The Conversion of Peter
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." 4 He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." 15The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon's house and were standing by the gate.
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
I was a pretty awkward teenager. I suppose all teenagers are somewhat awkward as we wrestle with our identity and community, our brains trying desperately to catch up to our growing bodies. But I was looking through old yearbooks recently and was came face to face with this part of my story. I feel like it took me a particularly long time to figure it all out. And I don’t know about yours, but my middle school and high school seemed liked ones where everybody else had already figured out the right way to be. So I tried to wear the “right” clothes, say the “right” things, be a part of the “right” clubs, but I wasn’t particularly convincing and I lived constantly in fear that the people around me didn’t really want me to be there, or especially to be a part of them.
I talk about teenage years as if these insecurities and struggles have completely passed. But even now, I’m tempted to subscribe to some socially accepted version of what’s right, instead of the holy integrity already within me. Trying to be another person’s version of ourselves, of who God created you to be, not only frustrates our own souls, it actively rejects God’s beautiful and holy creation in us.
Cornelius does so many of the “right” things, but people like him will never quite be “in” as Peter understands it. And in this story it seems, the issue is not so much about Cornelius’ feeling of being left out as the establishment’s preoccupation that they are excluded, at least from the fullness of this Christian life.
Cornelius is a centurion which means he is Roman, which means he is not a Jew. Since Jesus was Jewish, and so most of his followers were Jewish, it follows that the church being born after his Resurrection primarily had a Jewish identity. And this early church is trying to figure out who they are, what life looks like in light of the resurrection, and Peter and his followers still think that Jewish and non-Jewish is an important distinction this identity. And I’m not saying that’s inherently wrong because as a religious and ethnic minority, this cultural and identity distinction is rather important. The effect is that the status quo has become that non-Jews (aka Gentiles) are welcome, but always a little less than, second-class. They simply don’t share that same background, history, know the same songs and movements and rituals in the same ingrained way...
So the writer of Acts wants us to know that Cornelius - is definitely one who would fall outside that understanding of the “right” Christian community. But then they also throw some wrenches in there - this “outsider” sure does look a lot like a follower of Jesus in practice. Devout, prayerful, generous, trusting of God enough to send his best people to follow God’s mystery. And the scripture tell us through the angel that God sees and hears, and receives all these things.
So that’s who is coming down the road, or represented by who’s coming toward the house of Peter, the rock, the head of the church.
Meanwhile, at Peter’s house, as he settles down for pre-meal nap - it’s visions of food, animals specifically. The animals he sees are animals that are outside what had been good and sacred practice for generations and generations. These are ritually unclean creatures and the understanding was that consuming them would make him unclean too. And yet, the voice of God is saying to eat them. It seems Peter is always thinking God’s words are a test of his passion, but it turns out God actually means what God says. He awakes, still confused about what God would have him do, what it all means. And then....Cornelius’ crew shows up, strangers, unclean, asking for him by name. And that’s when Peter goes “oh God, we weren’t just talking about food before were we?”
From parables and visions, and those mystical experiences where we know we’ve been close to God, I find that God often teaches us sideways. If God had told Peter flat out that he should welcome these people, he would have done so...eventually, but his heart probably not have changed so significantly. Perhaps Peter would have tolerated them and given welcome lip service but without God’s work, he would not have come to this point of full embrace. God talks to Peter about food, but teaches him about people. Often this takes repetition and hindsight before we can see where God was a part of guiding us and shaping us.
Sometimes this story is called the conversion of Cornelius, but while it IS a shift for him to name claim the Christian Community and the explicit Yahweh, he was already practicing an Easter way of life - worship, prayer and generosity - public, personal, and outward. Just as significantly, Peter is changed, converted to a new way of thinking about God and God’s people, an Easter way that reminds us and activates us by God’s work of revealing connection and integration, reconciliation between things we thought were separate or far off.
When Peter stands by the tradition and the rules of religion and refuses to come into contact with things unclean, Peter’s not technically wrong. But Jesus shows us time and time again that being right isn’t as important as being human - created good and in love and for one another. The rules and the law aren’t the most important thing, people are. Jesus is always breaking the religious law - healing on the sabbath, touching the unclean people, building relationships with foreigners...for the sake of love. This Easter way reveals that this new creation is one where the law is love. Jesus says the greatest commandments are to Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus doesn’t say to love your religiosity, your brand of people, or or even just yourself - but to extend all that love to the ends of the earth. Because that’s what Christ does, and as followers of Christ, that’s what God is guiding us and shaping us for, often in unexpected ways.
We all get stuck trying to be right all on our own, or at least more right than THEM. We sink into tribalism, thinking that “our people” are the right people. But tribalism leads to dehumanization of those outside the tribe. And anything not human can be hated, and hatred leads us to violence, even when that violence is ultimately against ourselves.. We have had too many case studies lately - murderous attacks against muslims, jews, then retaliation towards christians, ongoing oppression and violence toward women, people of color, and the poor.
Yesterday morning we lost a young woman named Rachel Held Evans - at just 37 years old, she wasn’t an ordained pastor but she was a passionate preacher, a transformatively honest writer and speaker, and her radical conviction for the wide welcome of Christ often got her in trouble with the religious institution. Her books were pulled from store shelves and she was essentially marked unclean by the gatekeepers of religious rightness. And yet, this devout, prayerful, generous woman was bold enough to write about the church like this. She writes: “this is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
Inclusion and diversity are easily reduced to hollow buzzwords. We perform welcome, but our hearts keep their distance from one another. But I find hope in how God keeps at us, nudging us together, opening us up to on another so that we might know the fullness of God and God’s redemption through one another, precisely through the ones we’d like to keep at a distance, those we would rather not embrace. After all, it wasn’t Petere’s amazing preach that attracted Cornelius, but God’s call. It isn’t Peter’s amazing wisdom and enlightenment that reveal a new way, but God’s vision. In this way, resurrection occurs not just in how others are changed by God’s grace and welcome, but how we are changed and made more aware and connected to God through diversity - through God’s wide welcome, even when it confuses us. Amen.