Divine Guidance & Human Initiative: a sermon by The Rev’d Wendy Morecroft

Evensong Sunday 12 May 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10

In the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tonight’s reading is usually called “The Conversion of Cornelius” but other times it is called “An Outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.” It’s a “beautiful story of Divine guidance” directing people through angels, visions, and the Holy Spirit. It’s also a story of humans at prayer, receiving God’s direction and taking action.

The reading began in Caesarea with a man named Cornelius who was a centurion of the Italian Cohort. I asked one of the staff, at a nearby coffee shop, how many men she thought a centurion would be in charge of. She said, “what’s a centurion?” I said think of a Roman soldier like in the movie “Ben Hur”. “Oh!” she said, “100?”. She then added a list of movies including “Gladiator”.

I asked our Cathedral electrician as he was checking the wiring in my office, “what’s a centurion?” and he said, “someone who is 100 years old”! That wasn’t the kind of centurion I was thinking of. I’ve since learned that there are 6 centurions making 6 centuries in a cohort, making 600 men, which is one tenth of a legion which is around 6000 men. Fun facts aside, we get a pretty clear picture that Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, was something of a superhero. Well maybe not a superhero, but definitely a hero.

Identifying Cornelius as a Gentile is somewhat confusing. We just heard that he “feared God”. It’s an unfortunate term. It makes God sound scary when in fact its more about fearing the loss of relationship with God.

That aside, Cornelius was a class of believer called a “God fearer” but he wasn’t actually Jewish, perhaps for ethical or moral reasons. Possibly because he didn’t want to be circumcised. We have also just heard in v22 that he was “well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”. The fact that he was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon, indicates that he followed Jewish prayer practices.

It was while he was at prayer that the angel tells Cornelius to “send men to Joppa for a certain Simon Peter.” Cornelius calls two of his slaves and a devout soldier, tells them what has happened and sends them on their way. Knowing that Cornelius was an “upright man” we may imagine his hesitancy about sending his men to find someone who was lodging in the home of a tanner of animal skins (which was a dirty and lowly trade), 64km south to Joppa which is modern day Jaffa on the coast of Israel near Tel Aviv. Cornelius doesn’t waste any time though and sends his men to summon Peter.

Peter is the disciple who was given the keys to the kingdom in Matthew 16 when he declares to Jesus that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, Jesus tells him ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ We heard in last week’s Sunday morning Gospel from John 21 how Peter answered Jesus 3 times when he asked him “do you love me”, ‘yes Lord you know that I love you’. This morning we heard in the 1st reading from Acts 9 how Peter resuscitated a disciple called Tabitha in Joppa. And how many believed in the Lord as a result of that miracle.

As Cornelius’ men were nearing Joppa, at about noon, Peter went up to the roof to pray. Can you imagine praying on one of those flat roofed Mediterranean homes, under the shade of an awning with a welcome sea breeze? Have you noticed that both these men were at prayer when they had their visions?

Despite Peter’s repulsion at the idea of eating animals which he considered to be unclean, he is left with a clear message, heard by him three times “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” He thought long and hard about what this might mean.

While Peter was in deep thought and contemplation about his vision, the Spirit speaks to him. We are reminded to pray seeking God’s direction in our lives. We have many spiritual practices to help us discern God’s leading, such as Lectio Devina and The Ignatian Examen. There have been numerous times when I have greeted people at the end of a service and they have described feeling that God had brought them here but they weren’t sure why. It’s at that point that we may be able to help them discern what God has already begun in their lives.

Imagine how Peter might have felt, when at prayer, after an incredible vision, the Holy Spirit tells him ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them’.

Peter goes against the Jewish law and extends his hospitality to these Gentiles and the next day he goes with them, together with some people from Joppa. They arrive in Caesarea and find many eager to also hear what Peter has to say. We may also imagine how Peter may have felt with a Centurion such as Cornelius falling at his feet and worshipping him. There is a picture of the encounter on the bottom right hand side of the reredos with Cornelius in a red cloak at the feet of Peter.

If we are ever stuck for what to say to people who ask us who Jesus is or why we believe that he is the son of God, verses 37-42 give us an excellent script. While Peter “was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” Peter baptises the Gentiles and receives reciprocal hospitality, staying with them for several days.

These revelations of divine and human interactions in the lives of believers are a source of great encouragement for us today. As Christians we believe that God is still active in our lives, often as a “surprising gift” and sometimes giving us an “unsettling commission”. The conversion of the Gentiles took both divine and human initiative culminating in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit works here to empower the gentiles for ministry just as it did at the baptism of Jesus in Luke 3.22.

The take away message for us is that God spoke to both Peter and Cornelius when they were in prayer. This reminds us to listen when we pray. Cornelius and Peter were each given visions and special divine messages which Ajith Fernando calls “divine promptings because they are incomplete in themselves. They require human action or reflection.”

Prayer gets us in tune with God and receptive to his leading. Let us be open to doing God’s will, especially when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel and building his kingdom. Amen


Crump, Charles B. Puskas and David. An Introduction to the Gospels and Acts. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.
Fernando, Ajith. The Niv Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.
Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary: The complete guide to everything you need to know about the Bible. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.