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.’
We’re all prone to justify ourselves and to condemn those who are different than we are. For God to use us effectively He must break us of our prejudices. In this passage we have a Roman soldier, representing the despised occupation of Israel. Thirty miles south you have a Jewish apostle, temporarily residing at the spot where Jonah had taken off in disobedience to his commission to preach to Israel’s enemy. Behind the scenes, God is orchestrating the events to bring these two together in a way that shocked both. The result of the story is that today Gentiles are fellow heirs and members of the Church. The story brings out five lessons:
1. We all are prone to prejudice. Like Peter, we’re probably blind to those prejudices until the Lord shocks us into seeing them so enabling us to reach across cultural and personal barriers with the Gospel.
2. God is gracious to gently, often gradually, break us of our prejudice so that He can work through us. He teaches us by putting us in uncomfortable situations, where we are challenged to be more like Jesus.
3. God’s purpose is to spread the gospel through us so that He will be glorified among the nations. If we do not have a heart to reach out with the gospel across cultural, racial, and national barriers, we do not have the heart of the Lord Jesus.
4. When God confronts our prejudice, we must yield in obedience to Him and one way to do that is to treat other people, whatever their race or background, as equals.
5. When we yield to the Lord and put to death our prejudice, He will use us. That’s a ready situation for God to work, when the hearts of the people are prepared and the heart of the speaker is prepared and they gather in God’s presence to hear a message that God commanded Peter to give!
Dear God, show us our prejudices. Give us the strength to obey you by putting those prejudices to death. By showing your love and offering your gospel to those who we might not naturally be inclined to like, your name will be exalted among the nations! Amen
Sue Knight, Local Church Leader, Reigate Park URC and Lay Preaching Commissioner Southern Synod