Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
Every preacher knows that Easter Sunday can be at once the most wonderful and the most difficult Sunday to preach in the Christian calendar. After all, the resurrection story is one of the most (over-)familiar stories of all time. Who has not heard that Jesus, the promised Messiah, died on the cross and God miraculously raised him back to life again?
How is the preacher to offer a fresh word when most who enter through the church’s doors on Easter Sunday believe they already know the story you’re about to tell? The Jesuit priest Henri Nouwen wrote that the “extremely hard task” of the Christian is “to proclaim the good news, which for many is neither new nor good.” This week’s passage from the book of Acts can serve as a hopeful message about this very predicament.
Just before this scene, Peter has been called to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius (10:1–33), setting the scene and audience for our Easter text. Cornelius is a sympathetic character with financial means and considerable influence; as a paterfamilias, or head of the family, he rules over a bustling household, or oikos, which at the time was more like a bustling mini-economy of its own than today’s traditional concepts of family or household (oikonomia is related to the English word “economy”).
As a centurion, Cornelius also commands one hundred men in the Roman army’s Italian Cohort (likely an anachronistic reference, since it is not attested elsewhere until 69 CE), and he lives in the seaside metropolis of Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Judea, where the Roman-backed Jewish king, Herod the Great, had several pet building projects. In this multicultural, politically complex context, Peter’s declaration that God shows “no partiality” (10:34) is especially countercultural.
The passage invites us to ask ourselves significant questions about what we value, to whom we are partial, and why. On the one hand, Cornelius’s messengers have given Peter reasons to trust Cornelius—reasons to be “partial” to him.
A devout Gentile who “fears God” and prays continuously (10:2), Cornelius may be a “God-fearer” (a category of Gentiles who worshiped God and followed Jewish customs, without being proselytes; some historians question the existence of God-fearers as a distinct category, though inscriptional evidence seems to suggest that God-fearers were active in synagogues, often as benefactors). Cornelius is “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation,” and he has been told to listen to Peter in an angelic vision (10:22; recalling the angelic visitation of Mary in Luke 1:26–38).
At the same time, it is also true that Peter has been summoned to the home of a Roman citizen with both prominence and prestige, and he does not know why (10:29). Perhaps, despite the messengers’ positive testimony, part of Peter is intimidated or anxious; perhaps part of him wonders if he is in danger. (Remember that, despite the common assertion in the New Testament that the Jewish people killed Jesus, historically speaking only Romans had the authority to use crucifixion as a means of execution.)
It is in this uncertain, potentially unsafe context that Peter bravely declares the gospel message, testifying again to what he says his audience already “knows” (10:36): Jesus is the one who was prophesied, the “Lord of all” who was killed and rose again, “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).
What I want to highlight is not only that Peter repeats the gospel story his audience has already heard, but how he does so: Notice how he admits right at the start that he has not understood God’s impartiality before now (10:34). In other words, prior to this, Peter did not grasp that everyone is worthy of receiving the gospel; it is not his role to judge (10:42).
In a world where it was likely dangerous for him to do so, he frames his Easter sermon by referring to his own mistakes and misunderstandings: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). In fact, historically speaking, no purity laws forbade Jewish table fellowship with Gentiles, but clearly, interactions between Jews and Gentiles were contested in various ways at the time, probably due to social taboos.
This invites preachers today to ask similar questions of themselves and their congregations: What social taboos (or other kinds of mistakes and misunderstandings) lead us astray? How has God shown us we were wrong? How might we, like Peter, preface our gospel living—and preaching—with vulnerability, with honesty even when the truth might not cast us in the best light? Peter’s teachings to Cornelius also teach preachers today that testifying to the “good news” (euangelion, “gospel”) means speaking not only about the risen Christ, but also about our own failures, biases, and partialities—the reasons humans need God’s transformative presence with and within us.
Another approach to this passage would be to reflect on the fact that many Christians throughout time have read the “conversion” of Cornelius’s household (10:44–48) as the moment when Gentiles were officially included in the (previously predominantly Jewish) people of God. In the United States, racial-ethnic “minorities” are rapidly becoming the majority. How does/should this impact American churches, which remain predominantly segregated? Are homogenous congregations marked by systemic sin and racist presumptions, or are they rightly respecting differences between people? Does the Holy Spirit bring power to subvert humanity’s hierarchies, or to uphold them in particular ways (usually labeled “godly” or “biblical”)?
House-church advocates today consider Acts 10 a missiological model for decentralized, autonomous church planting. Some hold that the apostolic home-fellowship model overturns the patriarchy of the “Old Covenant” and erases differences; women lead house churches around the world (for example, in China women lead an estimated two-thirds of Christian churches). Others point out that, as far as we know, Cornelius does not step down as leader. He remains the paterfamilias, the Roman patriarch in charge of the household; some take this normal historical reality as normative, believing that all Christians should embrace male-led hierarchy today as well.
Liberation and womanist theologians, in contrast, commend a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which is another way of saying we should not accept all beliefs and behaviors we find in the biblical texts as godly or desirable. For these contemporary Christians, ethnic (and other kinds of) difference is used polemically to mark outsiders; even when the speaker’s intentions are good, this kind of language often functions—ironically, given God’s impartiality (10:34)—to uphold discrimination. In many ways, early Christians adopted Rome’s biases, marginalizing those who did not fit the Romans’ ideal of the model human (in other words, elite, male, land-owning Roman citizen), but this does not mean followers of Jesus should mirror or mimic such views today.
Whichever focus the preacher chooses for this year’s Easter Sunday sermon, may Peter’s teaching remind us that sometimes God’s miracles take the form of apparently simple things: preachers being honest about their mistakes, Christians refusing to be judgmental, previously estranged communities coming together with acceptance and joy. These may seem simple, but they are not easy. Certainly, they are both practical and profound—miracles worthy of Easter celebration. They just might make the gospel new and good again for those who see it as neither.