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The story told here in Acts 10 could be turned into a dramatic presentation in several acts, with its angel visitations, a Roman from the occupying army wanting to talk with a rough fisherman from Galilee and the surprise reversal Peter goes through. Peter thought of himself as Jewish, very Jewish. Peter lived in the cosmopolitan world of Joppa, a seaport on the Judean coast. Ships from the seven seas and caravan routes up the coastal plain made for all kinds of languages on the streets of Joppa, strange sights and sounds, colorful dress, exotic smells of food from Africa, Asia and Europe being sold in the bazaar. The world in which Peter lived and our world have much in common. North Carolina is a global village today just as Peter’s world was in the first century A.D. We think of ourselves as homogeneous, Euro-Americans. However, now North Carolina has people from Pakistan, Lebanon, India, China, not to mention Native-Americans, African-Americans and Latinos. The world in which Peter lived and our world have much in common.
Let’s turn to our text to see how the writer of Acts, whom we’ll call Luke, tells this dramatic story of two cultures getting to know each other. There are three main actors in the story: Cornelius, Peter and God. After all, God has a speaking part. Let’s meet Cornelius. When the scene opens, it’s 3:00 PM, prayer time. He is a devout, God-fearing, upright man. He is a citizen of Rome who worked his way up the army ranks through courage and skill on the battlefield. Cornelius is a centurion with responsibility for 100 soldiers on the army base in the seaport of Caesarea, the Roman administrative center in Judea. Herod the Great had built the city into a wonder of the ancient world with its grand breakwater and public buildings. Pontius Pilate lived there. Cornelius prays, gives money and help to anyone, regardless of religion or culture. He is well thought of by the whole Jewish nation we are told. But Cornelius is a seeker; he feels there is something missing from his life. There is a yearning in his prayers to know more. He’s hungry.
The camera comes in close on Cornelius. He’s absorbed in meditation and prayer when a dazzling being appears suddenly. He is terrified, for, after all, this is the ancient world where spirits are real. For example, when Moses saw the burning bush, he didn’t think of taking it to the lab for scientific analysis and a hypothesis for why it wasn’t consumed. Cornelius knows in his bones this being in dazzling clothes is an inbreaking of divine power. The voice said, “Go find Peter and fetch him to your house.” Cornelius does not understand. He doesn’t even know the question; and the answer is Peter? Peter who? He may know nothing of the new Jewish sect of Christianity. But he obeys the command forthwith. That very day a trusted soldier and two slaves are on the road south to Joppa to find Peter.
Now the action shifts to Joppa, where Peter is at prayer, also. We know Peter. He’s rash and outspoken. He denies Christ three times, yet later makes a ringing declaration three times, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter is a devout Jew, obeying all the dietary laws, being circumcised, keeping the Sabbath, praying, washing ritually, doing everything right by his culture’s standards.
Peter is physically hungry; and as he waits for lunch, the heavens open with a message from Yahweh. A sheet is lowered to the ground with all manner of creatures on it: birds, reptiles and animals. A voice says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter is shocked and revolted. His culture eats seafood with fin and scales but not shrimp and squid. He won’t eat hawks or seagulls. Not pigs or rabbits. And, worse yet, if he kills with his hands and knife, he’s touching a dead body. Breaking this taboo will take days of purification to become acceptable to God again. Peter tells God, “No. I’ve never eaten anything profane (literally, “outside the temple”, not sacred) or unclean.”
The second time the voice from heaven speaks, it responds directly to Peter’s response. God has made everything sacred, that is, not outside the temple. What God creates is good. After the third admonition, the sheet suddenly disappears into the heavens. Peter’s head is swimming. He’s too shocked to know what the vision means. Peter doesn’t even know the question; and the answer is “Kill and eat”?
While Peter is reeling from his experience, the two slaves and soldier from Caesarea arrive at the gate, asking for him. God stays around to say, “Get up. Go with them for I have sent them.” Peter doesn’t understand, but he obeys. He invites them in, feeds their animals, lets them bathe, eat and sleep the night. What rules is he breaking? They’re not circumcised. God knows what they’ve eaten or touched. They are not clean according to Peter’s cultural bias. But right action is more important than right belief; and Peter treats them like family.
The next day Peter and a few of the believers journey all day to the grand seaport of Caesarea, where the wealth and power of the dominant Roman culture is evident. Cornelius has invited family and close friends and is all excited to receive the Galilean. The Roman officer falls at Peter’s feet in worship; but Peter says, “Stand up. I’m a mere mortal.” This response will be echoed in Acts 11, where Peter has to defend his lawbreaking to the church. He says in 11:17, “God gave them the same spirit so I baptized them. Who am I to hinder God?”
When Peter’s group enters the home, he finds a regular assembly. His conversational opener is to say, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” What a conversation opener from an invited guest! But Peter is underlining his human limitation of being imbedded in one culture and being thrust into contact with an alien culture. Then Peter declares, “But God has shown me not to call anyone unsacred or unclean.” Now we see some progression in Peter’s understanding; but he’s still seeing through a glass darkly. Peter asks why he’s been sent for; and Cornelius recounts his story. Cornelius the spiritual seeker now knows not to worship Peter; but he, too, still sees through a glass darkly.
In verse 34 Peter begins to tell the Good News of Christ. He begins by repeating for the second time his new insight: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, (literally, God accepts no one’s face) but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then Peter launches into his stump speech on the gospel.
While Peter is still speaking, the Gentiles suddenly break out into praise of God in many tongues. The Jewish Christians are astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit is being poured out even on the non-Jewish participants. Everyone is enraptured. Peter gets religion. He re-phrases his new understanding of ministry and God by declaring in verse 47, “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 Christ, the Bible says. Now Peter knows the question and he lives out the answer.
And what did Peter come to know? He was a lawbreaker according to his own culture’s rules. But Peter obeyed God, threw out the rules and in doing so opened the way for Christianity to become a European, African and Asian religion instead of a small Jewish sect. Otherwise, all non-Jewish religious seekers would have to pass a screening device set up by the Jews in charge having to do with eating kosher. All non-Jews would automatically be screened out. Peter got religion and trespassed against his own culturally conditioned laws. The Holy Spirit broke forth and everyone was united in one onrush. Right action on Peter’s part of obeying God was more important than right belief.
What happens to Cornelius? He’s had a life-changing experience with his God. His hunger is satisfied; his yearning fulfilled. He is now a powerful witness for Christ, well placed as he is in the dominant Roman empire’s structure in Caesarea, the bustling seaport that Herod the Great built. And the missionary work of Paul to the Gentiles would not have had much success if Peter had not gotten the message from God right.
How does this story of the New Testament church speak to us today? We are a multicultural society that all too rarely worships together because the dominant culture sets up screening devices that marginalize and exclude “Other” people. Suppose we update the story in Acts 10 and exchange Cornelius for Martha Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico. The ancient Peter who has the keys to the kingdom becomes an Anglo Protestant minister.
Martha is 27, widowed; and she left Mexico to find work in the U.S. to feed two small children. She has no papers to be here, has a sixth grade education, is smart, works hard and is generous to everyone around her. There are three things to highlight here about Martha’s culture: As a Mexican she’s proud of her Indian heritage, her African roots (through slavery in the Americas and the moors in Spain) and her European background. Her African and Indian traditions place a high value on ceremony and ritual. After all, Indians talked and danced with people several days before smoking the peace pipe. She cares a great deal about the ceremonies of baptism, the Eucharist, first communion, confirmation and so on.
Peter, the modern Anglo pastor, sees life through Puritan Calvinist lenses in America, which de-value beautiful liturgy, religious art, drama, ritual and the saints.
The second highlight of Martha’s culture is that she sees all life as sacred. Mexicans name their children things like Encarnacion (Incarnation), Gloria Luz (light of heaven) and Jesus. Jesus is family; and he walks with us and he talks with us. In the home are votive candles for daily prayer, a shrine to a saint, a picture of the Last Supper. A sense of the sacred is in every moment, every place. Church is not in a building.
Pastor Peter, in contrast, lives in a thoroughly secular society where even the TV news lacks content in favor of showing you what products consumers can shop for. We rush around with our cell phones, multi-tasking and spending. Latinos call our society “comida corrida”, literally “food that runs”. We are fast food.
The third highlight of Martha’s culture is her Spanish language. Our language carries our lenses through which we interpret the world, our ethnic identity, our personhood. Pastor Peter lacks the capacity to speak a language other than English.
Now Martha seeks out the pastor personally, although she does not go to his Anglo-culture church. Unlike Cornelius she is already a Christian, steeped in the sights, sounds and ceremonies of the church. She hungers for community and has no Spanish-speaking Protestant church options nearby. She wants her four-year-old son baptized so he will be at home in the church universal.
Pastor Peter could have listened to some members of his congregation who say things like:
“They need to learn English, acculturate and attend our worship service.”
“They think the sacraments are magic. They come and get it and you never see them again.”
“They’re all catholic. Why are they coming here?”
Martha comes to Pastor Peter, tells him some of her life story and brings her children, who interpret for her. She is an economic exile, far from her homeland through no wish of her own. She’s a devout Christian with no church home. Her Latino music, style of worship and language are not found in many areas of the country. She is hungry for the familiar life-affirming ceremonies of the church universal.
Pastor Peter does not listen to the murmurs of some members. He says to Martha, “Yes!” He is convinced that right action to obey God is more important than right belief. He knows that beliefs are culturally conditioned and reflect the lenses through which we interpret life. He sets aside the temptation to set up an Anglo screening device that eliminates a whole people-group. He already knows the Apostle Peter’s question: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Martha came to a foreign church and in asking for spiritual bread leavened the whole loaf. She brings gifts from the Holy Spirit, grace from above through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, now practiced with a new understanding. Her first contact with Pastor Peter satisfies her hunger, fills her every longing. She will be back another time when the Spirit moves. And her children will know where to find a church home. The ancient story from Acts is about two cultures struggling to work out a new relationship also. Had the Apostle Peter not changed his mind and had Cornelius not been open to learning from a poor Galilean , the first move in winning over the Roman empire to Christianity would have been different. Although we live in a multi-cultural world like Peter, we affirm the truth of “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Amen.
This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith. We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality. This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.
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