Luke’s first book is the Gospel that bears his name. His second book is called The Acts of the Apostles, and we could also call it The Acts of the Holy Spirit Poured out on all Flesh. It’s the story of Christ’s first witnesses who struggle to keep up with the movement of God’s Spirit from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The opening chapters of Acts are centered in Jerusalem, but soon we hear about Philip’s witness in Samaria and the wilderness baptism of a man on his way back to Ethiopia – the Spirit and the witnesses are beginning to spill over the boundaries of Judea. But it’s not geography that presents the most difficult challenges for the first witnesses; it’s how they’ve learned to think about themselves and others.
The ancient Jewish world was divided into Jews and Gentiles – God’s people who live in righteousness and holiness, and the Gentiles who live far from God in the darkness of their idolatrous ways. For the good news of Jesus to spill over and reach the ends of the earth, the witnesses had to find the courage to cross boundaries that had been in place for generations. Luke masterfully compresses this gradual, very difficult, and contested development into a sequence of dramatic scenes with Peter as a key character.
Peter is in Joppa, a port on the Mediterranean, on the edge of the Jewish heartland, where he’s staying at the home of Simon the tanner. Tanners worked with animal carcasses, and their occupation made it very difficult for them to remain ritually clean. Pious Jews would have chosen a different place to stay on a visit to Joppa. So Peter is not just on the edge of the Jewish heartland; he’s also right on the boundary line where assumptions of holiness turn into assumptions of the opposite, where inside turns into outside, and belonging into exclusion.
Now Luke takes us to Caesarea, about forty miles up the coast from Joppa. Caesarea is a thoroughly Gentile port city, which Herod the Great built up as the governor’s residence for the Roman province of Judea. Here we meet Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. He was a devout, God-fearing man. They knew him at the synagogue, and they liked and respected him. He participated regularly in the daily prayers and shabbat services and he gave generously to those in need. Cornelius was as close to being a Jew as a male Gentile could be without undergoing circumcision. One afternoon Cornelius had a vision. He saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius! Your prayers and gifts to the poor have ascended as a memorial before God. Send messengers to Joppa and bring back a man named Simon, who is known as Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel had left, Cornelius called two of his servants and a soldier from his personal staff. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as their journey brought the three close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he had a vision. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-legged animals, as well as reptiles and birds. And a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Absolutely not, Lord!” Peter exclaimed. “I have never eaten anything that is impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times. Then the sheet was pulled back into heaven. Three times — you’d think a heavenly voice wouldn’t run into such resistance, wouldn’t you? You can tell a lot was at stake here for Peter. What he was told to do went against some of his most deeply held convictions, things he had been taught since he was a little boy.
Now while Peter was wondering what to make of this very persistent vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived at the gate, and the Spirit interrupted his thoughts, “Simon, three men are looking for you. Get up and go downstairs, and do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
So Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
“We’ve come on behalf of Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea; he is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is well-respected by all Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”
Peter invited the men into the house as his guests, and the next day he went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.
They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Anticipating their arrival, Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “Like you, I am just a human.” Perhaps word had traveled from Joppa to Caesarea that it was Peter who had prayed for Tabitha to be brought back to life from death, and his prayers were answered. The power of God had been palpably present in that miracle, but for Peter to enter the house of a Gentile was an equally miraculous step into a radically new life.
Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them, “You all are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. However, God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius told him the whole story. “Four days ago about this time, three in the afternoon, I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayers and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is known as Peter. He is a guest in the house of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
And so Peter proclaimed the good news of Jesus to a Gentile audience for the very first time. “I now realize that God shows no partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to God. This is the message of peace God sent to the people of Israel by proclaiming good news through Jesus Christ: he is Lord of all! You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he traveled around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was him. We are witnesses of everything he did in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with im after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” And while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. God was indeed pouring out God’s Spirit on all flesh, sanctifying all flesh, sharing the divine holiness with all flesh, and Peter declared, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water; they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
An ancient boundary, deeply embedded in Jewish life and tradition, was dissolving. It wasn’t long before the apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?” You crossed the line that separates holiness and idolatry — what were you thinking?
Peter told them the whole story. He told them about his vision and the vision of Cornelius and all that they precipitated. He ended by recalling the sermon he preached at the house of the Gentile. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
When they heard this, they were done complaining and they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Even to the Gentiles. The church in the first generation moved from a carefully bounded ethnic identity to an international, multi-ethnic, Christ-centered identity, and it wasn’t the church’s doing. The initiative was God’s and the church followed – slowly, hesitantly, but it followed.
Perhaps you wonder, is Luke’s story about the conversion of Cornelius and his household or the conversion of Peter and the church? Which of the two received the greater blessing, Cornelius or Peter?
Both were given visions that allowed them to see themselves and one another in radically different ways.
Both were given new identities as equal recipients of God’s mercy.
Both were given new purpose as witnesses to the wideness of God’s embrace of the whole human family.
Isn’t it curious that for centuries, conversion meant that others have to become like us in order to be acceptable? In the story of Cornelius and Peter we have been given a powerful corrective to that view: in obedience to the Spirit’s guidance people welcome one another despite all that divides them. They welcome the stranger or enter the house of the stranger, not to convert, but to be converted by the barrier-erasing Spirit of Christ.
The Spirit is moving ahead of us, always working ahead of us to draw us into the fullness of life God desires for all of us. Somebody said recently we’re not living in an era of change but a change of eras. And yet, amid the seismic shifts we’re experiencing we trust that wherever we go, God is there, preparing a place for our continuing conversion into the likeness of Christ.