February 4, 2009

Cornelius the Centurion

    Today we celebrate the Feast of Cornelius the Centurion, the first Gentile or non-Jew to be converted to Christianity. The story of his and his family's conversion is one of the most important in the history of Christianity, so important that Luke spends two chapters in the book of Acts describing it. It is a story that is so very important to all of us who don't claim a Jewish heritage, and one which inexplicably we don't really hear in the lessons for today.
    Cornelius was a Roman officer, a Centurion, who lived in the Roman capital of Judea, Caesarea. He was what the Jews considered a God-fearing Gentile. That is to say, he was not a Jew by heritage or by circumcision, but he worshiped the One God, YHWH. In New Testament times, an estimated ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of God-fearers, Gentiles who recognized that the pagan belief in many gods and goddesses, who according to the myths about them were given to adultery, treachery, intrigue, and the like, was not a religion for a thoughtful and moral worshiper, and who had accordingly embraced an ethical monotheism--belief in One God, who had created the world, and who was the upholder of the Moral Law. Although only a few of them took the step of formal conversion to Judaism, undergoing circumcision and accepting the obligations of keeping the food laws and ritual laws of Moses and his rabbinical interpreters, most of them attended synagogue services regularly.
    One day, an Angel of Lord came to Cornelius and told him, "Your prayers and neighborly acts have brought you to God's attention. Here's what you are to do. Send men to Joppa to get Simon, the one everyone calls Peter. He is staying with Simon the Tanner, whose house is down by the sea."
    At once Cornelius sent three men to Joppa. Meanwhile, Peter was having a vision of his own. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came: "Go to it, Peter—kill and eat."
    Peter said, "Oh, no, Lord. I've never so much as tasted food that was not kosher."
    The voice came a second time: "If God says it's okay, it's okay."
    This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies.
    As Peter, puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant, the men sent by Cornelius showed up at Simon's front door. They called in, asking if there was a Simon, also called Peter, staying there. Peter, lost in thought, didn't hear them, so the Spirit whispered to him, "Three men are knocking at the door looking for you. Get down there and go with them. Don't ask any questions. I sent them to get you."
    Peter went down and said to the men, "I think I'm the man you're looking for."
    They said, "Captain Cornelius, a God-fearing man well-known for his fair play—ask any Jew in this part of the country—was commanded by a holy angel to get you and bring you to his house so he could hear what you had to say."
    So Peter joined the men and traveled to Cornelius' home. When he got there, Peter addressed them, "You know, I'm sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don't do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked. But now I'd like to know why you sent for me."
    Cornelius told of his vision, Peter told them the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and No sooner were these words out of Peter's mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on "outsider" non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God.
    Then Peter said, "Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They've received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did." Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The whole religious world changed in that moment. Those in the leadership, like Peter and James, and John had now either seen with their own eyes or heard from reliable sources that God's gift of the Spirit was available to everyone. Which brings us the lesson from Acts we heard, as Peter is in Jerusalem, in trouble for rubbing elbows with Gentiles, but God's will that all of his creation be restored would prevail.
    What great news!  2000 years later, we sort of get that God's grace is open to everyone, but imagine being there trying to figure it all out.  What a time of reflection on the part of the apostles.  So today, we thank God for his witness to Cornelius the Centurion and for opening the very gates of heaven to us, God-fearing Gentiles.  Amen.

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