Sixth Sunday of Easter

Nothing and no one impedes God’s embracive outreach to all people

Red apples on tree
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 5, 2024

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Acts 10:44-48

Last week’s text culminates with the Ethiopian eunuch’s exclamatory query to Philip the evangelist, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent [kōlyei] me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Answer: Nothing—not his “foreign” Gentile ethnicity, not his physical debility as a eunuch—stands in the way of full fellowship with God’s people. 

In today’s text, the apostle Peter uses the same Greek verb in posing a similar rhetorical question in the Caesarea home of the Roman centurion Cornelius: “Can anyone withhold [kōlysai] the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47). Answer: No one should deny baptism to the devout, God-honoring Cornelius (and his household)—notwithstanding his identity as an uncircumcised Gentile and Roman military officer (see 10:1‒7, 30‒33). To do so, Peter iterates to his home Jerusalem congregation, is tantamount to resisting God: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder [kōlysai] God?” (11:17).

Notice that same key verb (kōlyō)—variously rendered “prevent,” “withhold,” “hinder”—and consistently nullified: nothing and no one impedes God’s embracive outreach to all people across conventional physical, social, and territorial boundaries. This inclusive theme extends to the end of Acts, which doesn’t so much end as cue an ongoing, open end

Though Paul is confined under house arrest in Rome, his gospel mission continues as he “welcome[s] all who [come] to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30‒31). “Without hindrance” translates akōlytōs (“unhinderedly”), a negated adverbial form of kōlyō. It marks the very last word in Luke’s double-volume work, punctuating a bold theological vision of God’s gracious saving purpose for the world, which Christ’s witnesses are called to propel—not prevent!—forward and outward. 

Peter’s response to the Spirit’s interruptive outpouring on Cornelius’s household (“while Peter was still speaking,” 10:44) not only echoes the recent eunuch incident and adumbrates the wider Gentile mission but also reaches back to the Spirit’s infilling of Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Peter’s signature point is that “these people”—these uncircumcised Gentiles in Cornelius’s home—“have received the Holy Spirit just as we [Jews] have.” In the mighty gust of the Spirit, God has swept away “we/they, us/them” distinctions (see also 11:12).

The first Spirit “rush” comes at Pentecost in Jerusalem, enabling Jesus’ Galilean Jewish followers “to speak in other languages [tongues, glōssais], as the Spirit gave them ability,” so they might praise God in “the native language [dialektō] of each” group of Jewish pilgrims “from every people [ethnous] under heaven” (2:1‒6). 

When asked by the stunned audience, “What does this mean?” (2:12), Peter responds by (1) announcing that this event fulfills the prophet Joel’s eschatological vision of the Spirit’s outpouring on “all flesh” (2:16‒17); (2) attributing the source of the Spirit’s outpouring to the crucified-risen Jesus of Nazareth whom “God has made … both Lord and Christ” (2:22‒36); and (3) inviting everyone to be baptized in Jesus’ name so they may also “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”—and not only they but their children and those who have drifted “far away” (makran) from God (2:37‒39)—including Gentiles (see also Luke 15:13, 20; Acts 22:21).

Everything is set from the “beginning” (11:15) for God’s inclusive, expansive, “unhindered” saving mission in Christ through the Spirit. But Peter’s preaching exceeds his practice. Accepting fellow “devout Jews” (2:5) is one thing; accepting other people is another matter. He needs more than Pentecost for that. 

As it happens, while Peter takes a noontime prayer and lunch break on a seaside rooftop in Joppa, he suddenly has a dramatic vision in which Christ plays the role of table-waiter projecting a menu on a sheet-like screen lowered from heaven, featuring numerous “unclean” animals. But instead of taking Peter’s order, Christ gives the order, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” three times, each one drawing Peter’s strong objection. But Christ drives home the divine principle: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane [or common, koinou]” (10:9–16). 

The point is not to expand Peter’s diet and palate but rather his mind and mission to embrace all people—including “unclean” Gentiles. The point, as the Spirit clarifies (10:19), is to persuade Peter to go and minister to the God-fearing, uncircumcised centurion Cornelius and his Gentile household. (And messengers from Cornelius just happen to be at the door ready to escort Peter to Caesarea! [10:17‒23].)

Cornelius happily welcomes Peter, eager to hear his words. Peter cuts to the chase: “I truly understand” (after considerable heavenly persuasion) “that God shows no partiality, but in every people [ethnei] anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him” (10:34‒35). This broad-based acceptance crystallizes in the reconciling gospel of Israel’s Messiah “Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all” (10:36). Peter further roots this good news in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (10:37‒43). 

But he doesn’t get to finish the sermon. Enough has been said and done for the Spirit to suffuse these faithful, uncircumcised Gentiles in Caesarea just as the Spirit filled the Jewish believers in Jerusalem at Pentecost (and Samaritan believers across the Judean border, 8:14‒17). In sum: the Spirit fuses God-worshipers and Christ-believers into one common (koinos) body, one communal fellowship (koinōnia). 

Water-baptism in Jesus’ name functions as a major ritual of this Spirit-baptized community: the Spirit-baptism sometimes experienced before water-baptism, as in the present case (10:47‒48), and sometimes after (2:38‒40; 8:14‒17; 19:1‒7); sometimes with accompanying glossolalia (2:1‒4; 10:45‒46; 19:6), sometimes not (4:31; 8:14‒17). The Spirit is too free, too “unhindered,” to be locked into a rigid order of events and array of phenomena. Best to “go with the flow,” to use a trite but apt streaming image of the Spirit’s dynamic operation across traditional ethnic, social, and religious lines and networks. 

To attempt to block the saving, embracing, impartial God and dam the freeing, flooding, boundary-busting Spirit is foolish and ultimately futile. Just ask Peter. But unfortunately, in the meantime, “we” often continue to hunker down in our “us”-protecting, “other”-suspecting trenches to fight senseless wars against perceived enemies (foreign and domestic). May God help us, may the Spirit interrupt and overcome our discriminatory ways—and may we diligently preach and practice “peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all” (10:36).  

Pittsburgh skyline

Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.