By Rev. Kathy Itzin
Cornelius was a Roman soldier who lived after Jesus died, when the early Christian community was struggling and not sure how to live in community. They didn’t know what religious rules Jesus would want them to still keep; what was important, and what wasn’t.
The early Christians were Jews who had been kicked out of the synagogue because they believed in Jesus. They’d chosen to follow Jesus, but they still considered themselves Jews. Their whole lives, they’d been taught that they lived in a covenant with God. Thousands of years before that, Abraham the father of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians, had been circumcised as a sign of living in this chosen relationship with God. All the boys and men who were part of these Chosen People were circumcised when they were 8 days old. Later, the Jewish people began to follow certain dietary restrictions, some of the 613 commandments that are listed in the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. ‘Keeping kosher’, and observing the commandments were integral to the lives of those who kept the covenant of God.
When Luke wrote the book of Acts, the small Christian community was trying to figure out how to treat Gentiles, (non-Jews), who were interested in joining them. Did they need to be circumcised too? That was the physical sign of keeping the covenant with God. Of course, they’d need to also keep the kosher eating laws. All foods were either clean or unclean, and a person following God would certainly not eat unclean food, or do anything else that would make them unclean.
The meat from cows, sheep, birds, and other wild game was clean. Pork, seafood, reptiles, and things that crawled on the ground were unclean. Everyone learned this growing up, and a faithful Jew didn’t act in an unclean manner.
That was the scene when the limelight focused on Cornelius. He was a Gentile, but not just a Gentile, actually an Enemy Gentile, because he was a Roman soldier. But, strangely enough, he was also ‘a devout man who worshipped God, gave generously, and prayed regularly.’ There were certain times of the day that Jews prayed, like Muslims do today, and Cornelius was praying in the afternoon when he had a vision. An angel appeared to him and told him to send some men to find Peter in Joppa, a nearby city, and ask him to come.
At the same time, Peter was at His afternoon prayers on the patio of his house roof when He had a vision. Peter was an observant Jew, a faithful Jew who kept kosher, and he was hungry. While they were making supper, he saw a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven and the sheet held all kinds of food; some clean, and some unclean. He heard God say, “Get up Peter, and eat some of this.” Peter must have thought he was being tested, or that God was joking.
He said, “Of course I’d never eat this God. I’ve Never eaten anything that is ungodly (profane) or unclean.” God answered, “What God has made clean, you shouldn’t call unclean.” This happened three times, then the vision disappeared.
Peter didn’t know what to make of the situation, and as he was thinking about it, some strange men appeared at the door. They were the men sent by Cornelius. The Spirit said to Peter, “Go down and go with them without hesitation, for I sent them to you.” Peter went down and talked with them, and they explained how they had ended up at Peter’s house. He let them stay overnight at his place, and the next day they traveled back to Cornelius.
Cornelius was excited about this whole thing. He didn’t know what to expect, but since an angel had told him to bring Peter to his house, he figured it was going to be something good! He gathered his whole household, and invited his friends.
When Peter saw all the Gentiles at Cornelius’ place, the first thing he said was, “You all know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone ungodly or unclean. So, now that I’m here, why did you send for me?”
Cornelius told how the angel commanded that he get Peter, and how he wanted to hear what Peter had to say. Peter began with, “I understand now that God shows no favoritism, but apparently in Every country, Anyone who worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. He must be the God of all.” Then he told them about Jesus. But Peter still wasn’t expecting God to treat Gentiles Exactly the same. Tom’s reading began:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard Peter. The circumcised believers were Astounded.” It’s one thing to think that God accepts people, but to really treat the same? Exactly the same?” But then, Peter got the point. He asked, (just like the Eunuch asked Phillip in last week’s reading), “Can anyone withhold baptism from people to whom God has chosen to give the Holy Spirit?” People whom God considers exactly like us?
This God is the God who breaks down barriers. God took the rules for appropriate, faithful behavior and threw them out the window. Suddenly, God was saying that All the people who were Not the holy ones, now were holy!
People who they Knew were different than them, were suddenly treated by God as if they were the same. Maybe they Are the same. God had to tell Peter to go ahead and eat, that nothing was unclean three times. It’s as if God was trying to make an impression, and finally Peter got it. God wasn’t talking about food.. God was talking about people.
The eunuch. The Gentile Roman soldier Cornelius. Years ago, the United States thought that Black people weren’t holy – that they weren’t even people. Then we recognized that they had Some rights, but certainly not as many as Whites.. The same with Native Americans. How can you treat someone like we treated Blacks and Natives, if you know they are holy?
But the Spirit kept moving. In the 1920’s, women’s brains were recognized as being as evolved as that of men, and we were given the right to vote. But interracial marriage was still outlawed (holy can’t join with unholy) and people could still get arrested for being gay. We are still having the conversation if gay marriage could be holy, and I just read that several states are able to deny gay couples the right to adopt, if there religion says gays aren’t holy.
We keep moving in the right direction, although sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. Are there people that we think of as not as holy? Maybe people in our family. People who are mentally ill people who struggle with addictions or poverty, people who are peculiar, or people who are on the wrong side of our political views.
When the little group of Christians saw that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, (people they didn’t think were like them), they were ASTOUNDED!!! Who would we feel astonishment about, if we discovered they were holy?