A Tale of Two Conversions
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We have said that the conversion of Saul and Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his family represent a sort of hinge in Acts. At this point the good news of Christ is going to spread throughout the Gentile world. This is what has been happening geographically. As Peter has been moving toward the coast, he is operating in increasingly Hellenized or Greekified or Romanized territory. He’s now in the port of Joppa staying with another Simon. A tanner. As we look at the story of Peter and Cornelius this morning, I want us to consider it as a tale of two conversions as we consider these two men. Let us ask for God’s help as we prepare to do so.
We’ve spoken of the ends of the earth in various ways throughout these weeks. The Kingdom of Cush. Nubia. Rome. The capital of the empire. The centre of it all (even moreso than we think Toronto is). A representative of the powerful Roman army. A centurion. Generally these men had served anywhere from 12 to 20 years. They were men of good standing. Their clothes made them stand out. They had power. Cornelius is a member of the Italian Cohort, living in the beautiful port city of Ceasarea. A city named after the emperor. The place where the governor of Judea stayed. The place where the Romans had built a harbour to facilitate trade. You can go there today and see the ruins. This place was a big deal and Cornelius was a big deal. He was the man, as we say. He was also a part of an occupying army.
Speaking of “Who would have thought?” This man was devout. He feared God with all his household. He gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. God was at work in this man’s heart long before Peter ever comes on the scene. This man Cornelius saw something in the Jewish faith that he liked. He hadn’t gone through the process of becoming Jewish. He was devout though. He feared God. He gave alms. He prayed. God is at work all around us long before we ever get there. There is a great line in Ephesians where Paul writes to the people of Ephesus of how we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be or way of life. Cornelius has a vision in which an angel of God tells him to send for Simon Peter who is staying with Simon Tanner. Cornelius sends two slaves along with a devout soldier to make the journey south.
While they are on their way the scene switches to Peter. It’s noon and Peter is hungry. He goes up on the rooftop to pray. He falls into a trance and sees the heavens opened and a large sheet (like a sail) coming down with all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air (no fish but as someone has said, how would fish be doing on a sheet?). A good vision for someone who is hungry, along with the voice that says “Get up Peter (which reminds us of the invitation Peter extended last week – Get up!), kill and eat.” So far so good except for the fact that there are a bunch of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air that Peter isn’t supposed to eat.
This is not just a matter of personal preference or even personal piety. This was something that marked Jewish identity. These were commands given by God to mark the fact that the people of Israel were set apart by God for a purpose. This was a matter of identity and communal survival.
Which brings us to a question. As followers of Christ, on what do we base our identity. Is it on our culture? Our form of worship? Our language? On what do we found our identity? We’ll come back to this question, just hold it there for now.
There are many momentous words in this passage. Here are some of them – “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The thing is, God is not just talking about what we eat here. As with many visions, there’s a deeper meaning that is not readily apparent at first glance. It’s not just about food, it’s about people! Speaking of which, here come the emissaries from Cornelius. They’re calling out at the gate asking if the Simon they called Peter was staying there. Peter is still thinking about the vision. Voice tells him “Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” To his credit, Peter goes. He’s suspicious and a little cold and quite formal though. “I am the one you are looking for, what is the reason for your coming?” They tell him. To his credit he invites them in. Not a usual practice but not unheard of, as it was safer for a Jewish person to invite a Gentile into their home. Less dangerous than going into a Gentile’s home where contact with unclean food and whatever else is a much more distinct and dire possibility.
Peter invites them in. A boundary is being broken here. I want to pause here moment and consider the importance of invitations being offered and accepted are in this story. I like to ask the question “How are we doing with offering invitations? How are we doing with accepting invitations?” Maybe they involve unexpected people or places. Maybe they come out of nowhere and make us ask “Who would have thought?” in the best possible way. Peter invites these men to stay.
The next day they get up and go and some of the believers from Joppa went with them. Right into the heart of Roman country. Wonderfully, Cornelius has called together his relatives and close friends, because this is something that we share. This man of means and experience and power falls at Peter’s feet because he has found all those things unworthy of worship. We all worship something and Cornelius’ first inclination is to worship this man whom he might consider an emissary of the God he has been fearing. “Stand up,” says Peter, “I am only a mortal.” As he talked to Cornelius he went into the house and found that many had assembled.
Picture the scene. Who would have thought? Peter walks into this villa on the Mediterranean and finds not just this centurion he had heard about but a whole crowd assembled. Maybe they had heard something about the good news from Phillip. They’re about to hear it in a whole new way.
Peter comes walking in and in effect he’s saying “You know I’m not even supposed to be doing this?!” “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” I don’t know what exactly this is about but I heard something and I’ve done what I was supposed to do!
Cornelius shares about his own vision. Tells Peter he’s been kind enough to come. Kind enough to accept an invitation. Imagine. “All of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” What an intro! Then Peter begins to speak.
Here we have another momentous line in our story. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” This idea was not unknown. The OT contains lines about God showing no partiality within the nation of Israel, favouring the foreigner, those who might be thought excluded from God’s care. This truth has been expanded now to include everyone. “…but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” This is not to proclaim some sort of “anything goes” mentality on God’s part, but to show that belief in Christ and forgiveness of sin in the name of Christ is open to all. “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel,” tells Peter, “Preaching peace by Jesus Christ.” Right relationship with God, right relationship with humanity and all of creation in Christ. “He is Lord of all.”
I truly understand this now, says Peter. A moment of conversion for Peter. This man who had taken up Christ’s invitation to follow him. This man who had confessed to the risen Christ “You know I love you.” This man who had proclaimed to the people of Jerusalem Jesus as Lord of all. This man has come to understand in a whole new way what it means that Jesus is Lord of all. That a right relationship with God through Christ is not dependent on labels or any of the myriad ways in which we look for our identity or look to label others or identify others. If you’ve followed Christ for any significant length of time you may identify with Peter’s moment of conversion here. I’ve probably had 4 of them so far. It’s a sign that following Christ and walking along this path with Christ means that we’ve never arrived until that day that we will know as we are known. That we all see in a mirror dimly and that from time to time we are given a whole new way of seeing. Peter tells the story as one person has described it – “Cornelius: the God whom you have worshipped from afar has done all this; as part of his global plan to set everything right at last; and, at every stage, Jesus is in the middle of it all! God has thus fulfilled the purposes for which he called Israel in the first place; and you Cornelius, and everyone everywhere who believes this message, will receive a welcome at once, without more ado, into the family whose home has, written in shining letters above the door, the wonderful word ‘forgiven’.”
This is why we call it the good news!
Jesus is Lord of all. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. All. Everyone. What does this mean in terms of whom is welcomed at the table? What does this mean in terms of what defines our identity and what defines our commonality – particularly in a world which so often wants to divide us and separate us into camps or tribes?
This is what it means for this group of people in Cornelius’ villa. Peter doesn’t even get a chance to finish. They don’t get a chance to make a profession of faith even. The Holy Spirit comes upon this group of Gentiles and the Jewish followers of Christ are astounded to hear them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Praising God. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” This common bond. This tie that binds our hearts in Christian love one heart to another. They are baptized in the name of Jesus – who is Lord of All.
Then they invited him to stay for several days. A tale of two conversions. Peter stays with them for several days. Unheard of heretofore! They’re together for several days. All as a result of God’s grace. Repentance itself is a result of God’s grace. Someone has said that “repentance is the joyful human response to God’s offer of himself to us, the necessary, quite appropriate turn of a life which is the recipient of God’s gracious turning toward us.” The good and appropriate response to God’s grace and mercy and love. They spend several days together. We see throughout Acts that conversion isn’t an end, it’s rather a beginning. One of the things it begins is life together. They invited him to stay for several days because we’re not called to live the Christ following life on our own whether we’re at the beginning, middle of end of it.
Throughout this story invitations have been extended and invitations have been accepted. Thanks be to God who shows no partiality for inviting us into God’s family. We are forgiven. May the Holy Spirit give us thankful and responsive hearts in the light of God’s great gift of grace in the person of Christ Jesus.