Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
We have reached the final part of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius the centurion. Peter has gone to Jerusalem where he faces criticism for the events that took place in Joppa. He had ordered the baptism of the members of Cornelius’ household, but that is not the reason for the criticism, it is more to do with Peter eating with uncircumcised people. His critics want to know why he did this. Peter recounts the story that we have already read in the previous chapter. The whole incident is clearly something that is important to Luke, and that is partly why the story is retold, and the incident will be referred to again later (Acts 15:6-11). There is more to it than simply the whim of the storyteller to repeat this dramatic tale. Peter’s actions showed the acceptance of uncircumcised Cornelius and now the story is told again so that as Peter defends himself, we may know that he and his actions are accepted. We learn from Peter that the chief actor is not Peter, himself, neither is it Cornelius, rather it is the Holy Spirit who directs all that happened, and who provides for a scene that has echoes of the Pentecost story in Acts 2. Peter’s critics are silenced and God is praised for giving ‘even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’. Peter is seemingly accepted by the Jerusalem church, and the precedence of the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles is accepted, At first glance we may see these chapters as an account of Cornelius’ conversion, we may see that it is also about Peter’s conversion, ultimately it is about the Church being changed. The inclusion of Gentiles, like Cornelius into the Christian community, means that the community becomes a different kind of community. We read in this story about acceptance, inclusion and willingness to change when the Spirit leads.
O God, May we be ready for change, As we follow the Spirit into the future. May we be accepting and including, Ready to receive all, Irrespective of race, gender or sexuality. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen
The Rev’d Dr David Whiting, retired minister living in Sunderland