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.