We will be thinking about the meaning of the work of Jesus Christ for “outcasts,” as represented by the Gentile Cornelius and his family, as we study Acts 10:34-47 for Sunday, November 28. The acceptance of Cornelius, a Gentile and a centurion – a soldier, an emblem of the Roman imperial system – is dramatic in its own right, and also a turning point in the story told in the book of Acts. After this the narrative turns more and more decisively towards the early Christian outreach to the Gentiles, and in particular towards the work of the early Christian just introduced in the preceding chapter, Saul. Also known as Paul (Acts 13:9). [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text is specifically a sermon of Peter’s and its aftermath, the baptism of Cornelius’s relatives and close friends (Acts 10:24). It’s the climax of the full story of Peter and Cornelius. That full story is long, taking up all of chapter ten and about half of chapter eleven, and itself works as the climax of what is roughly the first third of the book of Acts.
The story of Cornelius is surrounded, front and back, with our long introduction to Saul, who turns to Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-30), and then becomes involved with the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). The growth of the church in Antioch is explicitly linked to the legacy of Stephen. Stephen was stoned to death for his profession of faith in Jesus as Christ back in chapter 7. That event seemed, incidentally – but now we see, not so incidentally – to give us our first glimpse of Saul (Acts 7:58-8:1). That is: we can see the Holy Spirit’s “long game” playing out in this narrative, if we pay attention.
This story also works as something of an echo to the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) that dramatically widens the first apostles’ ministry. In that story, the Holy Spirit arrives, people speak in tongues, and Peter preaches. In this story, Peter preaches, the Holy Spirit arrives, and people speak in tongues. So, narratively, the story of Cornelius closes the dramatic, charismatic frame around the first part of the acts of the apostles.
This story is also what establishes Peter as “the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers” (Acts 15:7), which allows him to authorize Paul’s ministry at the “Council of Jerusalem” described in Acts 15, and advocate for a “grace of Jesus Christ” rather than “ritual observance” approach to the message to the Gentiles on that occasion. This is yet another hinge in the narrative. After chapter 15, the story focuses on getting Paul from Jerusalem to Rome, the gateway to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In other words, there is a huge amount of narrative weight on this text. If the book of Acts were a house, this story would be one of the bearing walls.
We have to remember that Peter is Jewish. That’s emphasized in the first part of the story, which highlights the Torah’s proscription of some kinds of foods, and which asserts the Holy Spirit’s role in moving people past proscriptions like that. Some of us might see that as establishing a precedent. Cornelius is a Gentile – that is, not Jewish, an ethnic outsider vis-à-vis the early Christian community, and a centurion, an insider and representative of the very state that executed Jesus.
[Although Luke is canny when it comes to these ethnic political issues. We might notice that he has Peter the preacher lay the crucifixion on his “Fellow Israelites,” to whom he preaches in chapter 2 – see Acts 2:36. Then, here in our text, he attributes the crucifixion to a vague “them” (Acts 10:39). So structurally this story is something analogous to a leader of Black Lives Matter going to have dinner with a police officer, and then embracing that police officer as equally part of the movement. But rhetorically, the author smooths over that aspect of the situation. In the process establishing a proof-textual pretext for a couple of millennia of Christian slander about you-know-who Christ-killers. A reminder that we Christians have been known to use our sacred text as a pretext for stoking our hatred, rather than our love, of neighbor.]
Acts 10:44-48 is one of the readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter in year B. Acts 10:34-43 is one of the lectionary readings for Easter every year. But do any preachers ever preach on this text on Easter, when they could preach from one of the gospels’ resurrection stories? It’s also the other New Testament reading, alongside Matthew 3:13-17, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year A. The upshot of all this is that there are practical pressures that probably prevent this story from coming up very often in the preaching life of most congregations.
The rest of the story told in Acts 10 – the story of Peter and the vision of the animals in the sheet – is not in the lectionary at all. But if anyone were going to preach on Peter’s sermon, they would probably at least include some plot summary … I assume. Still: this all comes perilously close to making this whole story something you would not know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. [Bible Content Examinees be warned.]
On the other hand, I know that I have heard two sermons on Peter’s vision and the story of the visit to Cornelius in the 27 years I’ve been listening to sermons at my own church. One was explicitly directed to the congregation’s ongoing effort to include LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church. As in, it included the statement “this is an important story, for this congregation in particular.” I suspect the other one had the same motive, just less explicitly. Once again: sacred text as precedent, or pretext.
Our class studied another part of this story, Peter’s call to visit Cornelius and Cornelius’s description of his own vision prompting him to make that call, a few years ago. [Those notes are here.]
CLOSER READING: The first words of v34 are curious: “[Peter] having opened the mouth, he said:” What follows is his sermon. It is no doubt a figure of speech, but it gives a little extra formality to what follows.
In Greek, the term translated “shows no partiality” is a big long noun, literally “a receiver of face,” a person who pays attention to … outward appearance (as opposed to looking on the heart)? Identity? The contrast, in the next verse, will be between this “face” and people’s attitude toward God [fearing God] and people’s actions [working righteousness]. So, God in a noun-like way, intrinsically, is not someone who respects “face.” It’s not in God’s character. This is the only time this word occurs in the New Testament, although there are a handful of occurrences of the respect of persons itself, which Christians are exhorted not to have.
In verse 36, the emphasis probably falls on the “all” in “he is Lord of all.” More than the original recipients of the gospel of peace through Jesus Christ fully realized.
In verse 41, in identifying the “witnesses” as those who ate and drank with the risen Christ, Peter seems to be making a literal reference to the resurrection appearances recorded in the gospels – we might assume, specifically the gospel of Luke. The apostles are the original witnesses. However, surely those words resonate with the Christian practice of the eucharist or communion or Lord’s supper. Peter describes the witnesses as “having been chosen beforehand by God.” [More Holy Spirit long game, maybe.]
Peter’s compressed retelling of the Jesus story, in verses 36-43, is a remarkable statement of the heart of the Christian message. Jesus went around doing good and curing people “who were being oppressed by the devil.” Jesus died and rose again. Jesus will judge the living and the dead. This could almost be a creed. Or an elevator speech.
In verse 45, the circumcised believers are literally out of their minds when the Holy Spirit falls on “all those hearing the word” Peter preaches. The Gentiles! [Those scum?!] It’s probably a good thing Peter has his pals along as witnesses. We could guess that they would have had a hard time believing this event had actually happened if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes and heard it with their own ears.
So, if people have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, how can we not baptize them with water? It’s a rhetorical question. Of course, we can.
Our former pastor used to say that there were probably some children, likely even infants, in the group. This was an issue for him, because he had been a Baptist before he was a Presbyterian. Once again: sacred text as precedent, or as pretext.