Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 8, 2023

Acts 10:34-43 Commentary

Nearly all people, including Christians, have not just favorite people, but also favorite kinds of people. That helps shrink the leap for at least some Christians to the assumption that God too doesn’t just have favorite people, but also favorite kinds of people.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson challenges that assumption. As a result, it may shake Christians’ presuppositions about both God and people nearly as vigorously as it shook Peter’s. Acts 10’s message of divine inclusivity is potentially so volatile that it should perhaps be labelled, “Handle with care.”

Acts 10:14 suggests that Peter originally and naturally assumed that God’s favorites didn’t include what God considered to be “impure” (koinon) and “unclean” (akarthaton). The apostle, of course, admitted that he considered certain food to be impure. Three times he insists that he’s never eaten any food that we would call “unkosher.”

Yet the apostle’s response to Cornelius’ invitation to enter his home implies that Peter also assumed that certain people as well as kinds of people were also “impure” and “unclean.” When, after all, the Jewish apostle enters the non-Jewish centurion’s home, he tells him in Acts 10:27, “It is against our law (athemiton) for a Jew to associate with (kolasthai) a Gentile or visit (proserchesthai) him.” It’s as if Peter basically assumes that it’s somehow illegal for Jews like him to even darken the doorway of non-Jews like Cornelius.

Jewish Peter’s hesitation to associate with gentile Cornelius may seem archaic to Acts 10’s 21st century readers. Gentiles now, after all, far outnumber Jews in Jesus’ church. What’s more, in multicultural societies, Jews and non-Jews sometimes interact more often than they did in Peter’s day.

Of course, some barriers remain between Jews and non-Jews. It’s not just that some Christians have ignored if not actively participated in the persecution of Jews. It’s also that dietary and other customs sometimes separate gentiles from some Jews.

Our Orthodox Jewish friends and neighbors have graced my wife and me with countless acts of hospitality. Among other things, they have served us delicious meals. But it’s difficult for Diane and me to reciprocate that hospitality. After all, we don’t just fail to observe Jewish dietary laws. We also don’t even fully know all of the dietary laws by which our Orthodox Jewish neighbors live.

Yet for most Christians, the barriers between observant Jews and Christians are no longer the most common barriers between people. Perhaps far more common are the barriers Christians have erected between themselves and some other Christians. For at least some of us, it feels almost criminal to interact with certain followers and friends of Jesus.

Each preacher will have to read his or her congregation or audience in order to cite those barriers lovingly but prophetically. We want to think very carefully and prayerfully about the kinds of Christians with whom those to whom we preach would prefer not to hang around.

Of course, some Christians like to talk and even boast about the inclusive nature of our church communities. It sometimes seems, however, that most of Jesus’ followers are far better at talking about such inclusivity than practicing it. To use an old cliché, Christians don’t always practice what we preach.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Peter doesn’t just recognize one of the barriers God’s people have erected among themselves. With the Spirit’s help, he also begins to break down some of them. But that seems to happen only incrementally. When, after all, the apostle first enters Cornelius home, he says, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (28). The Spirit has taught Peter that he may no longer refer to any person as what he once called koinon and akarthaton (cf. 14).

Yet it seems as if it’s a big step for the apostle to move from refraining from calling any human being impure to professing that God calls no person unclean. After all, in verses 34-35 he admits, “I now realize (katalambanomai) how true it is that God does not show favoritism (prospolemptes) but accepts (dektos) men from every nation who fear him (phoboumenos) and do what is right (ergazomenos dikaiosynen).” It’s a theological mouthful that might serve as a homiletical springboard to an exploration of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.

While scholars generally translate verse 34’s katalambanomai as “understand,” it may more literally refer to eagerly taking, seizing or possessing something. Peter’s use of it here suggests that the Spirit has given him a new way of thinking about the scope of God’s favor. But Acts may also be emphasizing a kind of inspired grabbing of this realization of God’s inclusivity by the apostle. Peter will, in fact, cling so tightly to this realization that not even other apostles’ vigorous opposition to it will be able to dislodge it (cf. Acts 11:1-18).

The apostle professes that the Spirit has equipped him to grasp that God is literally “not one who shows partiality.” While God’s people have and continue to play favorites, God has inspired the apostle to realize that God doesn’t play favorites. Peter has come to grasp the fact that ethnicity, gender and other markers to which people pay such close attention don’t shape God’s attitude and actions towards people.

This realization forms part of what the New Testament scholar Raj Nadella calls Peter’s conversion. The Spirit has transformed the apostle’s understanding of God, himself, and those whom he’d once considered to be “other.”

Acts 10:34ff’s Peter professes that he has finally grasped the concept that the people who are “acceptable” (dektos) to God come from “every nation” (panti ethnei). “Nation” is a kind of biblical code word for ethnicity, for a distinguishing of Jews from non-Jews. Peter professes that God has shown him that things like nationality and ethnicity play no role in God’s dispensation of God’s favor.

Instead, the apostle insists, God favors the ones who “are fearing” (phoboumenos) God. God graciously favors people from all over the world who display a loving reverence toward God. Peter adds that people who are acceptable to God are also those who are literally “working righteousness” (ergazomenos dikaiosynen). God accepts those who treat other people equitably and justly in the way that Acts 10:2 says Cornelius acted before the Spirit even came on him.

Yet is it a sign of the tenacity of our ideas of divine favoritism that Christians argue about what constitutes “working righteousness”? It’s as if some of Jesus’ friends still cling to the notion that God favors only those who do what they consider to be “right” (14) in terms of things like voting, caring for the creation, and being sexually intimate.

Because Peter has finally grasped the concept of God’s radical inclusivity, he feels free to share the gospel of God’s gracious ways with people of all backgrounds. In verse 38 he tells his non-Jewish audience that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit so that he might help people and heal those whom the devil had beaten down. While religious leaders, he adds, eventually managed to kill Jesus by “hanging him on a tree” (39), God raised Jesus from the dead and caused him to be seen by witnesses like Peter (41).

Before the risen Jesus returned to the heavenly realm, he commissioned apostles like Peter to testify that Jesus “is the one whom God appointed as the judge of the living and the dead.” Those who hear that message, concludes the apostle, and believe in Jesus “receive forgiveness of sins through” Jesus’ “name” (43).

It’s that forgiveness that the Spirit equips non-Jewish Cornelius and his guests to receive. It’s a forgiveness that the Spirit continues to empower people of all nations, races and ethnicities to receive with their Christian faith. It’s a forgiveness that God continues to empower people of various genders, political persuasions and sexual orientations to receive with their faith in Jesus Christ. God has graciously accepted them. Among the questions that face Christ’s Church is whether that Church will accept those whom God graciously accepts.


In his book, The Kingdom of God Is a Party (Word Publishing, 1990) Tony Campolo describes a teacher named Miss Thompson. Each September, she greeted her students by saying, “I love you all the same. I have no favorites.” But she wasn’t being completely honest with them. Teachers don’t just have favorites. They sometimes also have students they struggle to like.

Teddy Stallard, writes Campolo, was one of Miss Thompson’s least favorite students. He sullenly sat slouched at his desk with his head down. Teddy always answered her questions in monosyllabic “yes’s” and “no’s.” So when Miss Thompson marked his papers, she enjoyed putting X’s next to his wrong answers and writing “F’s” at the top of his papers.

At Christmas Miss Thompson’s students brought her presents. All but Teddy’s were wrapped in brightly colored paper. When Miss Thompson tore open Teddy’s brown paper wrapping, a bracelet with most of the stones missing and an almost-empty bottle of cheap perfume fell out.

The other students giggled at the tacky wrapping paper and gifts. Miss Thompson at least had enough sense to snap on the bracelet and dab some perfume on her wrist. Holding her wrist up to the other children she said, “Isn’t it lovely?” The other children, taking their cue from the teacher, all agreed.

At the end of the day when the other students had left, Teddy came over to her desk and quietly told Miss Thompson, “All day today you smelled just like my mother used to smell. That’s her bracelet you’re wearing. It looks very nice on you… I’m really glad you like my presents.” After Teddy left, Miss Thompson broke down, wept bitterly, and begged God to forgive her and give her a new attitude.

The next day Teddy and his classmates had what Campolo calls “a new teacher.” While it was still Miss Thompson, she cared in ways that the old teacher didn’t. She reached out in ways that the old Miss Thompson didn’t. Miss Thompson especially nurtured, encouraged and tutored Teddy when he needed extra help. By the end of that school year Teddy had caught up with a lot and even exceeded some of his classmates.

Some years later, Teddy sent Miss Thompson a note: “As of today I am Theodore J. Stallard, MD! … I wanted you to be the first to know. I’m going to be married on the 27th of July. I want you to come … [and] sit where my mother would have sat. You’re the only family I have now. Dad died last year. Love, Teddy Stallard.”


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