"The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles." (Acts 10:45)
This text from Acts is from a reading that is almost laughably short, and so abbreviated that we strain to remember its context and to make sense. By itself, the verse is about surprise, about God acting in such an unforseen and generous way that it shocks those who thought that they knew God and knew what his rules were, and that in itself is not a bad lesson. Given his record in scripture and in the world, it's always better to be surprised by what God might do, than to think that you have him figured out.
If we want to make wider sense of this first reading, we have to look at the whole of Acts 10, and we have to start with Cornelius, the guy who, along with his family and friends, is getting the Holy Spirit poured out on him in Acts 10:45. And, for a sermon in a military chapel, it makes sense to start with Cornelius, because he was a soldier.
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. -- Acts 10:1-2
Cornelius was what we would today call a junior officer, a man commanding roughly a hundred soldiers in one of Caesar's legions. I've just finished reading Simon Scarrow's historical novel, Under the Eagle, about life in the Roman army, and if that is any indication, Cornelius, even though "a devout man", would have been a hard bitten soldier. Rome's legions marched all over the known world, they fought everyone from Britons to Persians, and sometimes fought each other. They knoew how to fight, how to campaign, how to build, how to govern conquered peoples, often quite ruthlessly. So, from the point of a Jew like Paul and the other disciples, who remembered the Roman soldiers taking Jesus to the cross, a man like Cornelius was a man to be feared and, probably, if they could manage it, avoided. Not only was he a soldier, he was a Gentile, a non-Jew, someone not of God's chosen people.
We are told, though, that Cornelius "feared God ... gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God". While it may seem surprising that he devoted himself to the Hebrew God, we should remember that the Romans were polytheists, who were comfortable with the idea of multiple gods and multiple spiritual options, provided they did not disturb the Roman order. We know from elsewhere in scripture that Gentiles were interested in the Jewish faith, and were sometimes called Godfearers, so Jews wouldn't have been surprised that a Roman officer prayed to Jahweh, but that didn't mean he was one of them.
We will never know what made Cornelius turn to God at first. Did he see too much horror on his campaigns? Did he do things he regretted? Was he simply a spiritually curious man, not common in a soldier but not unkown either? Those questions are best left to a novelist like Simon Scarrow, but it's not too much to sprculate, I think, what he believed at first. Luke (using his name as the author of Acts) tells us that Cornelius prayed and was devout, but did he have any faith that his prayers were answered? Did he believe that God would return his love? Or did he regard God as some lofty and aloof deity, like Jupiter, who wouldn't stoop to take an interest in a mere man like himself? Whatever he may have believed, certainly he is surprised, actually, terrified, when God actually answers his prayers.
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," 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. Now send men to Joppa for a certain man named Peter." -- Acts 10:3-5
God's answer to Cornelius, which sets him in motion to meet Peter, is the first of two surprising things that God does in Acts 10. The second surprising thing God does is the vision God sends to Peter while Cornelius' messengers are en route.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heavens opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." The voice said to him a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times. -- Acts 10:9-16
"What God has made clean, you must not call profane."If we wanted a theme for today, this verse would do nicely, I think. Whether it is a Gentile Roman soldier or a whole dinner menu previously probited to Jews by Torah, God can decide if he will change the rules and now call it clean. This reversal can either seem capricious, if one has a certain view of God that inclines to the suspicious, or it can be seen as a generous next step in God's plan to renew the world following the resurrection. If God can overcome death, then surely he can overcome cultural and religious divides between humans. What happens next in Acts are the first steps towards a new vision of humanity. Peter leaves his home, follows Cornelius' messengers, and finds himself at the doorstep of a Roman officer. I wouldn't have blamed Peter if he eyed Cornelius a little warily at first. In some ways they were similar, both men accustomed to hard work and the outdoors, but they would have been shaped by different cultures, the Jewish fisherman and the Roman soldier, and they would have been aware of the power imbalance between them. One word from Cornelius could have a man like Peter arrested, even killed. And was Peter human enough to look at Cornelius and be at least a little sceptical of him? Was this just another Roman pursuing some exotic foreign religion, like a middleaged North American might dabble in Buddhism or Kabbala?
Whatever he might have felt, Peter starts speaking when Cornelius invites him in and asks him to teach himself and his household. Peter tells them the story of Jesus, of how he came from God as God's son, what he did, how he died and rose from the dead as the prophets said he would, and how he commanded his disciples to preach and to forgive sins in his name. Peter starts speaking, and God does the rest. "While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. (Acts 10:44). And so Peter realizes what God is up to. God hasn't just changed the rules as to what is fit to eat. God has changed the rules as his followers. It's no longer just a group of spiritual insiders who can follow him. God wants everyone, as many as want to follow him, whereever they were born, however they were raised, whatever they did. As Peter said when he started to speak to Corneius and his family, "I now realize that God has no partiality" (Acts 10:34).
For Corenlius, the surprise was that God would actually answer his prayer and, what is more, that God was not the aloof Mt. Olympus type God of Roman imagination, but that God wanted to be in relationship with him. Cornelius went from someone who feared God to someone who was a friend of God, in the way I think that Jesus says in today's Gospel when he says that "I do not call you servants any longer ... but I have called you friends" (Jn 15:15). For Peter, the surprise was that God had changed the rules and broadened the definition of who could be his people, from a select few to ... well, to anyone who wanted it. Truly a God of surprises.
What are the surprises that God may have in store for us? Could it be that we, like Cornelius, might actually find our prayers answered, and that the aloof God we might have feared might actually love us back and want to be in relationship with us as a friend? Could it be for we in churchland as gatekeepers of the institution, like Peter, that God doesn't have as narrow a few of who's in and who's holy as we do? I suspect today that in many churches, pastors of a certain theological, liberal bent are connecting President Obama's recent statements on gay marriage with that particular debate in the church, and saying that this is another Acts moment where God is doing something surprising. That may or may not be true, and for now, like Peter, I am prepared to role with the punches if God is indeed revising the rules on what is profane and unclean. Certainly the lesson in Acts is to be ready to be surprised.
Whatever God may be doing in the world, it is safe to say that his generousity and grace are bigger than we can imagine. If there are churches that think that certain people, be they the homeless or millionaires, be they soldiers or long haired freaks, or just devotees of a certain kind of worship and denomoinational structure, if they think these people are unwelcome in their midst, it is virtually certain that God has different ideas. And, if there are people who quietly pray, and do good, and wonder if they, like Cornelius, are far from a God who doesn't really consider them to be his own, then they too are going to be surprised. All we can be certain of is that it's God who decides what is clean or what is unclean, and, I think we can safely say that God always errs on the side of generosity in making these calls, and that we are all the better for it. Amen.