Stories will never outlive their effect on people. Stories have meaning and power. They capture our attention and beckon us to seek its meaning and interpretation. Some stories we hear over and over, and we get a unique perspective, a new understanding every time we listen to it or read it. Parents tell their children the same bedtime story because the child loves the story and wants to hear it over and over again. And the parent knows that at a certain point, the child will fall asleep.
Stories influence, move, challenge, and persuade us to consider our views, our perspectives of situations, and our beliefs. What we once guarded, we may hesitantly open to let go because of the stories that we hear. Involved in stories are tests and testimonies, from glory to victory, sorrow to joy, and struggle to peace, even death to life.
The basis of our faith hinges on the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of us are afraid to open our mouths to share what God has done and continues to do for us. We sit on our testimonies, our selfishness and piety on display, wanting to be as good Christians when we may be stoned-hearted, guarded, and distant.
The good news comes at a watershed moment in the life of Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman Centurion. Characterized as a non-Jewish seeker, Cornelius had an interest in the beliefs and practices of Judaism, without really having a desire to become one of them. Cornelius gave donations to the church and prayed constantly to God.
The writer did not focus on Cornelius’ religious or political practices, but on his character as a man of God. He showed us his character, which led to his conversion.
In this text, Caesarea is named the place of the “Gentile Pentecost,” culminating in the first development of adding Gentiles to the faith. Gentiles sometimes attended the synagogue but remained Gentiles. They were not circumcised and did not keep Jewish laws or eat Jewish food. Devout men and women worshipped and formed synagogue communities without becoming Jewish proselytes. It could be like, “I am a Christian, but I don’t hang out with Christian folk. I am spiritual but not religious. I love God, but I don’t like God’s people.”
This text speaks to the inauguration of the mission of salvation and redemption to the Gentile community. While God showed Cornelius a vision to send for Peter in Joppa, to come to his house, God showed Peter a vision of creeping things, which he refused to eat. God responded to him not to call what he had created profane or unclean, and set the precedent that God is no respect of persons. He lumped them into clean – repentant Jews vs. unclean, profane Gentiles. This was his belief system. The vision opened Peter’s understanding that God shows no partiality. Peter changed his mind, belief, and practices regarding the way he disrespected people outside of the Jewish community. His obedience opened the way for this conversion experience to happen.
Both visions culminated in these two meetings in Cornelius’ home, along with some Jewish believers who followed Peter because they knew something was going on, and the family members and friends of Cornelius. Cornelius then says, “now speak to us about what the Lord commanded you.” When Peter and Cornelius finally meet, the ground is ripe for a spiritual revolution.
‘Visions and dreams are important in this context as they set the tone for people to end up in the right place, at the right time, to receive God’s grace.” It’s a vision of God’s future for God’s people. What was once improper is now proper. What was once misunderstood is now understood. Those who were once excluded are now included. What was once questioned, now receives a favorable response from God.
This text helps us to understand God’s will so that we may better collaborate with God in the work of salvation. Not that God needs us; however, God desires to use us as instruments of grace and peace.
There are various theological interpretations of the proclamation of the gospel for all of us. And I would say that it is for all of us. However, in this text, the writer suggests that it is for those who fear God and have a willingness to do what is right. So, we could suggest a premise to receive God’s redemptive plan is for those who fear God and those who will do what is right by God. That’s a loaded statement. So, this means that something is required of us. We live on a slippery slope when we believe that we don’t have to do anything to receive salvation. Bonhoeffer called that cheap grace. It’s a lifestyle change, a spiritual change, a behavioral change, and/or a heart transplant happening in our lives.
While this story can be labeled the conversion of Cornelius and the Gentile Community, it can also be considered the continuation of Peter’s conversion. God was not finished with Peter, a Disciples before becoming an Apostle. He was a leader in the movement. This was the same Peter who denied Jesus three times on the chilly night of his betrayal. It was the same Peter who said he did not know the man. It was the same Peter who Jesus had to bind the devil to get behind him because he did not understand his purpose when he shared with the disciples that he must go away.
Peter denied his existence, his healing, his miracles, and his purpose. He loved him, but he denied him, also. Peter is now preaching the gospel of good news for the community’s hearing. He walked the timeline of Jesus’ earthly journey, his purpose, and intentions ultimately so that anyone who believes in Jesus, their sins would be forgiven.
Peter speaks of Jesus’ mission. He tells plainly and succinctly so that all around him can hear and understand the intent of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He does not embellish, add, or take away from the events that happened. Instead, he lays out a scene familiar to him and the ways that brought the gospel to bear in that setting. If you go back to Acts 2, Peter’s own conversion was taking shape as he opened his mouth on the day of Pentecost and preached the Pentecost sermon.
When people are gathering in a crowd, with ears eager to hear the story, the testimony, the good news, it’s easy for one to get carried away, to entice his/her audience, by turning the attention to themselves. But not with Peter. Peter finally got out of his own way.
Peter assumed that people around him knew something about the story. He recounts what happened with a basic assumption that people had heard what happened in Galilee. They heard about the miracles. Some of them waited on a Messiah. They heard about the death of Jesus – and about his resurrection.
While he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. Circumcised believers were surprised that the Spirit fell on the Gentiles. God put the spiritual cart before the liturgical horse and messed up the liturgical order of what it means to be saved. Oh, we know, you come down the aisle to give your life to Jesus, you confess him as Lord and Savior, then you go to baptism or new members’ class. You memorize your confession and recite it before the people…. then you are scheduled for your baptism.
Peter questioned why those who had been filled with Holy Spirit should not be baptized. This story answers the question of when one must be baptized, and who can be baptized, and the order of spiritual things and beliefs.
What can we do to prepare ourselves to tell the story of the good news? Whether we get out of God’s way, or if we don’t get out of God’s way, God will orchestrate settings and timelines for us to hear the good news. God will bring moving parts of our lives together with strangers to accomplish his plan. God will bring strangers together to get to know each other. God calls us to share the good news regardless of our past failures, mistakes, or story. Whatever our story is, it is not bad enough to the point where God can’t use us to heal or plant seeds in someone who needs what God has to offer. If we get out of God’s way, or if we don’t get out of God’s way, God will act by, giving visions and dreams to ordinary folk, to prepare everyone to hear the story.
We can learn God’s will from God and our own stories. God shows us who God is through his son Jesus Christ. God shows us a plan for our lives. God shows us that he is no respect of persons.
We encounter God in the muck and mess of our ordinary lives. Then we place our lives at his service. In this text, we cannot point to scripture as the basis for Cornelius and his family’s redemption. It was the encounter, the experience of hearing the story of Jesus’ life, that made the way possible for a Gentile nation to be included as the story was being written.
I challenge you to find a way to tell the story, tell your story, with no sugar. When you tell it, don’t water it down to make folk feel comfortable, especially if you have an experience where God showed up on your behalf, or your family’s behalf. Tell the story that will compel others to listen, to respond, to say yes to this way of living, loving, and serving. It’s called a testimony. We all have one.
“I love to tell the story, tis pleasant to repeat, what seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet, I love to tell the story, for some have never heard, the message of salvation from God’s own holy word. I love to tell the story of Jesus and his glory, for those who know it best, seem hungering and thirsting, to hear it like the rest. And when in scenes of glory, I will sing the new new song, twill be the old old story, that I have loved so long.”[i]
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for the reading of this story. We pray that it will enlighten our understanding of what it means to embrace the gospel story, claim our own story, and share it with others. In Jesus name, Amen.
[i] Hankey, Katherine, “I Love to Tell the Story.” Words, 1868, Music by William G. Fischer, 1869, in Chalice Hymnal, Chalice Press, St. Louis, MO, 1995.