In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?’ They answered, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.’ So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, ‘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?’ Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’
The story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius marks an important point of transition for the early Christian community. Now Gentiles are to be included in the Church. Cornelius is one Luke’s friendly Roman centurions, the equivalent of a modern warrant officer, part of the Italian Cohort living in Caesarea. He is devout, fears God, generous with his money and he prays to God, but he remains uncircumcised.
Like the conversion of Saul which is repeated this story is clearly important to Luke for it is a story he also repeats. Peter recounts what happened after facing criticism from circumcised believers (Acts 11:-1- 18) and it is further alluded to by Peter in a controversy over the admission of Gentiles (Acts 15:6-11).
Both the main characters in the story have a spiritual experience reinforces the experience of the other. Cornelius has a vision of an angel who tells him to send for a man named Simon. While Peter is on a roof and falls into a trance and sees heaven opened and a large sheet containing all sorts of creatures that are considered unclean or profane. These are things the Peter has never eaten. Three times he has this dream which leave him puzzled. Then the messengers from Cornelius arrive and Peter goes with them together some fellow believers from Joppa to the home of Cornelius.
Peter has recognised that he breaking a fundamental principle that a Jew should not normally associate with a Gentile. The food laws require a Jew and a Gentile not to share table fellowship. On the other hand he also took on board the message of the vision he had received, if no food was unclean then no person was unclean. Peter felt able to mix with Cornelius as he could with any Jew.
Cornelius’ prayer has been answered.
The story is often headed in commentaries as “the conversion of Cornelius” but as a number of theologians point out Peter is also converted. The event leads to a radical change for the Church. Lesslie Newbigin uses this story in discussion of dialogue between religions. In dialogue the Christian partner makes their own faith vulnerable and certainly “must be ready to face the possibility of radical reconsideration of long-accepted formulations” (The Open Secret, Lesslie Newbigin, SPCK 1978, p.210).
Very often the Church sees itself as carrying Christ to the world. It is not often that it considers the opposite may happen, the story of the Cornelius and Peter is a two way exchange.
Gracious God, this universe is created and loved by you. You came to us as one of us, in Jesus of Nazareth. Your Holy Spirit remains active in your creation.
We thank you for the depth of your love. We thank you for the Church an agent of your Kingdom, but may we ever be alert to your ways in the world.
May we learn what you are about, and what you want of us, through being alert to people around us, through our imagination, and through observing our world and our environment.
May we be open to change according to the leading of your Spirit. In Christ’s name. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr David Whiting – Minister Sunderland and Boldon URC Partnership.