© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Whose conversion do we celebrate in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles—Cornelius and the other Gentiles or Peter and the circumcised believers?
The authors of the lectionary know that our attention span is too short to read all of Acts 10 in church, but it seems that they are counting on you to know the rest of the story because this conclusion, all by itself, fails to convey the real power of this episode. When the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were listening to Peter’s words, God did something truly remarkable, but what happened to those Gentiles is only part of the story.
Rewind back to the beginning of Acts 10. We start in the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who had earned the respect of his Jewish neighbors as a God-fearer. Despite his allegiance to the Empire, he was known as a generous and faithful man. One afternoon, while he was praying, an angel stood before him and told him to send messengers to the city of Joppa and to ask after a man named Simon Peter and to request that Peter come and visit him. Faithful to the vision, Cornelius did just that.
The next day, as those messengers were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter was up on the roof praying. There, he had his own vision—this one of a great sheet being lowered down from heaven, full of four-footed animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told Peter to get up, kill, and eat what was before him, but Peter knew right away that that was impossible. These animals were unclean—not kosher—and he had never once tasted what the law forbade. “By no means, Lord!” he objected. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And the sheet was taken back up into heaven.
Three times he saw and heard the same thing. And, while he was standing there, pondering what that vision might mean, there was a knock at the door. Before he even knew who was standing outside, the Spirit told Peter that he should go with those men. Cornelius wasn’t the only one who needed a vision to get where this story ends up. Peter needed one of his own. As he himself declared when he arrived at Cornelius’ house, “It is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” God had shown him. God had revealed to Peter that God was about to do something the world had never seen. God was going to tear down the most fundamental barrier in human civilization and show Peter and the other circumcised believers that religious identity—that belonging to God—didn’t depend on who you were or where you were from.
Two thousand years later, those of us who hear each week that “whoever you are and wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place and at God’s table” might take that for granted. But Peter and his circumcised companions most certainly did not. When they saw that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on those Gentiles, they were astounded. Peter’s question was not a rhetorical device. It was genuine. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asked, querying himself as much as those around him.
We get a glimpse at the magnitude of this theological and ecclesiological stretch in the next chapter, Acts 11, when Peter was called upon to defend himself by the other apostles and circumcised believers. “Why did you go into the home of uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they asked incredulously. Peter had to explain all over again the vision that he had seen three times and how it corresponded with Cornelius’ own vision and how the Holy Spirit had come upon those Gentiles just as it had come upon the apostles at the beginning of their ministry. Peter hadn’t been looking to break the rules or shatter the ethnic distinctions that he and his people had known for the two thousand years since Father Abraham had answered God’s call. But God had used Peter’s faithfulness—his prayerful devotion—to break open his heart in order that he might become a vessel for this new thing that God was doing. And because God had met him in that place of faithfulness, Peter was able to accept it with obedience.
God is doing something new in this moment. God is breaking down new barriers and teaching us new ways of recognizing what is holy. God is showing us new things that surprise us. But we won’t recognize them if we aren’t pursuing the familiar life of faithfulness. I think we vastly underestimate old patterns of holy living—things like praying morning, noon, and night, reading and studying the bible, memorizing scripture, singing psalms and hymns around the dinner table, fasting, and giving alms—the same things that Peter and Cornelius were doing before God brought them together.
Sometimes it feels like religion stands in the way of progress. For some, a rejection of the traditional religious framework is the only path to enlightenment. For those who have been wounded by religion itself, that is understandable. But there are others of us who come from within the community of faith who are eager to see God overturn the institutions that stand in the way of God’s reign being fully manifest in this world. We are the ones who pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and mean it with our whole heart. For us, the road to progress begins with the practice of our faith. We want to burst through those barriers that attempt to shackle God’s infinite, unconditional love, but we won’t get there by leaving God behind. We can only name as holy and sacred those things that the others would call unclean and profane if God takes us there.
In the end, it is our own conversion that we gather to celebrate this day—not simply our conversion to Christianity—to the way of Jesus—but our conversion to the possibility that God will do something new within us. Being open to that possibility is fundamental to the way of Jesus. To believe in the crucified and resurrected one is to believe that out of our own inadequacies God will bring new and abundant life. We are here today to pray like Peter and Cornelius and to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us for whatever lies ahead. This thing that God is doing is too great and too wonderful even for our imaginations. We will not figure it out on our own. But God will use our faithfulness to open us up to whatever new possibilities God has in store for the world.