May 10, 2015
First Reading: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
Have you ever been bewildered? Blindsided? Mystified? When God shows up, people are bound to be a bit baffled. He is a God of surprises after all. This Sunday’s first reading shows two bewildered characters coming face-to-face with each other in a dramatically arranged divine appointment.
This reading is particularly scanty on details. It boils down a 25-verse section into 9 verses. Not only that, but this is merely just one scene in a much longer story. Two men have visions sent from God that are designed to cause their paths to intersect. First, Cornelius, a Roman centurion who worships the God of Israel, has a vision in which he is told to seek out a certain man named Peter. Cornelius sends his messengers out to find him. Then Peter has a vision of unclean animals—animals that Jews were forbidden to eat under the Law of Moses. In his vision, a voice says “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter reacts with shock since he has always kept kosher. But as soon as his vision is over, Cornelius’ messengers show up with their own surprising story. Peter goes with them to Cornelius’ house.
Jumping to Conclusions
Once Peter arrives, Cornelius falls on his face in worship before him, thinking him to be angelic or divine. Peter has to raise him back up on his feet and convince him that he is also a mere man. While Cornelius’ behavior might seem strange, you could see why Cornelius might jump to conclusions about who Peter was based on the vision he had. Cornelius is bewildered by all that has happened and in his honest response to God’s grace, loses his bearings for an instant. After this awkward moment, Cornelius tells Peter what has happened: his vision, his sending messengers (Acts 10:30-33, omitted from reading). Then he invites Peter to speak to him and his household.
Like Cornelius, Peter is also bewildered. His impression had always been that Israel was God’s chosen people and the Gentiles (non-Jews) stood condemned, apart from the law and covenants of God. Jesus had only ministered to the Jews. All the early Christians were Jews. It only made sense that if a Gentile wanted to follow Jesus, he would first have to become a Jew—by getting circumcised and following the Law of Moses. But after his one-two punch vision and miraculous meeting, Peter is starting to question his former thinking.
I love watching God work with people and through people. Here he draws together two equally confused men and causes them to meet because he knows what will unfold. But it must be rather disconcerting to be one of the people whose categories God is exploding.
Peter the Preacher
Peter responds to Cornelius’s invitation and begins to speak to the group gathered at the centurion’s home. Peter begins not by offering a sage teaching, but by describing his own realization: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 RSV). Peter is finally coming around to realize what God has been trying to teach him through the strange vision and the knock on his door from Cornelius’s messenger. The reality that dawns on Peter here constitutes the heart of the Book of Acts: God has initiated the final stage in his plan of salvation in which the Gentiles are now invited to be part of his covenant family.
A Momentous Occasion
Peter is privileged here to be the first apostle to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Though Jesus’ ministry was restricted to the Jewish people, his followers are called to proclaim the gospel to the nations, the Gentiles. Peter here embodies the mission on which Jesus sent his followers. On this momentous occasion at the house of Cornelius, God promulgates the gospel to the Gentiles in the person of Peter.
Peter preaches about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While the account we get is probably a summary form of Peter’s speech (vv. 36-43, omitted from the reading), it gives us a great example of how to share the gospel briefly and effectively. During the preaching, the Holy Spirit falls upon the listening Gentiles as he had fallen on the apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The Gentiles begin speaking in tongues just like the apostles had. At this point, it is evident to everyone there that God has chosen to expand the plan of salvation to include them. Peter and the other Jewish Christians with him decide to baptize the Gentile believers, seeing that God had chosen to come upon them with his Spirit.
Both Peter and Cornelius offer us a great example of how to respond to God when he speaks to us. While few of us will have angelic visions or stand at a key turning point in the history of salvation, God does speak to those who listen. Sometimes what he says may make little sense or sometimes he might bring us into bewildering situations. But if we allow ourselves to be docile to the Holy Spirit, allow ourselves to be persuaded by what God whispers to us, then we can look beyond the moments of confusion, estrangement, or befuddlement, to his greater purposes for us, his wise and loving hand, guiding us safely back to our Father.