May Christians ever give up hope for the salvation of any living person? Can we, in other words, simply abandon anyone to Satan’s captivity? What about those who have already received God’s grace with their faith? May God’s adopted sons and daughters ever deliberately or even unconsciously abandon these fellow Christians?
Certainly some early Christians would have been tempted to see Cornelius and members of his family as people for whom there was no hope of salvation. They would have seen Gentiles like this centurion and his acquaintances as largely beyond the reach of God’s grace. And even once Gentiles became Christians, many Jewish Christians didn’t think they needed to share fellowship with them.
Acts 10:44-48, however, challenges those presuppositions. It’s the story, after all, of how the Holy Spirit comes on everyone in Cornelius’ household who hears Peter’s message. It’s the story of what some call “the Gentile Pentecost.” It’s part of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:5 that his followers that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.” After all, Peter serves as his witness to Gentiles who are, figuratively speaking, at “the ends of the earth.”
This, however, is strictly a “God thing.” After all, it’s God who graciously gives both Cornelius and the apostle visions that tell them to meet each other. While Peter is initially reluctant to fulfill that dream, God him Peter to the recognition of the job God has given him. He shows that by giving a stirring speech to Cornelius and his household in which he argues for God’s impartiality and Christ’s lordship over all people.
Someone, however, graciously and powerfully interrupts all that talk. After all, according to verse 44, “while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Wonder of wonders – even as the initially reluctant apostle is speaking to them, God “pours out” God’s Holy Spirit “on the Gentiles.” Just as God had promised on the first Pentecost: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).
So Acts’ author wants us to know that it’s the Holy Spirit, not Peter, who’s primarily at work in the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. After all, it’s the Spirit, not Peter’s eloquence, who transforms Cornelius, his friends and family members. In that way Acts 10 is a bit reminiscent of the first Pentecost. Then, after all, Luke tells us, the Spirit fell with the “sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Here, he reports, the same mighty Spirit also “falls” on Cornelius and his acquaintances.
At the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us that the devout Jews were “utterly amazed” by what was happening around them. Similarly, here, Jewish Christians who accompany Peter are “astonished” at this descent of the Spirit. This at least strongly suggests that those Jewish members of Christ’s Church had previously been unable to imagine the Spirit moving into Cornelius and the other “outsiders.”
In fact, as Will Willimon notes in the April 17, 1991 issue of The Christian Century, throughout the book of Acts the people whom the Spirit shocks are the ones already “in church” (p. 472). He writes, “At every step in the Acts program of evangelism and church growth, it is the church that must be dragged kicking and screaming into new areas of baptismal fidelity … Evangelism is a matter of a church in good enough condition to keep up with the frenetic movements of the Spirit without passing out.”
According to both Acts 2 and 10, Peter’s shocked colleagues can even see and hear proof of that restless Spirit’s presence in the gift of “tongues.” However, the nature of the gifts seems to be different. At Pentecost the believers spoke in languages that native speakers could understand. What they said in those “tongues” served as a witness to the Spirit’s power. In Acts 10, however, the gift of tongues seems to be more that of what Paul describes in I Corinthians 14:2. These “tongues” seem to be largely given for praising God.
After this visible and audible outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them, Peter asks, in verse 47, why Christians should withhold baptism from these Gentiles. It reminds us of the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip after he had heard the gospel: “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”
While 21st century Christians might think of reasons why Cornelius and his household should wait, the apostle commands that the believers baptize them in Jesus’ name. Baptized but uncircumcised, these new Christians then invite Peter to “stay with them for a few days,” according to verse 48. And Peter does, in fact, stay in Cornelius’ household for some time.
Yet Acts’ very next chapter shows that Peter’s sojourn doesn’t sit well with his fellow Christians in Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, Acts doesn’t report that they question the gentiles’ baptism. They do wonder, however, according to Acts 11:3, how Peter could go “into the house of uncircumcised men and” eat with them.
Peter defends his actions by pointing to the Holy Spirit’s work on Cornelius, his friends and family members, as well as himself. The work of the Spirit that leads to baptism also, the apostle suggests, leads to new fellowship. Baptism, Acts 10 reminds us, changes how we view the “other.”
Peter’s defense of his actions at least implies that Cornelius and his household aren’t the only people God converts on that day. God certainly transforms the Roman, his family members and friends into people who receive God’s grace with their faith. However, God also graciously transforms Peter from someone for whom ethnic barriers are naturally nearly as high as religious ones into a person who recognizes that the Holy Spirit smashes barriers left and right. Eventually the Spirit even converts the other apostles into recognizing Gentile reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:18).
Yet it’s highly significant that Peter stayed and ate with members of Cornelius’ entourage. Much, after all, both traditionally and culturally, including circumcision, divided the apostle and his hosts. Yet God’s Spirit smashes those old barriers, creating a bond of close fellowship and sharing.
So not even our ideas of who is clean and unclean, hopeful or hopeless can hinder the work of the Holy Spirit. We too may be shocked by the Spirit’s mighty work among us, in spite of our prejudices about those in whom God does God’s gracious work.
Acts 10, however, reminds those who proclaim and hear it of the missionary impulse that the Holy Spirit produces in all of God’s people. That Spirit powerfully sent Peter leaping over the barriers that separated Jews like Peter from Gentiles like Cornelius. However, that Spirit remains so powerful that the Spirit still sends Christians to bring the gospel to the nations.
So on this Sunday before Pentecost, God’s adopted children thank God that God has sent missionaries to the “ends of the earth.” Those who proclaim Acts 10 will almost certainly want to talk about missionaries and other kingdom workers their churches are sending.
After all, we remember that God doesn’t give God’s children this Spirit to simply keep it to ourselves. God’s Spirit also sends God’s people into our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. For this Spirit’s power leads God’s adopted sons and daughters to witness as well as have fellowship wherever God graciously sends and puts us.
A number of years ago the church I serve twice annually shared fellowship and worship with the folks from a Baptist church. Much divided our congregations. Ours is, after all, a largely white, Reformed church in the suburbs. King Emmanuel is a largely black, urban Baptist church. Yet, by God’s grace, members of both of our churches realized that the Spirit had fallen on each other’s churches.
Much like Peter stayed and ate with the Gentile Christians, members of our church regularly ate and worshipped with the members of the Baptist church. We tasted and experienced appetizers of the glories of the new creation that we’ll get to share with people from every background.
Those who proclaim Acts 10 may want to explore with their hearers how God is equipping their faith community to display similar Christian inclusivity. After all, those who worship a God who doesn’t show favoritism don’t show favoritism either.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 6, 2018
Acts 10:44-48 Commentary