A centurion named Cornelius lived in Caesarea, and he had a dream vision of an angel. The angel called him by name and said: send men to Joppa to bring back a man with two names, who’s staying at the house of a tanner.
He sent them. Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa on a rooftop having a dream of his own,
about a descending sheet full of animals. And a voice told Peter to kill and eat.
But some of the dream-sheet animals were forbidden to Jews for eating. So Peter said, essentially, “nope; some of these things are unclean.” And the voice said: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
So Peter sat on the roof, thinking about this confusing dream. And the men from Cornelius the Centurion showed up. A voice told Peter that they were sent by the Spirit, and that he should go with them. So he, and a group of Jewish believers, went.
He must have kept on wondering about that sheet and the animals and the voice on the walk to Caesarea because, once he saw the crowded house waiting for him, he said “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” He asked what this was all about,
and Cornelius told about his vision, and said they had gathered to hear what the Lord has given Peter to tell them.
“I now realize,” Peter says, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” But he told them again—told them the good news of what Jesus had said and done.
And then right in front of them, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius, his friends, his slaves, his family. And “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.”
Cornelius was a Gentile—a non-Jew. He was born outside the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the people God had made covenant with. Jews were blessed and separated, but knew that being outside the covenant people of God, not a descendent of Jacob, is not to be outside all covenant or outside the love of God. Peter says “I realize how true it is that God…accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”He’s not being struck with a new idea; he’s being confronted with something he knew already, but hadn’t fully reckoned with: God had always promised a wideness of blessing among the nations and peoples of the earth. And here is Cornelius—a Gentile who has seen an angel, who prays to God and supports the poor of the synagogue, who Luke describes as “a devout man who feared God.”
When the New Testament writers—when Jewish writers of their generations—
talk about a Gentile who “respects God,” they’re talking about a particular sort of person:
a God-fearer. A God fearer was a person who, in the stew and swirl of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean world, had encountered Judaism, and were drawn to trust the power of the God Jews worshipped. Many adopted parts of the way of life that came with that relationship. They went to pray and hear the Scripture read in synagogue; some ate the way Jews ate. But they had not abandoned their ancestral gods. Jews were glad to accommodate Gentiles who fell into this category. For God-fearing Gentiles to go further meant circumcision but also—and in a way that can only have been traumatic—abandoning your whole way of being a person in community, in a world where acting out loyalty to the religion you had inherited meant everything.
Cornelius and his household haven’t gone that far. He probably respected and devoted himself to all kinds of gods. Actually, as a Roman Centurion, that would have been inescapable. But he’s more than a casual, curious, occasional attendee at the synagogue. He and his family have come to know a particular and powerful relationship with the God of Israel. They are God-fearers and, from the perspective of neighboring Jews, they’re righteous Gentiles. They’re pagans who get it. But they have not given up their old, inherited identities. And I think that matters. It isn’t like Cornelius has been banging on the door to Judaism and the Jews have kept him out. He could have accepted circumcision, given up the other gods, and been a Jew like that. He didn’t.¹
Turning to God alone, with all its painful consequences in their social world, is going to be the central demand made on Christ-believing Gentiles. That’s what Paul will go to the Gentiles preaching. And, if we could hear what Peter and his friends spent those next days talking about with Cornelius, it would probably be just that. But Peter doesn’t say a thing about that here; he’s just retelling them the good news of Jesus that they’ve already heard, and that has charged them with anticipation. But there’s probably an altar to some other god in plain sight while Peter’s talking.
The household of Cornelius, as they were, turned to hear what God had to say.
And as they were, the Holy Spirit fell on them.
If that surprises us—that God would act like this—then maybe we can recognize
how we still get to share in the astonishment Peter and his friends experienced.
We see difference easily.
Its fairly easy for us to decide that the ways we are different make us unequal. That’s the endless wound of human tribalism and we all participate in it, in large ways and small.
We also participate in a different kind of storytelling—
a kind of storytelling in which we regard one another as equals
by identifying with others in a way that renders our differences superficial, illusory.
We decide that we are the actually the same, and so we’re equal.
We do this. We say things like, “I don’t see color.”
And what we’re doing is erasing each others’ particularity—erasing one another’s histories, stories, perspectives. We look at someone else and just see ourselves,
which means we can’t actually see them at all.
What radically strains our hearts, is to accept someone else as both actually different from us, and also equal. That way of seeing and regarding is what we are called to in this story.
The Pentecost of the Gentiles is not the destruction of “us and them.”
There are Jews, and there are Gentiles, and difference between them is meaningful.
What’s happening is the shocking, undeniable, inrushing of the Holy Spirit in a way that forces Peter and his fellow disciples to confront that they are different and of equal worth to the God who pours our grace with scandalous impartiality. “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” Peter says.
We need to hear this.
We need to hear this because we are embedded in connected but different histories.
We embody histories, and we have different stories. We do not experience the world alike.
We are different—we have constructed difference, made it real—
and we cannot erase one another by denying that.
We cannot look say we are the same
when that refuses the truth of one another’s experience.
That is not the community called together and gathered up in Christ,
the communion born through the Spirit.
We are different and not erased in that body. We are equal,
and absolutely and equally beloved by God.
1. In thinking about Cornelius’ identity as a god-fearer, I’m indebted to Paula Fredriksen’s scholarly exploration of early Christian belief in the context of ancient near-eastern religious life. For more about this discussion of god-fearers, see especially her article “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the study of Christian origins who’s time has come to go” http://www.academia.edu/15574563/_MANDATORY_RETIREMENT_Ideas_in_the_Study_of_Christian_Origins_whose_Time_to_Go_has_Come_
and also an essay “How Later Contexts affect Pauline Content, or: Retrospect is the Mother of Anachronism” http://www.bu.edu/religion/files/2010/03/CRINT-13-Fredriksen-offprint.pdf