Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
The Easter message humbles a culture that continually debates human worth.
Who is worthy to reside in our country, and who isn’t? Who is worthy to enjoy the assurance of medical care, and who is not? To whose education do we devote our best resources, and who is left under-served? Who gets to be anxious that no one is protecting their drinking water, and who can sleep soundly?
The Easter message is not “about” immigration, refugees, health care, education, or public services. But Peter learns that the Easter proclamation is very much about the boundaries of God’s care. Through unclean food Peter’s vision has abolished the notion of unclean people. If we take the vision only metaphorically, we miss the point: an observant Jew responds to unclean food with disgust. We all know the experience of disgust before certain kinds of food. We also confess that we know what it is to feel disgust toward people.
The Holy Spirit can humble a preacher. Peter begins his sermon, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]). A better translation would begin, “Truly, I get it.” He didn’t get it before, but now he does. For this reason many commentators identify Peter, not Cornelius, as the primary convert in this story. His insight is as much affective as it is intellectual, for theology involves our whole selves.
Beyond the boundaries of our lectionary reading we see that Peter’s learning curve continues. The Spirit cuts him off before he finishes his sermon. Just as he’s ready to deliver the altar call — “everyone who believes” in Jesus, he is saying — the Spirit “falls upon” his audience, who begin speaking in tongues and praising God.
The Holy Spirit will humble faith communities as well. Luke’s Gospel majors on salvation coming to sinners; in Acts the already-righteous tend to receive the gospel. This first generation of Jesus followers is not yet ready to welcome Cornelius and his household into their community, and for good reason. When Gentiles enter the church, the church must negotiate what it means to fellowship with persons who do not share the markers of Jewish identity: diet, Sabbath, and circumcision. But we might overstate this distinction.
Preachers have long ridiculed ancient Judaism as exclusive and legalistic. Luke’s account demonstrates that Jewish communities had already developed ways to embrace Gentiles, even without requiring their conversion. Luke identifies Cornelius as “devout” before his encounter with Jesus. Cornelius’ entire household, we are told, fears God; that is, they already worship the God of Israel. Sometimes the Spirit has to undermine churches’ smug self-righteousness by showing us that the “righteous” do not all reside on our membership rolls.
The Spirit will also humble our Reformation-grounded theologies. Peter’s sermon does so in two important ways. First, he acknowledges that God does not need a label — like Christian? — to recognize the righteous. Moreover, God honors right conduct. It matters how people behave. Often those who behave most righteously reside outside the church.
None of this is to suggest that Peter’s gospel lacks grace. Peter does proclaim that even the righteous stand in need of forgiveness, a grace that extends to everyone who believes in Jesus (Acts 10:43). In this respect Peter is truly Jewish, honoring a God who requires and expects righteous behavior and extends forgiveness to all. The Psalms attest to this tension: the LORD indeed watches the path of the righteous (Psalm 1:6), and “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven” (Psalm 32:1). Only in a popularized form of Protestantism do we separate alienate grace from righteous conduct.
Where the gospel humbles us, wise preachers know better than to scold our congregations. I write this as one who has sat through far too much scolding. If we preachers are on a journey like Peter’s — and none of us have arrived — we preach in the mode of testimony and invitation. We name the moments that open our assumptions regarding where God’s favor resides. We invite hearers to observe the righteousness that resides outside the boundaries of the church. If Peter is humbled, we speak from humility as well.
Our passage contains the first sermon in Acts directed to a Gentile audience. Perhaps we go too far in mining Acts’ summarized speeches for preaching wisdom, but all of Acts’ preachers begin by acknowledging both their audience and their moment. Peter opens by acknowledging that a Gentile audience requires a gospel, even a God, who shows no partiality. Peter further assumes that Cornelius and his household already know “the message” (literally, “the word”) concerning Jesus (Acts 10:36). This assumption is puzzling because the narrative has provided no hint that Cornelius and his household have already heard the message about Jesus and because Peter himself asks why he has been invited (10:29). Peter’s speech remains unfinished. The Holy Spirit interrupts before he delivers his call for repentance and belief.
Peter’s speech contains distinctive Lukan nuggets: the story of Jesus is incomplete apart from his ministry and his resurrection. Preachers who major only on the cross miss Luke’s message. Jesus’ ministry, “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38), is essential to Peter’s message. Indeed, a close look at Luke’s passion narrative reveals that for Luke — and only for Luke — Jesus died just as he lived, looking out for the salvation of others. Luke also tends to refer to the resurrection, even more so than the cross, as proving Jesus’ identity. According to Peter, we know that Jesus is judge of both the living and the dead (10:42) because God raised him from the dead.
This point is essential for Easter Sunday preachers: We might recall that Luke characterizes the passion as Jesus’ “exodus” (Luke 9:31; NRSV: “departure”) and as his being “taken up” (9:51). For Luke, apart from the resurrection, the crucifixion amounts only to an unjust execution.