Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 10:24-34, 44-48
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him.
Acts 10:24-34, 44-48
The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 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, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
This story of Peter praying on the rooftop and God giving him a vision declaring that what God has made clean, Peter must not call unclean, has always stuck with me. I love this story.
It stands in complete contrast to the law given to Moses and Aaron. The entire chapter of Leviticus 11 outlines the numerous animals and insects that the people may and may not eat. And the discussion centers around what is clean and what is unclean for the people, what is detestable and what is okay. And if the people were to eat or even touch the carcass of many of these animals and insects labeled unclean or detestable, the people themselves would be unclean for the remainder of the day.
My Hebrew teacher in seminary taught us through stories, and one of his most memorable stories was of his breaking a tooth while eating pork chops. Had this happened here, the incident would not have even been remembered, but it did not happen here. It happened while he was studying in Israel.
You see my teacher was raised on a pork farm. But while in Israel pork was forbidden, as a unclean food. And while he respected the people, he had eaten pork his whole life, and he had a hankering for pork! Since pork was not sold in the markets, he had to seek out pork on the black market. Had the landlord or anyone known he was eating it, everything that had touched the pork would have had to be sanitized or thrown away.
And it was while he was eating this forbidden pork that his tooth chipped.
Now this may not seem like much, but he now required the services of a dentist, a dentist who most certainly would not work on his tooth, if they knew he had been eating pork when the tooth was chipped! …lest they have to close down & sanitize the whole office on his account!
The Jewish rules and laws were extensive. This teacher’s own conclusion many years later was that the rules had been given the Jewish nation to help them survive the perils and temptations that could most certainly wipe them out from the face of the earth – most especially while they were aliens in the land, traveling from place to place, wandering in the desert. That itself was enough to be the end of them. And then you add on all the cultural temptations and the fact that many established nations of the land would most certainly see them as a threat and try to wipe them out.
And so God had given them an extensive set of rules to keep them alive and healthy, with their cultural identity and memory of God in tack.
But as we discussed last week, in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, a new age had dawned. The laws had been fulfilled. They had served their purpose of keeping the people alive, distinct, and aware. It had kept them mindful of the prophets and their teachings that would help them discern that Jesus was indeed God-with-us, Emmanual! The laws had served their purpose to birth into this world, the Savior of the world!
And now, their whole world was shifting, as Jesus began taking down, law after law. Dismantling the system of rules and guidance that they had outgrown, in order to make way for what God was doing in their midst now!
And while they needed to be separate, distinct, and apart BEFORE, now they needed to be integrated, moving, reaching out, sharing the Good News they had received with all nations. They needed to be able to eat the food they were served, to socialize with people long-labeled unclean, to speak with men and women alike.
And what amazes me is how God so magnificently led the people.
We have Peter, praying on his rooftop, hungry and waiting for the meal to be served, falling into a trance as he prayed. And in the trace, God shows him a whole feast of animals – all the kinds off limits to him before this point – and invites him to eat. To his deliriously hungry soul, this invitation must have been tantalizing, but each time he resists saying, “No, Lord, for I have never eaten something such as this that is unclean.” But each time, God replied, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.”
This is brilliant. Here we have God seemingly contradicting Godself – because WHOSE words and commandment was Peter quoting? GOD’s!
And we need to hear this.
We yearn to KNOW what is right and wrong, black and white, good and evil. We indeed learn about good and evil through Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ. We know that some things or wrong and others right, but discerning between them can be a difficult puzzle indeed!
As a case example, if you knew the law of Moses about clean and unclean animals, Peter’s response is spot on. He passed the test, we might say. Indeed, was God testing him, tempting him in his moment of hungry weakness?
But no, God was not testing him but teaching him. God was showing him, very viscerally, that God had made these animals too, and that they were good and okay for eating.
Then, as if on cue, the men Cornelius from Ceasarea had sent to fetch him arrive. They are seeking him by name, him who they’d never met, him who Cornelius had only heard about through an angel visitation.
And right there, tenderly guiding Peter, for each new step, the Spirit directed him. The Spirit told him that 3 men were seeking him, that God had sent them, and that he should go with them, without hesitating.
Peter, who did not know yet WHAT that vision was about…
Peter, who did not know WHO was coming looking for him…
Peter, obeyed the Spirit of God. He followed, though he didn’t know the reason or the way.
Peter followed the Spirit’s nudging and met the men. He identified himself as the one they were seeking, and asked why they’d come. They proceeded to explain that they were there because Cornelius, a God-fearing man, had been instructed by an angel to send for Peter, that he might hear what Peter has to say.
And that is it.
Peter invites them in. He gives then lodging for the night. And the next day, they all set out for Cornelius’ house in Ceasarea.
Just like that.
Notice how God orchestrated each vision, each nudging, each visitation, so that each person would know what to do next.
They didn’t start out with a grand master plan.
They simply were tuning in to God.
And they obeyed what they heard.
So when Peter arrives in Ceasarea, he again quotes the rules he’s known his whole life – he is not to associate with a Gentile, which Cornelius was,
But then he adds to that, “But God has shown me not to call anyone profane or unclean.
Peter is in completely uncharted territory. But he is there because he’s felt led by the God who has known him all his days, and so he follows, trusting,…and listening for God to guide him.
And God has led him to the home of a Gentile, and he finds that the home is filled with many others, there and eager to hear what he has to say, and so he begins sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. And he starts out by saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…”
Once again, Peter is following God, who clearly loved these “unclean” people enough to send them an angel, to send him a vision in a trance, to nudge him by the Spirit to go with 3 strangers,… all that THESE people might here the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And so he begins to speak.
And here again, we see God move in the most tender and loving of ways.
God knows that Peter is following, but that he is still processing all these new events in light of his old playbook of Jewish rules and rituals. And so GOD again makes the first move.
And while Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those present who heard.
And Peter’s friends who had accompanied. His Jewish group, they were floored and amazed, that God had given the gift of the Holy Spirit, even to these Gentiles.
But Peter, still following and listening as he goes, discerns that IF GOD has poured out the Spirit on the people, WHO ARE THEY to stand in the way and not baptize them. Thus, he orders that they all be baptized.
This outbreaking of God – from all the previous bounds and constraints of the Jewish nation – was radical. And the people God was working through, they did not understand or anticipate God’s next move. Rather, God was leading them, step by giant step. God was leading them.
They only had to follow, and trust God.
It is natural to want to cling to all that has come before. After all, God has met us in the before times. God has met us in our rituals, our events, our songs, our services of worship. God has met us in preaching and affirmations of faith. God has met us in church.
But I ask you, are we tuning into the Spirit of God here and now?
Are we listening as we tune in?
And are we willing to follow God, with faith as a child, wherever and to whomever, God is calling us?
God is still active and present in the world today.
You and I are Christ’s disciples.
May we, ever more, day by day, become expert listeners.
May we, ever more, day by day, become trusting followers.
And may we too stand, jaw dropped and astounded, at all the ways God is breaking out the boxes in which we’ve held God in,…
And celebrate the wondrous, unrelenting, seeking, merciful, and gracious love of God for all the world!