The world changed, and few seemed to notice.
The extended and complex narrative around the encounter of Peter and the centurion Cornelius is a critical turning point in the narrative of Acts. That the narrative is that important is evidenced by Luke’s repeated reference to and retelling of the narrative in Acts 11:1-18 and 15:6-11.
This controversial encounter between a Roman official and Peter will eventuate in the decisions narrated in Acts 15, decisions that mark the church in Acts as fully Judean/Jewish and Gentile/Greek. That is, the communities God wishes to draw together are wildly diverse and widely inclusive. Gentiles and Greeks are welcome to join this community without leaving behind their cultural particularities just as Jews/Judeans are welcomed in the same way. As I’ve argued elsewhere, God welcomes the peoples and nations of the world in the midst of, not despite their ethnic particularities. In essence, God is not composing a generic people devoid of cultural particularity but a community teeming with difference. The encounter between Peter and Cornelius inaugurates the early church’s living into this God-sanctioned reality.
And yet, within the narrative frame, these events are a shock to Peter and his companions as well as the wider movement of Jesus followers (notice Acts 10:45, for instance). Indeed, it takes many chapters of conflict and disagreement for the community of followers of Jesus finally to conclude that Gentiles and Greeks were already made clean by God and so there was not an additional requirement placed upon them to join the fellowship of believers. These inclusive impulses are unexpected within the timeframe of the narrative but not to the attentive reader of Luke-Acts.
Even from the earliest chapters in the Third Gospel, a promise is voiced by God’s servants that the good news would be “a light to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). Moreover, the narrative echoes of these early chapters would have drawn the reader’s attention to promises in the Hebrew scriptures that the God of Israel would redeem and save Jew and Gentile alike. Even as Acts begins, the call to be witnesses to the very edges of the world would require God’s witnesses to encounter the incredible diversity of the ancient world. In short, the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is both divinely ordained but also inescapable in light of the very premises of the good news and its expansive grasp.
So what exactly happens in these verses? Many have labeled this narrative as the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Such a summary misses, I think, the aim of this narrative. Let’s see why.
As chapter 10 opens, we meet a certain Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian cohort.” On the one hand, he is an outsider, a foreign general part of the military invading force that dominates Judea. At first glimpse, we might expect him to be a villain. And yet we already know that for Luke centurions are unlikely but faithful believers in the power Jesus wields (see Luke 7:1-10), and the narrative quickly notes Cornelius’s devotion, a devotion which God recognizes (Luke 10:4, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God”). An angel instructs Cornelius in a clear vision to send for Peter. Cornelius obeys without hesitation, his faithfulness in full display.
The next day Peter too catches a clear vision. Peter finds himself hungry in the midday. As he is waiting for his food to be prepared, he falls into a trance and sees a vision more confounding than the clear instructions Cornelius receives. Peter sees what one of my students once dubbed “a meat blanket,” a sheet upon which all kinds of animals were to be found. Three times, the voice instructs Peter to kill and eat. Three times Peter refuses the instruction, for he has “never eaten anything that is unclean or profane” (v. 13). Peter is puzzled as any of us would be at this strange vision.
The meaning of the vision is not evident at first glimpse. Is God telling a hungry Peter that he can feel free to eat whatever he likes? The arrival of Cornelius’s men starts to bring clarity to this picture.
When Peter arrives in Cornelius’s home, the devoted Cornelius kneels down to worship Peter, starting off this encounter on awkward footing. Peter notes that he is mortal just like Cornelius but in the same breath says that it is not “lawful” for Peter to be in Cornelius’s house in the first place (v. 28). And yet Peter does arrive, does walk into the home of a Gentile, does sit at a table with a Roman official, and asks in essence, “Why am I here?”
Cornelius recounts his vision once again (notice the repetition), and Peter responds with a distillation of the good news. However, he begins with a vital clarification: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-35). Peter has understood something critical. The vision was not about food or what one can or cannot eat. The vision is about people. Peter — or any of us — can no longer deem to call “unclean” or “profane” or “unworthy of our community” or “unwelcome” those whom God has made clean already.
It might be tempting to judge Peter at this point for not being open enough to God’s inclusive love but to condemn him is to condemn ourselves. Don’t we do the same so often in our communities? If we are honest, aren’t certain people welcome in our midst and others not? Aren’t certain kinds of people able to come as they are, but others must adjust to the specific cultural and social demands of our communities of faith?
Peter continues preaching, but strikingly his eloquent sermon is interrupted by none other than the Holy Spirit in v. 44 (“While Peter was still speaking … ”). The Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household, and proof positive of God’s intentions are laid bare. No matter what barriers we might create around communities, God’s Spirit is relentless and unrestrainable.
And so, we are ready to consider the meaning and purpose of this narrative in the arc of the narrative of Acts. Who is transformed in this narrative? Who is most changed by this encounter with the Spirit? Certainly, Cornelius and his household are further wrapped in God’s embrace though the gift of the Holy Spirit. But Cornelius was a person of faith and devotion before he meets Peter and remains so afterward.
It is Peter who is most transformed by an encounter with this foreign general. It is this early community who sees its identity shifted by God’s Spirit. In short, this is a story of conversion to be sure but a conversion of a church who had missed the subtle but powerful ways God was moving. Perhaps the same is happening in our communities today if we just have the imagination and inspiration to notice them.