Every Sunday, we read readings from the lectionary – a three year cycle of texts that is also used by churches in many other denominations. And I like that doing this gives us a chance to hear a variety of different texts and different kinds of texts from both testaments of the bible. However, one of the downsides of reading from the lectionary is that we tend to get only bite-sized chunks of much larger stories, and we miss the rest of the story.
Our second reading for today, from Acts 10, is part of an amazing, but much longer story. I think I tried about half a dozen times to summarize and condense this story so that I could preach on it in a sermon, but there’s just way too much going on in it to sum up. So I’m going to do something a little different today. I’m just going to read you the story – from a slightly more contemporary translation – and I’m going to let God’s word speak for itself. And at the end, I’ll also briefly draw out some of the major things that stand out to me about the story. So here we go. Story time. If you’ve got a bible with you or a bible app on your phone, I encourage you to follow along, or if you’d like, you can just close your eyes and really try to imagine the story as it unfolds. Once upon a time…
Acts 10:1-48a (Contemporary English Version)
1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, who was the captain of a group of soldiers called “The Italian Unit.” 2 Cornelius was a very religious man. He worshiped God, and so did everyone else who lived in his house. He had given a lot of money to the poor and was always praying to God.
3 One afternoon at about three o’clock, Cornelius had a vision. He saw an angel from God coming to him and calling him by name. 4 Cornelius was surprised and stared at the angel. Then he asked, “What is this all about?”
The angel answered, “God has heard your prayers and knows about your gifts to the poor. 5 Now send some men to Joppa for a man named Simon Peter. 6 He is visiting with Simon the leather maker, who lives in a house near the sea.” 7 After saying this, the angel left.
Cornelius called in two of his servants and one of his soldiers who worshiped God. 8 He explained everything to them and sent them off to Joppa.
9 The next day about noon these men were coming near Joppa. Peter went up on the roof of the house to pray 10 and became very hungry. While the food was being prepared, he fell sound asleep and had a vision. 11 He saw heaven open, and something came down like a huge sheet held up by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of animals, snakes, and birds. 13 A voice said to him, “Peter, get up! Kill these and eat them.”
14 But Peter said, “Lord, I can’t do that! I’ve never eaten anything that is unclean and not fit to eat.”
15 The voice spoke to him again, “When God says that something can be used for food, don’t say it isn’t fit to eat.”
16 This happened three times before the sheet was suddenly taken back to heaven.
17 Peter was still wondering what all of this meant, when the men sent by Cornelius came and stood at the gate. They had found their way to Simon’s house 18 and were asking if Simon Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Holy Spirit said to him, “Three men are here looking for you. 20 Hurry down and go with them. Don’t worry, I sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I am the one you are looking for. Why have you come?”
22 They answered, “Captain Cornelius sent us. He is a good man who worships God and is liked by the Jewish people. One of God’s holy angels told Cornelius to send for you, so he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Peter invited them to spend the night.
The next morning, Peter and some of the Lord’s followers in Joppa left with the men who had come from Cornelius. 24 The next day they arrived in Caesarea where Cornelius was waiting for them. He had also invited his relatives and close friends.
25 When Peter arrived, Cornelius greeted him. Then he knelt at Peter’s feet and started worshiping him. 26 But Peter took hold of him and said, “Stand up! I am nothing more than a human.”
27 As Peter entered the house, he was still talking with Cornelius. Many people were there, 28 and Peter said to them, “You know that we Jews are not allowed to have anything to do with other people. But God has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit. 29 I agreed to come here, but I want to know why you sent for me.”
30 Cornelius answered:
Four days ago at about three o’clock in the afternoon I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in bright clothes stood in front of me. 31 He said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and he knows about your gifts to the poor. 32 Now send to Joppa for Simon Peter. He is visiting in the home of Simon the leather maker, who lives near the sea.”
33 I sent for you right away, and you have been good enough to come. All of us are here in the presence of the Lord God, so that we can hear what he has to say.
34 Peter then said:
Now I am certain that God treats all people alike. 35 God is pleased with everyone who worships him and does right, no matter what nation they come from. 36 This is the same message that God gave to the people of Israel, when he sent Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, to offer peace to them.
37 You surely know what happened everywhere in Judea. It all began in Galilee after John had told everyone to be baptized. 38 God gave the Holy Spirit and power to Jesus from Nazareth. He was with Jesus, as he went around doing good and healing everyone who was under the power of the devil. 39 We all saw what Jesus did both in Israel and in the city of Jerusalem.
Jesus was put to death on a cross. 40 But three days later, God raised him to life and let him be seen. 41 Not everyone saw him. He was seen only by us, who ate and drank with him after he was raised from death. We were the ones God chose to tell others about him.
42 God told us to announce clearly to the people that Jesus is the one he has chosen to judge the living and the dead. 43 Every one of the prophets has said that all who have faith in Jesus will have their sins forgiven in his name.
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit took control of everyone who was listening. 45 Some Jewish followers of the Lord had come with Peter, and they were surprised that the Holy Spirit had been given to Gentiles. 46 Now they were hearing Gentiles speaking unknown languages and praising God.
Peter said, 47 “These Gentiles have been given the Holy Spirit, just as we have! I am certain that no one would dare stop us from baptizing them.” 48 Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
This is an incredible story with a lot of different layers to it. But there are just a couple aspects of it that I particularly want to highlight this morning.
First, this reading continues the theme of Epiphany, of God’s self-revelation to the whole world. Last Sunday, we talked about the maji who followed a star all the way from the region of Persia to visit the Christ child. Jesus drew them to himself in love and peace, and seemed to signal that the hope that he brought into the world was for much more than just the people of Israel. And in case we had any doubt that this was the case, the calling of Cornelius absolutely clinches it.
Cornelius wasn’t the kind of person you would expect to be one of the first converts to Christianity. He was a powerful man, a high ranking military official and a citizen of Rome – a citizen of the empire notorious for assassinating Jesus Christ. This turn of events was so shocking for Jewish believers that God actually sent Peter a vision to prepare him for it: a vision of the world’s weirdest picnic. But when Peter meets Cornelius and his household, he reaffirms what he learned in the vision: that in God’s eyes, nobody is unclean or unfit or unworthy. Jesus Christ is truly Lord of ALL.
But there is one particular piece of this story that has been stuck in my head all week – and it’s weird, because it’s a piece of the story that actually doesn’t show up in the bible. And it’s this: who evangelized Cornelius??
It’s tempting to read this story as the dramatic conversion of Cornelius by a rock star apostle like Peter. And Cornelius and his household do learn a lot from Peter – and Peter baptizes them, making them part of the body of Christ, part of the broader Christian community. But when we first meet Cornelius, what is he doing? He’s praying! Cornelius is already a believer, and he is already living out his faith through an active prayer life and through acts of generosity to the poor.
The bible never tells us how that came to be. And to me, that silence speaks volumes. To me, the lack of a bible story about it suggests that the evangelism of Cornelius was an ordinary event. An ordinary person – perhaps a servant or a neighbor, maybe a fellow soldier – someone in Cornelius’ life shared their faith with him. Someone in his life answered the call that we all receive in our baptism to share the good news of Christ Jesus – and they shared it with Cornelius. And the fact that we have no record of it suggests to me that this person probably had no idea what a profound impact their witness would have. They had no idea that their one small act of testimony would open the door for the Spirit to move in such astounding and powerful ways.
And I think that that is an incredibly hopeful message for us – we who are everyday, ordinary Christians. The Spirit works in powerful ways through us, even when it feels like we can do so little. And through the Spirit, we can have a powerful impact on other people, just as I’m sure we can each name the people who have had a powerful impact on us.
Just like with the lectionary, we only ever really get to see our one, small, bite-sized chunk of the story. And it’s not always clear to us how it relates to the larger story God is telling. But we can trust that the Spirit is moving, even through us – and we can trust that we are part of the story – a story that is much larger and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.