Commentary on Acts 10:44-48
There is a classic sermon tactic that breaks a story in two. It draws listeners into the flow of a narrative, and when they’ve become invested in the outcome, it cuts away from the scene. The listeners wait, suspended in narrative tension, as the preacher exposits, analyzes, and frames her question for the day.
But those familiar with the trope know that the end of the story is coming. They won’t be left hanging. If the preacher has chosen her story well, there will be surprise and delight in the resolution. The questions she has raised will come into focus and resolve in the sermon’s closing credits.
Perhaps this is what the lectionary’s architects had in mind when they started Easter with the first half of Peter’s Acts 10 sermon (verses 34-43)—and then cut away from the scene, just as Peter is calling his Gentile listeners to repentance. We are left suspended for four weeks, waiting for a resolution to one of the early church’s most formative, divisive questions: what difference does Easter make for the Gentiles? What difference does Easter make for the world?
And here, on the sixth week of Easter, the penny drops. Or more accurately, the Spirit falls—and several insights come into focus:
First, the God who raised Jesus from the dead is a big God—and a free God. Beverly Gaventa underscores the Spirit’s “unprecedented gift” coming to an unexpected community and at an unexpected time. “Nowhere else does Luke narrate an event in which the gift of the Holy Spirit comes prior to baptism.”1 Acts 10 makes plain that God will do as God will, and that ecclesial practices and norms do not have the final say on the boundaries of the community. To underscore the point, Carl Holladay notes that the centurion Cornelius’ home is located in Caesarea, “the Roman capital of Judea and thus a symbol of Gentile power.”2 This was not simply a Gentile household; it was a really Gentile household. No wonder Peter’s circumcised companions are amazed.
Second, Pentecost is more than a one-time event. Peter himself notes the similarities between the events of Pentecost and this “Gentile Pentecost” (verse 47b).3 Luke shapes these verses in ways that echo the sequence of events of Israel’s Pentecost in Acts 2. Pentecost is still two weeks away in the liturgical calendar—which means that for lectionary preachers, the Spirit’s gift to Cornelius’ house frames and foreshadows that celebration. Significantly, it encourages the church to see Pentecost as more than an in-house celebration that is over and done. I’ve done a number of children’s sermons that describe Pentecost as the church’s “birthday” (and I’m all for serving birthday cake at the fellowship hour!). But the metaphor is not quite right. Pentecost is less of a birthday—and more of a block party. It does more than celebrate a historical event; it breaks into the street and redefines the neighborhood. And every time it happens, it remakes our understanding of ourselves. Pentecost brings an ongoing, mysterious movement of God into view. And that movement is still at work in the world, stretching our identity, loyalties, and love in response to a resurrection God—and indeed, in response to that resurrected One!
If the first half of Peter’s sermon disrupts the “imperial project of the Roman Empire” through its witness to Jesus as “Lord of all” (verse 36), today’s verses disrupt notions of identity that determine and dictate one’s “future and…life prospects.”4 Willie Jennings stresses the connection between both themes and Christian baptism. Baptism accomplishes more than the forgiveness of sins—or even an embodied joining between Christ and disciple. As Acts 10 makes clear, there is a “joining of Jew and Gentile” in the outpouring of God’s Spirit. This does not result in a betraying of identity, but it does prohibit any notion of Easter that maintains the status quo. In Jenning’s words, “in the home of a centurion, a rip in the fabric of space and time has occurred…that will open up endless new possibilities of life with others.”5
Jennings’s point steers preachers away from the bookend approach to Eastertide described at the start. These final five verses of Acts 10 do not resolve questions or tie up loose-ends; they open up a new, beautiful set of disruptive possibilities. What does Easter mean for the world? And more to the point, what does Easter mean for us? The Spirit’s noisy interruption of Peter’s sermon convicts our “lust for the normal”6 and asks us to see an Eastertide that is not fading into denouement but is, in fact, calling us to an ongoing, costly way of life. Listeners are still hanging at the end of Acts 10, stunned at what this passage might mean for the ways we negotiate our lives, finances, hierarchies, and cultural comforts. Are we ready for such “rips” in the fabric of our expectations? This story’s end is not the end of the story. This end is only a beginning.
- Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 172.
- Carl Holladay, Acts: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 240.
- Robert Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 167.
- Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 9.
- Ibid., 115.
May 9, 2021