Easter Sunday

In 25 years of Easter preaching I am sure I have never spent any considerable time or attention on the first lesson which is always this reading from the book of Acts. Maybe this year is the year to ask myself, why is this passage the only passage of Scripture (okay, Psalm 118 is also yearly) read every year on the most important Sunday of the Christian year?

Acts chapter 10 is a pivotal chapter in that book. It begins with a man named Cornelius, a non-Jewish Roman member of the “Italian Cohort” of soldiers who was described as “…a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. (Acts 10:2)

He sounds like a good guy. The only problem is that he wasn’t a Jew. And there was still a lot of debate among the disciples and early Jesus followers concerning the inclusion/exclusion of non-Jews in the community of Jesus’ followers.

To be fair, there was no small amount of confusion over what the role of the church would be after Jesus’ resurrection. Some thought the church was mainly there to get the word out to other Jews about Jesus as quickly as possible before Jesus’ immanent return. So inclusion of the Gentiles was not an early priority.

Others had a wider vision of what God’s goals were. Vision is the operative word here. There are a lot of visions in Acts chapter 10.

First Cornelius has a vision that his prayers were being answered (We are left to assume what his prayers were that were being answered. I suppose the prayers were to be guided to a true revelation of God.) and Cornelius was to send servants to find Peter who was staying at the house of a tanner named Simon.

We are even told the time of day, it was 3:00 in the afternoon. Or since Cornelius was in the military his wrist sundial would have read 15:00. And speaking of the military, is it not ironic that a Roman soldier would be among the first Gentile converts to Christianity. Didn’t Roman soldiers torture, mock and crucify Jesus? Sure, Marks tells us a centurion, seeing how Jesus died exclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son,” but we aren’t told anything else.  I wonder how many people have speculated about the relationship between Cornelius and the centurion by the cross. Cornelius could not have been the centurion by the cross because that connection would have been made by some New Testament author. Luke, who also wrote Acts, mentions a centurion by the cross who declares Jesus “innocent” but never draws a connection between this centurion and Cornelius.  But wouldn’t it be cool if they had met and that’s where Cornelius first heard about Jesus. Since Cornelius was in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea, he could have been there when the Roman soldiers returned after the Passover during which Jesus was executed. Something to think about anyway…

So Cornelius had a vision. The texts then shift to Peter who has a vision of his own. Peter is on the roof praying. What! Who prays on the roof! Maybe Peter thought he could get a better signal up there. Maybe, since he was staying with a tanner and tanneries were notoriously smelly, Peter went on the roof for a breath of fresh air. Either way, Peter was praying while waiting for lunch (since again we’re given the time…noon). While he is waiting for lunch he fell into a trance. I have had that happen to me already, it usually involves dancing snack food. Peter’s vision was a lot like mine. Except he sees all kinds of foods Jews are not allowed to eat because of kosher dietary laws. Peter says he has always obeyed these laws (although we are told in the gospels that the disciples did not follow all the cleanliness laws!) but now he hears a voice telling him to kill and eat unclean animals, reptiles and birds (gross!).

As Peter is having the vision the guys from Cornelius show up. The two events are obviously meant to be seen as corresponding to one another. Peter was being prepared to become the instrument through which the greatest Jewish/Christian paradigm shift would occur, full Gentile inclusion in the church (BTW: Paul thinks he made this happen). Peter goes to meet with Cornelius and the rest, as they say, is history.

That brings us to the yearly Easter reading. Peter is addressing a group of Gentiles with Cornelius. Are they also soldiers or soldier’s families? If they are how many winced when Peter reminds them that Jesus was put to death when THEY (Roman soldiers) hung him on a tree?

Regardless, Peter makes a pretty radical declaration, that God now shows no partiality to Jews. The door to full inclusion of the Gentiles is thrown open. It is hard to overstate how big this is and how counter to every Jewish impulse and understanding it was. To be a Jew was to be a part of God’s “chosen people,” God’s “peculiar treasure.” It is what being a “chosen land” people was all about.

This declaration will not go unchallenged. James, the brother of Jesus and the first real leader of the Jerusalem church (not Peter!), would have a problem with this. A serious debate (Okay, it’s a good old fashion church fight!) erupts to be settled by a council in Jerusalem (lead by James, the brother of Jesus) in Acts chapter 15.

But how big is this that Peter is willing to throw his whole religious, biblical and cultural understanding out the window in order to see God’s accomplishment in the resurrection of Jesus as fully inclusive. Everyone who believes in (Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins. Everyone.

Four youth and three adults from St. Paul’s are preparing for the triennial ELCA Youth Gathering this June in Houston. The theme is, “This Changes Everything.” It begs the question what is “This?” For Peter the “This” is clearly belief in the restoration God works through the resurrected Jesus. But the other question might be, what is the “Everything” that is changed?

The “Everything” changed for Peter was giving up the exclusiveness of his Jewish identity for the sake of universal inclusion.

What is our “Everything” that might change when we believe in God’s radical grace through the resurrected Messiah? This is the question I will be thinking about this week. I invite you to join me.

5 Comments

  1. Joy Gerhart

    WOW! I never paid much attention to the first lesson on Easter and sure wouldn’t have guessed this was it. I should be thinking about what “THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING” means too. I guess I always thought that the Peter and Cornelius story opened Peter to accept Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. It is a very strange story. I remember it being in a Sunday School unit for kids with the theme of events involving foods and eating. it is certainly more about inclusion than food.

    As you spoke about James, the brother of Jesus, being the leader of the church, I reflected on how many other religions and/or denominations often have a split after their first leader dies. Often one faction follows a relative and another follows a strong leader who had been a follower of the original leader. I’m specifically thinking of Islam and Mormonism and even the Nation of Islam. I’ll have to read more of Acts a little more carefully to see how Peter is looked to as the leader.

    Talking to soldiers (if that was the audience) about how Roman soldiers killed Jesus make me think of how for centuries the blame went to Jews for killing Jesus. I guess that was not an early Christian accusation since many felt you had to become a Jew before becoming a Christian. How differently we see things today! How the church has changed over the centuries!

    I will be listening much more carefully to the first lesson this year! (And not worrying about whether there were two or three women that went to the tomb, or two or one angel who met them…)

  2. Eugene Zaiser

    Greg, I found the connection you drew between Cornelius and the centurion present at the crucifixion fascinating. In Luke 23:47, after Jesus “breathes his last”, the centurion who is present at the crucifixion, and presumably in the charge of the execution detail, says, “Certainly this man was innocent.” The English word “innocent” is actually a translation of dikaios, normally rendered “righteous”. This word certainly meant innocent or righteous in the eyes of God, but it was also used in a legal sense to refer to someone who was a model citizen, above reproach in the eyes of society, or who had been cleared of a criminal charge. In other words, “Not guilty.” So when the centurion says these words upon Jesus’ death, he’s essentially saying, “We killed the wrong guy.”
    I think it’s almost certain that Cornelius knew this centurion. The complement of soldiers attached to the Roman governor in Judea would have been auxiliaries, not regular legionaries, so the rank and file soldiers would have been non-Jewish natives of Palestine, Syro-Phoenicians in all likelihood. Their officers, however, would have been Romans, a small, tight-knit group of veterans serving together in a foreign land, commanding foreign troops. I can imagine Luke’s centurion returning from Jerusalem after the feast, running into his friend Cornelius, and saying, “The strangest thing happened at the Festival this year…” Maybe the execution of this innocent man of God was what Cornelius was praying so fervently about. Maybe, like so many of us, Cornelius was praying for some moral clarity in the midst of a world that seemed hopelessly mired down by a lack of innocence.
    Little did he know that the clarity he sought would end up being the radical forgiveness and acceptance given through the very innocent man his comrade executed. That does change everything.

    • Gregory Frey

      I think drawing a line from the Centurion Luke presents at the cross, to the Centurion Cornelius Luke presents in Acts gives these texts a very interesting historical anchor. There is a chain of witnesses here beginning outside the circle of disciples which shows that the Gentile ministry is not rooted in Peter or Paul but actually begins with the Gentiles themselves. I discovered that there is a festival to Cornelius on Feb 2, and a chapel to Cornelius once stood on Governors Island New York when there was a military base there.

  3. Joy Gerhart

    After reading Christian Piatt’s comments, I’m bothered because I always thought Jesus was the stone that was rejected, not Peter.I’m also not sure I like thinking of Resurrection as a process. Maybe a process to restore the world, but people? I’ll have to think about that!

  4. Gregory Frey

    I agree on the process-resurrection discomfort. I like playing around with the stone/Peter imagery even if Peter was not who the Psalmist had in mind when Psalm 118 was written. Of course, Peter was called a “stumbling block” in a pun on his name by Jesus (Matthew 16:23). And Peter referenced Psalm 118 in his own correspondence (1 Peter 2:4-8). So whether he is the subject of Psalm 118 or not he got the label and used it himself! Is it significant that Peter was NOT a stumbling block to Cornelius? (Rhetorical)

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