By this time, in the book of Acts, we should be used to the sudden appearance of angels. They appeared at Jesus’ Ascension, telling the disciples to stop staring into the sky (Acts 1:10-11). An angel sprang the apostles from prison (5:19). Stephen’s face, as he testified before the Sanhedrin, was like that of an angel (6:15). An angel told Philip where to find the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26).
All of this is tightly interwoven with the movement of the Holy Spirit and even appearances of Jesus himself. There can be no question: the story is under divine direction. And now, an angel will appear to Cornelius, the devout Roman centurion we met in the previous post:
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 Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 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, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:3-8, NRSV)
It was three in the afternoon. If the God-fearing Cornelius was following Jewish tradition, he may have been praying. And as he prayed, an angel appeared. Luke makes a point of saying that Cornelius saw the angel clearly, stared at him — and was terrified. A Roman centurion was a man’s man: tough, disciplined, level-headed. In Scripture, however, when angels come to visit, people shake in their sandals.
The angel’s first words to Cornelius, though, must have been a balm to the soul of a Gentile who sought to worship the God of the Jews. His faithful prayers and alms had come before God. They had been accepted just as surely as if he had been allowed to offer a proper sacrifice in the temple.
Cornelius himself had been accepted.
And now he had a job to do.
The angel instructed him to send for Peter, who was staying down the road in Joppa. Cornelius had no idea why. But just as the faithful centurion in Matthew 8 had once demonstrated, centurions were men who understood the chain of command and obeyed it without question. Simply put, when an angel shocks you out of your socks and then tells you to do something…well, you do it. Cornelius assembled a team of three men, including a soldier who may have been a member of his extended household, and sent them on their mission to Joppa.
Personally, I’ve never seen an angel. If I ever do, I hope it won’t be right after I’ve finished my third cup of morning tea.
But I also hope that beyond the sheer terror of the encounter, I too might receive a word of encouragement and acceptance.
And that I would quickly do whatever I was told.