May 7, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)
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.
Because of Cornelius’s vision and Peter’s vision—because of the revival that broke out at Cornelius’ house—because of the early church listening to movements of the Spirit and holding the Council of Jerusalem—most of us reading this are here today as Gentile believers. For that, we give thanks.
In my tradition (Episcopalian), tomorrow is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Easter season is drawing to a close—on Thursday, May 13, we’ll celebrate Ascension Day, and Pentecost Sunday is May 23. Even fifty days of Easter seems too short to tell the story of the early church in Acts. Certainly Acts 10—of which these verses form the conclusion—is packed with human interest and miraculous occurrences.
Acts 10 involves the story of Cornelius, a Gentile who was a “God-fearer”—one who believed in the One God of the Hebrew people, but as a Gentile was limited from participating in some aspects of Jewish worship. Cornelius was a centurion, commander of a “century” (about 80 soldiers) in the Roman army, and he was known to be generous and devout (Acts 10:1-2).
In this chapter, both Cornelius and the Apostle Peter have visions. Cornelius’s vision, which comes first, while it terrifies him, is fairly simple: he sees an angel asking him to send for Peter. Peter, though, has a far more involved dream, where he is repeatedly shown a large sheet full of non-kosher food and asked to eat it. When he protests that it is non-kosher, the voice in his dream tells him “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15b).
While Peter is still puzzling over this, he is summoned to Cornelius’s house—and, thanks to the dream, he goes. There he explains that, though he had previously thought he should not associate with Gentiles, he now realizes from his vision that God wanted him to come. He and Cornelius share vision stories, and then Cornelius asks Peter to tell him whatever God has (as they say in my home state of Kentucky) laid on his heart.
Peter responds with one of the many short sermons that we find in the book of Acts. Frequently in Acts, followers of the Way, as the early church was first called, are asked to explain themselves; they generally respond with a short summary of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection (here, Acts 10:34-43). It’s as if someone asked us for our testimony and we recited the Apostles’ Creed—and indeed, some of these speeches are no doubt informed by early creedal statements. This particular sermon by Peter results in a revival breaking out at Cornelius’s house—with the Holy Spirit falling not only among the “circumcised believers” who had accompanied Peter on his mission, but on the Gentiles as well. Peter promptly baptizes all of the Gentiles.
This was a truly crucial story, and a truly crucial moment, for the early church. Was “the Way,” Christianity, simply a new way of being a Jewish believer? Or was it ultimately a different thing entirely, open to Gentiles as well?
The church down the ages has wrestled, sometimes in problematic ways, with what should happen when those who are Jews by birth and heritage become believers in Jesus as Messiah. But what the church has always been clear about since the miraculous stories of Acts 10–formalizing the policy at the Council of Jerusalem shortly after this event (Acts 15)—is that the good news of the gospel is open to Gentiles without their becoming Jews first.
Because of Cornelius’s vision and Peter’s vision—because of the revival that broke out at Cornelius’ house—because of the early church listening to those movements of the Spirit and holding the Council of Jerusalem—most of us reading this are here today as Gentile believers. For that, we give thanks.
Because of that, also, we should remember in profound humility that we are not in charge here; that we are, as Paul says elsewhere, the branches grafted into the vine (Romans 11:17-24).
Actually, of course, Jesus is in charge here. Let’s not forget that, either.
How do you react to the story of Cornelius and Peter?
Where do you need help in seeing God at work among people you wouldn’t expect?
Spend some time in prayer with the old hymn “The Love of God” (lyrics here.) Ask Jesus to enlarge the boundaries of your heart.
Jesus, I am grateful that you moved Peter to have a vision of how God could be at work in Cornelius’s life, and Cornelius to have a vision of the life available to him in Jesus Christ. May I always put you at the center, and listen for the promptings of your Spirit. Amen.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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I’m curious on how Pentecost is celebrated in our time.
Dear Mark, I’m sorry it took me so long to answer. Churches celebrate Pentecost in many different ways today. In my church, there is often a big procession with banners, including one shaped like a dove, and the Scripture from Acts 2:1-24 is read in many different languages. – Jennifer