Text: Acts 10:1-17, 34-48
“Never trust anybody over thirty.” Anybody remember that? It is by no means a recent phenomena, but we live in an us and them world. An insider-outsider kind of world. We separate by age, by nation, by language, by ethnicity, by race, by educational level. We separate by political party and by ideological commitments.
And it is not surprising that people are divided by religion. There are insiders and outsiders. And of course we probably think of ourselves as the insiders, the ones with the inside track to God. But the thing is, when we turn to the Bible we find that God stubbornly refuses to acknowledge these distinctions.
You’ve got Ruth, a Moabite. The Moabites were despised by ancient Israel, and Deuteronomy says that no Moabite shall ever be admitted to the people of Israel. But there she is, Ruth from Moab - a model of love and faithfulness. Her commitment to her mother in law Naomi leads to her marriage to Boaz and Ruth, the Moabite, becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Jesus is a direct descendant of Ruth. Somebody who was supposed to be prohibited from the community becomes a central figure in the story of Israel.
Figures such as Ruth keep appearing in scripture, and we have such a person in our scripture today. His name is Cornelius. He is a Roman Centurion – a soldier. This is not an insignificant detail.
Israel is a small nation struggling for survival. Through most of its history it had struggled, and at this point, Israel was occupied and ruled by Rome. It would be hard to imagine someone a typical Israelite would have more disdain for than a Roman soldier such as Cornelius. Politically and culturally, he is the enemy. He is an oppressor. He represents the power of empire.
Cornelius is stationed in Caesarea. There were several Caesareas, cities dedicated to Caesar. This was Caesarea Maritima – Caesarea by the sea, a seaport on the Mediterranean, a recently built and thoroughly Roman city. Religiously, Cornelius is a Gentile. To protect themselves, to protect the faith, to survive in a hostile environment, the Jews kept strictly separate from Gentiles – which means anybody who is not a Jew.
But there were those Gentiles drawn to Jewish faith, drawn to Jewish worship. And Cornelius was in that category. We read that “he feared God.” Gentiles drawn to Jewish faith were called “God-fearers.” He apparently is very devout and a person of deep prayer – even though he would not have been eligible to worship in the temple in Jerusalem or participate fully in community worship.
Cornelius has a vision. An angel appears to him and says, “Your prayers and your alms – he didn’t just pray, he gave of his means to help the poor – your prayers and alms have been heard and seen by God. Send men to Joppa for Simon Peter – he is staying with Simon the Tanner who lives by the seaside.
Pretty wild, huh? God sends an angel to this outsider – a Roman’s Roman, a soldier, a Gentile. God was not respecting the careful boundaries and sure understanding of the nation of Israel. But Cornelius had prayed and God had answered. So Cornelius sends men to Joppa, just down the coast. Unlike Caesarea, Joppa is in Jewish territory. While Cornelius’ men are on their way, Peter goes up on the roof to pray. We don’t typically do that today, but then our roofs are not like roofs in that day. Think of this as more like the patio or deck for us. He is there praying and he gets hungry. And while somebody at Simon the Tanner’s house is making lunch, Peter goes into a trance.
Peter falls into this trance and has this vision, of a giant sheet descending from heaven, full of all kinds of un-kosher food—pigs, and shellfish, and reptiles, and weird-looking birds. A heavenly voice commands, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”
So, Peter is hungry, he goes into a trance, and he sees bacon wrapped shrimp and lobster and pulled pork, as well as some reptiles and weird looking birds – all of which are not allowed because of Jewish dietary restrictions. God says, “Bon appetit.” But Peter answers, “By no means, Lord.” No way. I have never eaten anything that is unclean, not a crumb. Peter is reminding God of Leviticus 1, which forbids all of these foods.
This was not a small thing. This is what Peter had known all of this life. Peter’s mother had taught him well. This was part of his identity. You may remember that when Daniel is taken to Babylon, he will not eat the food that the king provides. He negotiates with the king to eat a diet in accordance with his religion’s dietary laws. This was very serious.
Peter says, “No, this isn’t right.” But the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” All of this happens a second time, and then a third time. And then the sheet is suddenly taken back up to heaven.
Just about then, Cornelius’ men show up. The Holy Spirit has orchestrated the whole thing. They explain what has happened and how the angel had spoken to Cornelius. So Peter invited them in and they stayed the night.
Interestingly, Peter didn’t ask permission from the homeowner, Simon the Tanner – who already seems a hospitable person because of the fact that Peter is there. But then, having Gentiles in the house was something else altogether. But it seemed clear to Peter that God was in this.
The next day, Peter went back with Cornelius’ men, along with some believers from Joppa. Peter tells Cornelius and the others he encounters that God had shown them that he should not call anyone profane or unclean.
Did you catch what happened there? Peter understood God’s message. It wasn’t just about food. It was about people. It was about life. It was really about the limits we can place on God. It was about the way we can assign insider and outsider status. And it was about the new thing God was doing.
It starts with the visit of the angel to Cornelius, and Peter falling into that trance on the rooftop. That is a really interesting detail. Have you ever gone into a trance? Me neither. I mean it looks like my cat might occasionally go into a trance, but I’m not sure.
In the Bible, however, this seems no big deal. It is just casually reported. “Oh, yeah, Peter went into ta trance.”
I think this is a matter of being ready and able to see. Of being open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit might speak to us. To be awake to the idea that God might do something new.
Why does Peter fall into a trance and not somebody else? Why does this vision come to him? And why do we see what we see? Today we talk about people “getting it.” That can be a condescending term, but it can also express a truth. Why do some people “get it” while others don’t?
The Bible is the continuing story of God doing new things. Often, the new thing may involve the recovery of an old thing that has been forgotten or overlooked or set aside, but again and again God does something new. Sending Abraham and Sarai to a new land God would show them, or speaking to Moses in a burning bush, or leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or calling for justice through the prophets, or telling a young woman named Mary that she would have a child, or bringing life out of death.
God is doing a new thing, but all along there had been this call to be a light, to be a blessing, to the nations. The new thing was in some ways a recovery of an old thing. What is interesting is that Peter’s upbringing – his religion – gets in the way of what God is doing. His compulsion to defend and protect his understanding of God gets in the way of following what God is actually doing right in front of him.
Initially, Peter is so sure that he is right that he gets it wrong. Which is entirely in Peter’s character, as we were reminded in our cantata a couple of weeks ago. But then, as he is wondering about things, wondering about the theoretical idea of clean and unclean food, actual people, people he had been taught were unclean, show up - and it is not a theoretical issue any more.
The great preacher Fred Craddock told about his first student church, in East Tennessee. It was during the time that Oak Ridge was just booming, with all kinds of building activity with the atomic projects there. So there were construction people who had come from everywhere to turn this little town into a thriving city. Craddock pastored a beautiful little church nearby - a nice white frame church, very classic building with very nice people. Just lovely people. And here were all of these newcomers to the area. They were living in tents and trailers and all kinds of temporary housing. Many workers had their families with them, they had little kids with them.
Craddock suggested to the church board that they reach out to these folks. They had come from everywhere and here they were nearby. It looked like this was the church’s mission.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said the board chair. “They won’t fit in. After all, they are just here temporarily, living in trailers and all.”
Craddock said, “Well, they may just be here temporarily but they need the gospel and they need a church.” “No, I don’t think so.”
There was discussion about this and in the end there was a resolution for the board to vote on, a resolution moved by a relative of the board chair. The resolution essentially said, “Members will be admitted to this church from families that own property in this county.” The vote was unanimous except for the pastor, and Fred Craddock was reminded that as pastor he was not a board member and could not vote.
Well, years later Craddock was teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in Atlanta. He wanted to take his wife Nettie to visit the site of his early failure. The church was hard to find because I-40 had been built since then, cutting off a lot of county roads, but they finally found it. There it was, nestled in pine trees, just as he remembered, still a beautiful white frame building. Just like he remembered it except that now there were cars and pickup trucks parked everywhere. And a big sign out front that said, “Barbecue. All you can eat, chicken, ribs, pork.”
Craddock said, “Well, we might as well go in for lunch.” They went in and the beautiful oil lamps were still hanging on the wall. The pump organ was still there but now it was a decoration. The pews that had all been cut from one giant poplar tree were still there but now they were on the side and people sat there while they were waiting for their tables. And the place was filled with people, all kinds of people from all over the place.
Craddock said, “It’s a good thing this place is not a church now. These folks would not be welcome. They wouldn’t fit in.”
Peter went to Caesarea. It was not his kind of town, but the Spirit had led him there. He came to the home of Cornelius. Cornelius was waiting for him. And it is only a few words, seemingly insignificant, but we read the Peter went in. He had probably never been in a Gentile home in his life. He had been taught his whole life that you just don’t do that. But he crossed the threshold and entered the home.
Cornelius had gathered friends and family. And Peter speaks to them, telling them the story of Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist and telling them about Jesus’ life and teaching and healing, and how he had been crucified but rose on the third day and how forgiveness was available to all who believed in him. And he did not say “all from the nation of Israel who believed,” but simply “all who believed.”
And the Holy Spirit descended on everyone there, and all believed, and all were filled with the Spirit. Peter said, “How can we withhold baptism from these people who have received the Spirit just as we have?” And so Cornelius and his family and friends were the very first Gentiles to be baptized.
Peter was a little slow at first, but he now understood what God was doing.
It is interesting to think of this in terms of mission. It is not that Peter brought God to these people. God was already there. The Holy Spirit showed up long before Peter did. We don’t really bring God to anyone. God beat us to it a long time ago. Our mission is to discern where the Spirit is moving, where God is working, and join in that work.
Following Jesus involves being open to the new things that God is doing. I think about my life – the way I grew up, the things I was taught, the things I believed at one time. You know, I have changed. I have grown. My understanding has broadened, evolved, developed. And I am so much better for it. I bet your experience may be a lot like mine.
Peter went into this trance and got the message. We can be pretty slow sometimes. We are a lot like Peter. But if we are open, we can hear the Spirit’s voice, we can observe the Spirit’s doings, and we can join in. Amen.
Thanks to Rob Bell for helpful ideas in his Robcast #25, The Sheeeeet Factor.