Altered by “The Other”

March 10, 2024
Acts 10

Today we get another strange and amazing story from the Acts of the Apostles. This vision that Simon Peter has is so important that the whole story gets repeated several times in chapters 10 and 11. The writer, Luke, uses this repetition to plead with the reader to understand the significance of these unusual visions and what they mean. They were radical then, and they are radical now.

We meet Cornelius. And he is not just any gentile having a day dream; he is a Roman centurion living in Caesarea – the city named after Caesar. Do we need any more information to know that Cornelius is one of the oppressors. He is bad news. And yet from the beginning we are told that Cornelius, and his household, are “God Fearing” – and generous to the Jews.

Cornelius is not the first centurion that appears in the gospels that is interested in this group of Jesus followers. In each of the synoptic gospels there is a story about a centurion who responds to Jesus. In Luke 7 and Matthew 8 it is a centurion who asks Jesus for healing for his slave. In Mark 15 and Matthew 27 a centurion recognizes Jesus as the son of God as he breathes his last on the cross. This time, this centurion of the Italian cohort gets a name. Like other people in the book of Acts he has two names. We know Saul/Paul; Tabitha/Dorcas; Simon/Peter and now we have centurion/Cornelius.

This God fearing Roman, Cornelius, is doing his regular 3pm prayers when he has this experience of an angel. This strong, brave soldier who commands at least 100 others, is terrified by the appearance of an angel. And like most angels, this one simply brings a message in peace. They bring the message that Cornelius’ prayers and generosity are affirmed and he is instructed to send people to Joppa to find Peter.

Cornelius doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of what an overbearing, tyrannical Roman soldier is like. He shares with people who are in need. He prays. And he takes this strange angel experience seriously. He isn’t told why he is supposed to send a group to find this Simon Peter who is staying with someone else named Simon. Nevertheless he chooses three trustworthy people from his household, two enslaved people and a devout soldier, and sends them to Joppa, nearly 40 miles down the coast. This unlikely group leaves near the end of the day and arrives in less than 24 hours. They must really be going fas. I wonder if a horse is involved.

This strange story gets even more bizarre when we find out that Peter also has a vision. This vision helps  him to be open to the possibility of receiving the unknown gentiles that suddenly arrive at the home where he is staying. Can you imagine, having an experience that tells you to trust the people you fear so much they turn your stomach? Trust the people that stand for everything you despise? You have no idea who they are and yet you invite them in – to someone else’s home – for dinner and an overnight. And then you agree to travel 40 miles with them to their headquarters. Is it any wonder that Peter invites some of his coworkers in the faith to go along with him to Caesarea?

(The trip back to Caesarea doesn’t go quite as quickly, now that the size of the group has more than doubled. The text says this time the trip takes two days. I wonder where they spend the night.)

When the group arrives at Cornelius’ home in Caesarea, Cornelius kneels down before Peter. This powerful Roman commander humbles himself to this Jewish fisherman who he is supposed to be keeping in line. Peter lifts Cornelius up, reminding him that they are both humans, they are alike in this way.

Then surrounded by people from Cornelius’ world and a few from Peter’s world, Cornelius and Peter begin to share their stories, share the visions they experienced. Peter addresses the unclean elephant in the room, that he really shouldn’t even be here if he was truly following the faith. He explains that because of his vision he understands things differently now. I imagine spending two days on the road with people from Cornelius’ household also helps Peter and his group begin to live into this new understanding: that they are all humans, all children of God.

In Luke’s telling of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter never passes up an opportunity to preach. And here he goes again. He explains his new understandings about how it is not where you come from but how you live that determines faithfulness. God shows no partiality, rather any person, of any nationality, who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. Before he is finished preaching, the people gathered, that are not Jewish, begin speaking in tongues, sort of like what happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost (except those people were Jewish.) And just like in Jerusalem, the baptisms commence. Not 3000 this time but those who are gathered in the household all get baptized.

Isn’t this a great twist? Just days ago, Peter was determined that he is so holy and righteous that he will never take anything unclean into his body. And yet here is, forty miles and four days after that declaration, taking in people that he would have thought were unclean, baptizing them into the Body of Christ.

Peter’s sermon is clear…God shows no partiality, rather any person, of any nationality, who fears God and does what is right, is acceptable to God. (There is nothing unclean.) This is the message that God has sent to the people of Israel, the Good News of PEACE proclaimed through Jesus Christ, who is savior of all.

This peace is no Pax Romana. This is a new kind of peace: those in positions of power and those who have been dominated are equal, they are human together. How else will there be peace unless the people that usually ignore each other, or have control over the other, or disdain each other, that think of “those” people over there as “other,” how else will there be peace unless they find some commonality. Peter says they find their commonality, their common humanity in Jesus Christ. Jesus, who went around teaching and healing and disrupting the recognized order of things. Jesus who was cruelly murdered by the Romans and then rose again, Jesus has become their Christ. Jesus Christ allows them to see each other in new ways and they can find peace.

What can this mean for us? We are so unlike Peter and Cornelius. We don’t have categories of clean and unclean. Or do we? Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson argues in her book Caste, that we do live in a caste system in this country. (Check out the movie Origin, based on Wilkerson’s book Caste.)

But we are working to be anti-racist, to dismantle racist systems. We try to see all people as children of God, so what does this mean for us? Are there “categories” that we live with that seem totally impossible to abandon? Clean and Unclean lines we just cannot cross?

Twenty years ago, this congregation was in disagreement with Allegheny Mennonite Conference. The unthinkable, that many in the conference could not stomach, was to have LGBTQ people as members in congregations and the conference. This story from Acts 10 was used in a presentation to the conference delegates as an illustration of how we must not call things profane that God. calls. clean. Conference delegates didn’t, or couldn’t, make the connection, at least the majority didn’t at that time.

We continue, in this congregation, to try and erase dividing lines around gender and sex. We know that many Christian churches still draw very strict and damaging, even deadly, boundaries. The peace that Christ offers, a common humanity, is still not received across the body of Christ.

It is hard to admit but we may have people we see as “unclean” or “profane.” We who humbly, and proudly, hail from an historic peace church, what we would do if a neighbor in an Air Force uniform came to our door and invited themself to dinner in our home? Does our vision of peace include relating to, even befriending, people in military and police uniforms? Does our commitment to seeing everyone as a child of God extend in that direction? (We might remember that the current Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA was a member of the US Air Force for 20 years before becoming Mennonite.)

Answering the door to a neighbor in uniform is one thing. Compelling immigrants, with or without documentation, to live out their faith by opening the door when an unknown ICE agent knocks, that is a whole other pot of tea. Who am I to tell my Christian neighbors that if they are truly following the Jesus way, they will open the door and invite the ICE agent in for dinner? Or how can a brown or black family trust a police officer who shows up at the door saying, “The police chief just wants to talk with you. Please come with us to his home.”

This is when we have to recheck the text because this can’t be. It seems too unfair. And in fact, Peter doesn’t say open your arms wide to anyone who knocks at the door. Peter says any person of any nationality (meaning who we know and who we don’t know) who fears God and acts justly is acceptable to God. That is the sign that we can take the risk, if they are acting with justice. And yet, if you constantly live with terror under tyranny, how do you make that judgment – that the other person acts with justice?

Maybe this is why Cornelius sends two enslaved people and a lower rank soldier to meet Peter. Maybe, just maybe, Peter will answer the door to strangers who seem a bit less threatening. Peter doesn’t know if these strangers act justly. All he has is the vision and the Spirit telling him to go with them. It is a big risk. And he chooses to trust the Spirit, his gut – and take other people with him for the journey.

After building some trust on the two day trip to Caesarea, Peter is more prepared to meet Cornelius. But when they arrive, the house is full of people. What is going on? Should Peter have trusted the Spirit a little less? Are they walking into a trap? But then Cornelius kneels down in front of Peter. Cornelius makes it clear that he is not dangerous. He humbles himself in order to be believed. Peter takes a big risk by coming all this way with strangers. Cornelius must also demonstrate risk, by kneeling, giving up some power. In this way, he hopes he will be taken as a serious seeker of this Jesus way.

I wonder how we who have power by virtue of our skin tone or education or employment or economics, I wonder how we might need to humble ourselves in order to be trusted. What do we need to do to show that we act justly? How do we demonstrate that we try to see everyone equally, as children of God?

Through their visions, through the risks they choose, both Peter and Cornelius are altered by the Spirit. And they are altered by each other. In fact, the relationships that develop between Peter and Cornelius’ communities begin to upset the order that the Romans have constructed. It upsets the delicate balance that the religious leaders have established with the oppressors. Perhaps it is precisely this disruption of the powers that lands Peter in jail – but that is a story for next week.

Until then, let us continue to live into this good news: God shows no partiality, rather any person who acts justly, is part of the family of God. This is the Good News of Peace proclaimed through Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:35-36)