Acts 10 has a cast of characters that includes Roman top brass, an extra-celestial, a top apostle, a tanner, and some unnamed extras that include a mix of Jews and Gentiles. It’s a racy, all-action drama with some comical moments and a happy ending. It’s also a story of surprises.
Scene 1: Meet Cornelius. He’s part of the colonialist occupation force, but unaccountably has abandoned Roman superstition and polytheism for worship of the Jewish God alone. He’s devout, prayerful and socially concerned. At 3pm one afternoon he’s having his siesta. Not. He’s having a vision. What on earth did he eat for lunch? Mushrooms?
“Cornelius meet the angel.” “Oh, wow. I’ve always wanted to meet one. Show him in.” Not a bit of it. ‘Cornelius stared at him in terror’ (vs 4). Shock treatment. A celestial knows more about me than Google! “Send some men to Joppa. They should ask for Simon.” That’s a little confusing. There are two Simons living in the house. One smells like a tanner, the other used to smell of fish. The leader apostle hasn’t booked himself into a 5-star hotel. Lesson there, is there, for itinerant evangelists?
Scene 2. Peter out flat. What’s happening? Simon–not the tanner–is flat out on the flat roof. He’s waiting for lunch. Maybe fell asleep as he tried to pray. That’s not so unusual, is it? Anyway, God interrupts him for an advanced lesson in theology and racial inclusiveness. It’s a 3 sheet show. There’s a stage voice. “Get up, Peter! It’s meal time.” “Oh, great. How did you know I was so hungry?” Not a bit of it. Peter says, “Eat that stuff? No, Lord!”
Oops! Last time Peter tried that “No way, lord!” (Mark 8:32f.), he got a serious rap over the knuckles from none other than Jesus himself. Not Peter’s finest moment. There were others like that still to come. Here in our story: ‘Peter was very perplexed… puzzling over the vision’ (vv.17, 19). Perplexed? This guy is head honcho apostle? Er, I’m afraid so. A work in progress, you know.
The Holy Spirit has things to say. One thing that Peter understands is: “Get up and go downstairs…” Straightforward enough. But Peter is in for another surprise. Three guys have come looking for him, and they’re not the Temple police.
Scene 3: Cornelius’ house. Another comical woops. ‘As Peter entered his home, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him’ (vs 25). “Oh dear. I thought you told me Cornelius was a devout monotheist?” “I did. I’m afraid this wasn’t Cornelius’ finest moment.” “Stand up! I’m a human being just like you!” says Peter, shocked. Indeed. I think we’ve grasped that, Peter, how human you are. But we find that quite encouraging.
Scene 4: Peter, meet the Gentiles. Enter Peter. Not “Hi guys!”, but… “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you…” (vs 28). Er, Peter, is that the most tactful first greeting you’ve ever made? Nevertheless, Cornelius and friends are agog. What will this man come out with next?
Scene 5: Peter tries a preach. “I see very clearly that God shows no favouritism.” That’s better, Peter. You getting it now. Took you a while. “There is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is lord of all… God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…” (vs 36,38). Now you’re talking, Peter. Talking about Jesus. Yes, Peter is definitely warming up now, getting into his stride. “We apostles are witnesses of all he did… we eat and drank with him after he rose from the dead…(vs 39, 41b). Cool!
Scene 6: Peter interrupted. ‘Even as Peter was saying these things…’ (vs 44). Who interrupts the sermon? Oh, wow! It’s the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t wait for “Finally, and I finish with this…” as preachers sometimes say. ‘The Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message’. So the rest of Peter’s sermon is drowned out by his listeners bursting into tongues. It’s the turn of the Jewish extras who came along with Peter to be shocked to their roots. They’re ‘amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too’ (vs 45). I bet Luke enjoyed writing that line! And after that they all got wet, wet, wet with baptismal water.
The moral of the story for us Gentiles? Don’t get smug! We all need converting twice. Once to faith in Jesus. Then again to our fellow believers, the odd cultural ways they do things and other differences. We know all about racism and xenophobia in our neck of the woods. There are many other ungodly forms of prejudice.
Do we learn from the Spirit any faster than Peter and friends did? We should. We have their story open right in front of us.