< May 10, 2015 >

Commentary on Acts 10:44-48

 

The brief portion of this story assigned for this Sixth Sunday after Easter is the climax of a rather lengthy episode that, again, highlights the expansion of insider/outsider boundaries within the early decades of the church.1

We are told of “a centurion from the Italian cohort” named Cornelius, a “pious and God-fearing person with his entire household, giving many alms to the people and praying often to God” (Acts 10:1-2). This description indicates that we are likely meant to understand Cornelius as a patron for Jews and non-Jews alike and a practitioner of Jewish piety, though not a full convert to Judaism. Thus, Cornelius has not undergone the traditional Jewish (boundary crossing) ritual of circumcision nor does he follow the traditional Jewish customs pertaining to clean and unclean food. He is what we have come to refer to as a God-fearer. One day, during afternoon prayer, Cornelius has a vision in which he sees an angel who instructs him to send for Peter, who is staying in the nearby town Joppa (10:4-6). There, Peter falls into a trace while praying on a rooftop.

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, "You must not make unclean that which God has cleansed." This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. (Acts 10:11-16). Perhaps we, like Peter are “greatly perplexed” at how God can simply declare something clean that has always been impure. But before we have any chance to reflect on this much, unexpected visitors arrive with information that will clarify the message of the vision. Peter is told, “Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation/distinction for I have sent them” (10:20). The phrase “without hesitation/distinction” (meden diakrinomenos) is so rich with nuance, yet many modern translations miss it. The phrase can be correctly translated “without hesitation.” The root of this word, however, literally means “to make a distinction” between two alternatives. Recognizing this nuance, Mikael Parsons notes that “[t]he primary connotation is for Peter to go ‘without hesitation,’ but the sense of ‘without discrimination’ cannot be far from the surface.”2

Peter obeys, ignoring any distinctions he might have otherwise used as a reason to ignore their request, and accompanies them to the home of Cornelius. Before they set out, though, Peter offers the weary travelers hospitality. Such a gathering assumes a meal, which might have been difficult for Peter before. Such acts of hospitality to Gentiles by Peter begin the blurring of distinctions between “insider” and “outsider.” Many observant Jews within the Christ movement would wish to maintain the distinctions that Peter, or God, were now breaking down.

Once at Cornelius’ house, Peter puts the pieces together. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35). Peter has come to realize that all people who “fear God” and “do what is right” are acceptable to God. This openness transcends the traditional Jewish boundaries that were keeping some on the outside of the Christ group.

Indeed, regardless of traditional religious or cultural boundaries, “everyone who believes in him [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Before Peter finishes his speech, however, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). The authorial audience is told that “[t]he circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the non-Judeans” (10:45), which serves to validate non-Judean entrance into the Christ group even by those who are from “the circumcision group.” That this household’s entrance into the Christ group was initiated by the (boundary crossing) ritual of being filled with the Holy Spirit is important for it again shows that their inclusion was initiated by God. Cornelius’ household’s belief in Jesus as Messiah is demonstrated in their being filled with the Holy Spirit, thus Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48), thus completing their inclusion into the superordinate Christ group. Distinctions between clean/unclean, Judean/non-Judean are superseded now by these common superordinate identity markers, which indicate that this non-Judean, god-fearing household has been fully incorporated into the Christ community.

Many churches struggle with issues of identity and boundaries. How do we decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Many times, certain cultural boundaries are imposed and baptized with religious language in an effort to keep out those with whom we disagree, or those who are different than we are. The question each church and denomination must answer is, will we have the courage, like Peter, to reject traditional distinctions made on the basis of religion or culture in favor of welcoming everyone into God’s family?


Notes:

1Portions of the essay were first published in Coleman Baker Identity, Memory, and Narrative in Early Christianity: Peter, Paul, and Recategorization in the Book of Acts, Eugene: OR, Wipf and Stock, 2011. Used by permission.

2Parsons, Acts, p. 147.