Cornelius and Peter’s Visions

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 20, 2015

Acts 10:1-23

 

We’ve come to the pinnacle of Acts.[1]  As I have discussed again and again over the past few months, the book we know as “Acts of the Apostles” is really about the Acts of God through the Apostles.  Those expanding circles Jesus laid out at the beginning of this book—taking the gospel to Jerusalem, then Samaria, then to the ends of the world[2]—is fulfilled as God leads the Apostles further and further from Jerusalem.  In the past few chapters, we’ve seen an Ethiopian saved, which was a major feat for the Apostles who wouldn’t have had anything to do with such a man beforehand.  He was not a Jew.  The barrier between Jew and Gentile is breaking down.

A few weeks ago I read a novel by a local Savannah writer, Lance Levens, titled Tietam Cane.  The story is set in the early 1960s.  Tietam is a young boy, whose name derives from Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.  He’s being raised by a bigoted grandfather who has him living out the Civil War.  His teacher describes him as a “brainwashed, violence-prone, arrogant little demon.” One of his aunts, hoping to intervene, takes Tietam to visit an African-American woman who lends him a book of poetry written by her grandmother, who was a slave.  These poems plant a seed in Tietam, which allows him to reconsidering what he has accepted as the “truth.”[3] Likewise, as we will see in our text today, seeds are planted in Peter’s and Cornelius’ mind through visions that allow them to change their world-view.

Here, in the 10th chapter of Acts, the holes in the barriers that insulate Jewish Christians from the Gentiles are thrown wide open as God works on both sides of the equation to bring Jew and Gentile together.  What happens here, in these verses lays the groundwork for what Paul proclaims to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek but all are one in Christ Jesus.”[4]  Our theme today is reconciliation.  We are looking at the first half of the 10th chapter of Acts.  (Verses 1-23)

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It’s 1805.  European Americans have barely crossed the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains. A preacher from the Boston Missionary Society makes his way into Western New York to evangelize the white settlers who have been moving from New England into this fringe of the frontier.  After preaching to the white settlers, he visits one of the many Indian villages in the region, members of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy, where he preaches to the Natives.  Afterwards, the Great Seneca Chief Red Jacket speaks and his words recorded:

 

Brother, we are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place.  These people are our neighbors.  We are acquainted with them.  We will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon them.  If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will consider again what you have to say.[5]

 

At this point, Red Jacket and several other Senecas walked over to shake hands with the evangelist, but he refused.  Feeling as if he had been rejected, the evangelist said there could be no fellowship between the religion of God and the devil.

I wonder how many times in the history of the Christian Church we’ve missed the chance to share the gospel because of barriers we’re erected, prejudices we hold, or intolerance we allow to go unchecked? The Good News is that God often steps in and helps change our misguided direction as we see in our reading today.  Our story is about God removing those barriers and bringing together two unlikely friends: Peter and Cornelius.  God is involved here, on both sides, to make sure things don’t get screwed up because if it had been left up to Peter, the good Jew, he’d never entered Cornelius’ home (as we’ll see him doing next week).

There are three main characters in this passage: Peter, Cornelius and God.  God’s role is behind the scene but it’s crucial as these two mortals are pulled together in a way that both of them are converted.  Notice, I said both are converted.  You may think that Peter didn’t need conversion but that’s not the case.  In fact, he’s been converted over and over again since he answered Jesus’ call on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.   To convert means to change direction, to realign ourselves to the mind of Christ.  Yes, to some extent, Peter did this but he also has to do it again and again as he learns what it mean to follow our Savior.[6]

Conversion is often more than a one-time experience!  Each conversion is expressed by a new understanding of what God wants for our lives and for how God would like the world to be ordered.  The bringing together of Peter and Cornelius involves a change for both parties.  Cornelius hears the gospel for the first time and opens himself up to accept Christ.  Peter experiences the gospel in a new way.  Through this experience he comes to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only intended for Jews.  “Jesus came to save sinners,” as Paul would later proclaim, not just sinners of a particular stripe.[7]

Think of this impact upon Peter.  There’s some radical stuff going on here.  He’s never eaten pork.  He’s never enjoyed beef stroganoff (you know those dietary laws not only prevented one from eating pork and shellfish, but also from eating beef cooked in milk).  Not only did he maintain a kosher diet, he has spent a lifetime of shunning Gentiles. The Jews felt superior to others and his tradition taught him to avoid non-Jews (and even Jews who were less than faithful).  Peter’s visit with Cornelius is earth shattering for the First Century.  It would be kind of like the Prime Minister of Israel eating with the king of Saudi Arabia or the supreme leader of Iran.

Peter is changed.  His vision shows him God can make clean what is unclean—which should be good news for us!  His visit to Cornelius’ home convinces him that the Gospel is not just for the Jews (and maybe a select group of non-believers like the Ethiopian guy), but for everyone.  Peter is beginning to grasps, although he will have some more growing to do, that Jesus meant it when he told them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

We need to understand what kind of change this was for Peter and for first century Jews.  With our modern minds, we might think, “What’s the danger of enjoying a barbecue sandwich?”  “What’s wrong not completely observing the Sabbath, with eating with a Gentile?” Because Christianity, even though we have our struggles, is the dominate religion in the Western World, such small concessions seem inconsequential to us, but to a minority religion, as Judaism was in the first century, breaking such taboos threatened the survival of the faith.[8] These rules provided their identity. Peter’s vision, we’re told, had to be repeated three times.  It took that long for God to get through his thick head.  What’s happening here is something beyond the scope of what Peter can imagine.  If God is behind something, we shouldn’t worry about things like survival for that’s in God’s hands and we are not in control.

Cornelius is also changed by his encounter from Peter.  We’ll learn more about this next week.  He becomes a Christian.  We’re told he has been seeking to know God better, that he’s a God-fearer, which was a term to describe Gentles who were learning about the Jewish faith and had accepted some of their teachings.  Like a devout Jew, Cornelius prays regularly and practices acts of charity.  He’s now ready to hear the good news, to experience the gospel, and to be baptized as a sign of his belief.

Peter and Cornelius need each other.  Cornelius needs someone to share with him the Good News and there are people like that today, who may or may not have heard about Jesus but don’t know what difference Jesus can make in their lives.  Remember my opening story about Red Jacket!  If the gospel’s fruits are not showing, why would anyone believe us?  Peter also needs Cornelius in order to grasp God’s grand vision of reconciliation of a troubled world.  Our faith is not just about us being forgiven and given a ticket to heaven—it is about reconcilation.

In a way, our story today is just a small scene in a larger drama God’s grand design of reconciling heaven and earth, of doing away with the bondage of sin that separates us not only from God but from one another.  God is like a matchmaker who drops hints to a boy about a girl, suggesting that she likes him, and then hints to the girl about the boy’s interest.

Those of us who believe and who strive to follow Jesus are called to play a role in this grand drama of reconciliation.  God uses us to carry out his plan just as he used Peter to share the good news with Cornelius.   We are ambassadors of a different kingdom.  We are here to break down barriers that separate us from one another.   We are here to seek peace between all people, for we are all created in God’s image and are all loved by our Heavenly Father.

As followers of Jesus, we are to exhibit a new order, God’s kingdom, to the world.[9]  We do this by speaking the truth about the gospel, challenging those who would exclude others from Christian charity, and by living as best as possible in harmony with one another.  It may seem an overwhelming challenge to live in such a manner, but remember that we don’t depend on our own power, but on the power of God who brought together Peter and Cornelius as just one act in an ongoing drama to reconcile the world through Jesus Christ.[10]  Amen.

As we ponder this, let us stand and read together from one of our confessional statements, “The Confession of 1967,” what it is we believe about reconciliation:

Confession of Faith concerning God’s work of reconciliation

(adapted from the Confession of 1967)

God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces our lives: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes our natural environment even though exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.

Biblical visions and images of the rule of Christ such as a heavenly city, a father’s house, a new heaven and earth, a marriage feast, and an unending day culminate in the image of the kingdom. The kingdom represents the triumph of God over all that resists his will and disrupts his creation. Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in men and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption.

With an urgency born of this hope we, the church, applies ourselves to present tasks and strive for a better world. We do not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor do we despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, we looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

 

 

©2015

[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 162 and William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1984, Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 93.

[2] Acts 1:8

[3] Lance Levens, Tietam Cane ((Fireshippress, 2013).  Quote from page 121/

[4] Galatians 3:28.

[5] American Indian Literature: An Anthology, Alan R. Velie, ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahama, 1979), 139.

[6] Peter was converted when Jesus called him.  Other examples of his conversions include the time he told Jesus that he couldn’t allow himself to die, and when he told Jesus he couldn’t wash his feet, and again when he betrayed his Savior.

[7] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[8] Willimon, 96.

[9] See the sixth “Great Ends of the Church.”  Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, F-1.0304

[10] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Confessions, “Confession of 1967”, Part Three, 9:56


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