As alarming as it would be to a Jewish person of the time, this act of hospitality was even more alarming. Jesus planted the seeds that push insiders to include the “outsiders.” And we have to practice this Christian attitude constantly because the the Way to that inclusion—to this day—is often difficult and hard to see.

The next day, Peter went with Cornelius’ party back to Caesarea. When they got there, Cornelius welcomed Peter in a manner worthy of Abraham and even fell to the ground in a posture of worship. But Peter stopped him. “None of that—I’m a man and only a man, no different from you.” (10.26) Cornelius invited Peter into his home.

It was then that Peter realized what God was trying to tell him in the vision of the sheet of creatures come down to Earth.

“You know, I’m sure that this is highly irregular,” Peter said to Cornelius. “Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other.” (10.28)

And from there began a rich and unlikely relationship. Peter told Cornelius and his Gentile household about Jesus. He preached our Lord’s peace-loving and inclusive ways.

 “And we saw it, saw it all,” Peter told them. “Everything he did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross. But in three days God had him up, alive, and out where he could be seen. ... He commissioned us to announce this in public, to bear solemn witness that he is in fact the One whom God destined as Judge of the living and dead. But we’re not alone in this. Our witness that he is the means to forgiveness of sins is backed up by the witness of all the prophets.”

And that’s where our five verses from today enter in. Here it is again. This time in the Message translation: “No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit (fell upon) the listeners. The believing Jews who had … come with Peter couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on ‘outsider’ non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God.

“Then Peter said, ‘Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.’ Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

“Then they asked Peter to stay on for a few days.” (10.44-48)

Now Peter was not only offering hospitality to “outsider non-Jews,” he was receiving it from them. He was entering into the outsiders’ home, their stories and culture and perspectives. He was the gracious guest of a Gentile. It was so unlikely, and alarming to many who looked on.

God was breaking into these unlikely encounters and places through the sharing of the story of our salvation and eternal life in the Risen Christ. And once God has that in-road, here comes the Holy Spirit, and she’s blowing all the human boundaries away—boundaries around race and food and who’s in and who’s out, whose gift of hospitality you accept and who you’ll welcome into your home. The Holy Spirit’s activity here, God’s activity, is so that this story, this other Way of being here, this news of salvation and eternal life can be shared, over and over again, with God’s beloved people everywhere, and to this very day.

Those who continued to follow Jesus after the resurrection, including Gentiles like Cornelius and disciples like Peter, were just beginning to grapple with what it means to live—to authentically embody—Jesus’ most counter-intuitive, challenging and lifegiving commandment – the very commandment we hear in the Gospel reading today: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Most of us have heard these stories enough to know that the first part of Jesus’ greatest commandment is to love God "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29-30)

Now, let’s face it. It’s often easy or easier for us to grapple with this first part. Not that any of us loves God above all things perfectly – still any one of us would probably say openly, of course we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, even if we know we will confess falling short of that love again—if not today.

But love of neighbor? All of them? In a Jesus kind of way? That’s not always so easy. And this is what people like Peter and Cornelius are trying to figure out, as unlikely as their circumstances are, as alarming as it is to them and those looking on. Cornelius must have been wondering, “Can I let this God push me this far?” Peter must have been hearing Jesus’ words as he encountered this Gentile household: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

I think it’s hard for us to really appreciate just how alarming and unlikely this is. Bringing the Jews and Gentiles together as Jesus followers, let alone the enslaved and the freed, the ones who are poor and nameless and the ones who are rich and honored was more than just unlikely and alarming. It was unimaginable.

To try to understand the depth of division, tension, politics and emotions around these issues we might think of resent-day examples to help.  Imagine the unlikeliness and perhaps alarm that might be caused if those who argue for a ban on assault weapons sat down to dinner and conversation with NRA members? Or how about the masked vs the unmasked, the vaccinated vs the unvaccinated. Or how about the unlikely and to some alarming idea of Lutherans and Roman Catholics coming around the Lord’s Table together? Unimaginable, right? It sure seems like it a lot of the time.

Thinking of it in those ways perhaps gets us a little closer to comprehending the magnitude of what is going on here with Cornelius and Peter. This is not an easy situation. To so many it must have felt like human and cultural division resistant to unity, peace and love. But these five verses serve to remind us—what is unlikely, alarming and even unimaginable to us is no match for God’s will and the subversive, inclusive activity of the Holy Spirit.

Five verses—they don’t do this little gem of a story justice.

On the other hand—this abrupt entry into the story may bring our attention the how the activity of the Spirit can be abrupt itself.

And, especially as we turn our eye toward the Festival of Pentecost in just two weeks our annual worship of red to recall our very deliberate and courageous invitation: Come Holy Spirit! Come set us afire in the new of the Risen Christ! Come breath us back into full communal life! Come heal us, inspire us, send us~ Come help us tell the story! Come into our lives and the lives of others right now, Holy Spirit! And when she comes, abruptly and otherwise, in unlikely, alarming and unimaginable ways to blow through the boundaries of our own divisions and laments and worries, to answer these prayers, I wonder … how will we react?

Will we be like Peter and the other Jews? So surprised at the result of telling the story, so surprised that God readily adopts others—“outsiders” even—into the fold? Will we feel compelled like Peter to hesitate no more and welcome these unlikely others among us through the waters of baptism—as alarming as that may be to some?

Or, will we go a different way?

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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