The interplay between Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10-11 contains some of my favorite moments in scripture. I love how implausible the stories are. Peter sees a sheet lowered from the sky with animals on it—specifically, animals that are unlawful for him to eat as a Jew who observes strict dietary laws. God’s voice thunders dramatically from the heavens, “Get up, kill and eat.” This happens three times, and Peter finally gets the message. Cornelius, thirty miles away, has also just had a vision—instructing him to send people from where he is in Caesarea to Joppa to get Peter, who then travels a full day’s distance back with them.
What could they have been thinking?
Did any of them pause to wonder, “this must be of God, because otherwise we could not have imagined it?”
Admittedly, it may not have been completely a surprise that someone like Cornelius would have wanted to hear from Peter. He was a “God fearer,” someone who was a Gentile and would normally have been a pagan but found a spiritual home in the monotheism of the Jews. The author of Acts tells us Cornelius was a centurion, and “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” When Cornelius’ delegates go to get him, they want Peter to know he isn’t just any Roman soldier, but “is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.”
When Peter reaches Cornelius, he cuts to the chase. “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” I know I shouldn’t be here, Peter is saying, and I know how wrong that attitude is.
Peter, here, is choosing the guidance of the Holy Spirit over tradition.
How many times has the church had to learn this same lesson?
How many times do we forget we already learned it?
There is a long list of people who the church has, at one time or another, believed to be unclean or “less than.” Women, people of color, those with mental illness, LGBTQIA+ people. Anyone who doesn’t fit—for any reason!—has at some point been viewed as suspect. But your neighbor’s teenager who has purple and green hair with earrings everywhere except their ears is not unclean. The drag queens at the library story hour are not unclean. The girl in the school bathroom struggling with bulimia is not unclean. The unhoused person asking for money on the street corner is not unclean. The transgender teenager just trying to get appropriate health care is not unclean. The new person in your congregation who doesn’t know what to do at communion is not unclean. Each one, every one, is treasured and beloved by God just as they are and as who they are.
In Peter and Cornelius’ visions and subsequent meeting, God shows us, too, that we should not call anyone profane or unclean. This is our scripture, this is how the Gospel looks in action. The story of Cornelius concludes with Peter defending himself to the church at Jerusalem; they are not pleased. He makes it plain: “If then, God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’
Who are you that you can hinder God? Who am I?
May the Spirit transform every hardened heart.