A sermon given at Choral Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Easter by Dr Baden Teague
Acts of The Apostles, chapter ten.
May the words of my lips and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable to you, Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Cornelius, the First Gentile Christian
Our Scripture reading this evening is “Acts”, chapter ten. This is all about the first year of the early Christian church. Two surprising visions are described, one vision came to St Peter in Joppa, and the second vision came to Cornelius, an Italian army captain in Caesarea. Visions occurring like this were the way God revealed something about to happen that would be highly significant. For example, the Virgin Mary’s vision of the angel Gabriel announcing to her the coming birth of Jesus. In our service tonight we have sung the Magnificat which is Mary’s response to the Gabriel-vision and which, relevant to our theme tonight, said that Jesus would bless both Israel and the foreign nations as well. Tonight, we have also sung Simeon’s song from the time Jesus as a baby was presented in the temple, and this also said that Jesus will bless both Israel and the foreign nations as well. In Acts chapter ten, we move on about thirty years and the two new visions here, one to Peter and the other to Cornelius, are all about the fulfillment of this Jesus-blessing to the foreign nations. It is here that God actually begins this ‘blessing of the Gentiles’. Indeed, Cornelius became the first Gentile Christian.
For the Hebrew people of the Old Testament period, the whole world was divided into two camps. There were Jews and there were Gentiles. The Jews were the racial and religious descendants of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were all the other nations, all the other races, all the other languages. The Jews believed that they were the special people, the chosen people, entrusted to receive God’s revelation. They were alone in believing in the one true God, but the other nations had many different gods and idols. Jewish men were circumcised but Gentiles were uncircumcised. The Jews had the Law of Moses and the unique temple of Solomon. The Gentiles, the foreigners, all the other nations, were excluded from the temple. The Jews were forbidden to share a meal with a Gentile. Jews could not visit a foreigner’s home. The Jews only ate kosher food, but the Gentiles would eat almost anything. The Jews were exclusive and they viewed God as exclusive as well. They believed that God’s blessings were only for themselves, and not for the Gentiles.
But we now turn to the dramatic Revolution which smashed for ever this old Jew-versus-Gentile division. All the old prejudices were obliterated by the Revolution of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection. Jesus, God’s Son, showed us that God is not exclusive and is the God of love for every person. Jesus showed us that God’s blessing is for all the Jews and all the Gentiles alike. God loves every child, every person, and every people. It was only after this Jesus-Revolution that the whole world came to learn that the Gospel is for all nations. Ever since the ‘second Pentecost’ of Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea, the Christian Church has embraced all peoples and all languages. The old Hebrew Scriptures became extended by the new Scriptures, written this time in Greek, a Gentile language. The power of God, the Holy Spirit, energises all the Christians, worldwide in every nation. St Paul put it this way: “Through faith you are all children of God. There is no such division as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female: for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.” (Galations 3:28)
Let us now turn more directly to “Acts” chapter ten. “Acts” is the New Testament book which follows immediately after the four Gospels. St Luke wrote both Luke’s Gospel and then, as his second book, the “Acts of the Apostles”. Luke was a medical doctor who travelled with Paul. “Acts” is Luke’s account of how the early Christian Church grew. He begins with the first Pentecost (experienced by the Jews in Jerusalem) and then the second Pentecost (experienced by Cornelius and the Gentiles with him in Caesarea). The rest of “Acts” is about Paul’s missionary journeys to the Gentiles, that is to all the foreign peoples in Syria, Cyprus, what-is-now Turkey, Greece and eventually Italy. “Acts” chapter ten then is at this second stage of the story: it is about the coming of the Holy Spirit for the first time to the Gentiles. The key person here is the Roman centurion, Cornelius, who is now celebrated as ‘the first Gentile Christian’.
Cornelius had been posted as an Italian army captain to the main Roman city in Palestine, a port city newly built by King Herod on the Samaritan sea-coast and named by Herod “Caesarea” to flatter the Emperor Augustus Caesar. (A few years ago, Kathy and I visited the ruins of this city on the Mediterranean coast there.) Cornelius had his own house there for his family and his servants. But he was not an ordinary soldier. He was a religious man, godly, and of exceptional integrity. He prayed regularly, read the Hebrew Scriptures, and he was kind to his household, his neighbours and his own soldiers.
The second key person in this exciting story is St Peter. ‘Peter’ like our word, ‘petrified’, means ‘rock’ and this is the nick-name Jesus had given to Simon, the fisherman from Galilee, who had become Jesus’ most enthusiastic follower. Jesus had called him Peter because, looking to the future, he said that it was on Peter, the rock, that the Holy Spirit would build the Christian Church. After the first Pentecost, Peter had been teaching the Gospel in Jerusalem, but after a few months he had journeyed to the port city of Joppa on the coast. Joppa was one day’s walk south of Caesarea. So then, the scene is set for our drama to begin. Peter is in Joppa. It is the middle of the afternoon and Peter is praying. At the same time, but up the coast a little in Caesarea, is Cornelius and he also is praying.
About the same time, these two men experienced a vision. Peter had a vision in Joppa, and Cornelius had another vision in Caesarea. Both visions came as a big surprise, but both Peter and Cornelius immediately knew that the vision was from God. Cornelius was praying and he saw a vision of a messenger, an angel of God, who addressed him by name and told him to send immediately some men down to Joppa to find Peter in a tanner’s house right next to the beach there. They were to invite Peter to return with them to Cornelius’ house.
Peter’s vision was an even bigger surprise. He saw what looked like a huge blanket being lowered from the sky. It was held by four ropes at the four corners and contained in the blanket a whole ‘zoo’ of animals. There were farm animals, wild animals, and every kind of reptile and bird. Then a voice was heard by Peter which said, “Go to it, Peter: kill and eat.” But Peter resisted and said, “No, no, Lord. I’ve never tasted food that was not kosher. I have always obeyed the Jewish food laws.” But the voice replied, “If God says it’s OK, then it is OK.” (The Message translation of “Acts” by E. H. Peterson) This vision of the blanket full of animals happened three times. While Peter was still puzzling to understand what God was meaning by this vision, the men from Caesarea arrived and were asking for Peter by name. Peter went down to them and, against all his past instincts, he welcomed these foreigners into the house.
It was the very next morning that Peter, accompanied by his own Jewish Christian friends, set out walking on the journey up the coast, being led by the foreigners to Caesarea and to the house of Cornelius. During this day’s journey, Peter was grasping more clearly what it was that God was saying to him in the vision. A massive revolution in his own thinking emerged. Peter would no longer exclude foreigners from the Gospel and would no longer exclude their food. God’s Message was to welcome the Gentiles to become disciples of Christ.
When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ home, everyone welcomed each other. The Jewish Christians were surprised by the total readiness of the foreigners to hear the Gospel. They mixed freely with the Italians and Greeks, everyone talking everything over. They all felt astounded that God was teaching them something fundamentally new. Eventually, Cornelius invited Peter to address them all and this is what Peter said:
“You know, this meeting here today is highly irregular. Jews just do not do this. We have never visited and relaxed with people of another race. But God has now shown me that no race is better than any other. The minute you sent for me, I came, no questions asked.”
Cornelius then replied, “This meeting is God’s doing. That we can meet like this is beyond our imagination too. We feel so strongly that all of us here today are in God’s presence. We, who are foreigners to you, are ready to listen to everything that the Lord has put in your heart to tell us.”
Peter then confirmed everything, and he was very excited:
“It’s God’s own truth. Nothing could be plainer. God plays no favourites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from. If you want to know God and are ready to do as God says, the door is open. The one Message of salvation that began with the children of Israel has now become through Jesus Christ the same Message of salvation for everyone, everywhere. The old exclusion has been blown away. The Gospel is now come for the Gentiles. People of all nations can know and receive God’s blessings.”
No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. It was the second Pentecost. For the first time, the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on these ‘outsider’ Gentiles. There it was. They heard these foreign believers praising God and speaking in tongues. It was the same as had happened at Pentecost in Jerusalem a few months earlier. Peter was so moved that he asked the obvious question: “Do I hear any objections to baptising these friends with water?” Of course, water baptism was the Church’s sacrament, the outward sign of sins forgiven and of a transformed inner life in Christ. Peter continued, “You have seen it. They have received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” There were no objections. Peter baptised in water Cornelius, his household and his friends in the name of Jesus Christ.
Cornelius, baptised in the Holy Spirit and baptised in water, was instructed by Peter about the Resurrection of Jesus, and thus he became the first Gentile Christian. There was no requirement for Cornelius to be circumcised, nor to eat kosher food. His life had become a new life of God’s grace. He had not been justified by works but by faith. The freedom of the new Gentile Christians soon became the new freedom of all Christians, both Gentile and Jewish alike. And this was the Message, the life, the theology that St Paul went on to take in all his missionary journeys to the nations.
Peter’s vision at Joppa is remembered here in this Cathedral of St Peter in the artwork carved in the oak of our Screen (the Reredos) above the high table here. It is one of the four scenes from Peter’s life, the one on the right. This vision and the discipleship of Cornelius the first Gentile Christian went on to become the Christian vision that Paul and Peter and John set out clearly in all their letters to the Gentile churches. It is these letters that, together with the Gospels and the Acts, make up the New Testament Scriptures that we all read now day by day, or week by week.
We too in contemporary Australia must learn from this second Pentecost. We must as Christians reject any racial discriminations both in our churches and in our communities. Here at the Cathedral named after St Peter we are all called to understand and to put into action Peter and Paul’s inclusive vision. I think we do this well at our Cathedral, but we could all do a lot better in the South Australian community at large. Yes, we support the principles of Multicultural Australia but we can do more to be inclusive. Let’s face it: almost all of us here in Australia are Gentiles in the original sense of this word. We are therefore the direct beneficiaries of the second Pentecost and of the Jesus-Revolution that included the Gentiles in receiving the Gospel. That enlightened Revolution followed the Peter and Cornelius visions. Thanks be to God that we too have been included in God’s richest blessings in Christ Jesus.