Someday, you might find yourself standing on the threshold of something momentous, something that will end up being of great historical significance. You wouldn’t want to miss the moment staring down at your phone, checking up on your social media accounts.
We often take the past for granted. Have you ever been listening to your parents telling a story about their youth, and suddenly realized that if they hadn’t done this or that, if they had made different decisions, you would never have been born? In that second, your perspective shifts.
Things could have been different than they are.
When we come to the book of Acts, we may already know that much of the story will focus on what happened as the gospel of a Jewish Messiah crossed over to the Gentiles. For those of us who follow Christ and who are not Jewish by heritage, however, the fact that it crossed over is usually taken for granted.
In biblical hindsight, of course, it’s clear that this was God’s plan all along. But we still shouldn’t miss how much this cross-cultural expansion took people by surprise, people who were used to their black-versus-white, us-versus-them categories.
Because when that truth sinks in, it might make us have to recognize and rethink our own categories.
Cornelius, the God-fearing Roman centurion, lives in the port city of Caesarea. At the moment, his house is quite crowded. He has fetched Peter to his home, and invited his family and friends to hear Peter speak. They have no idea what he’s going to say, but they’re all waiting eagerly for a word from God.
Peter stands there with his companions from Joppa. He has no idea why he was asked to come. But when Cornelius explains why he’s called for him, it all suddenly becomes clear, and Peter begins to preach.
The NRSV reads, “Then Peter began to speak to them” (Acts 10:34a), while the CEB merely has “Peter said.” To contemporary ears, the first rendering may sound a bit stilted. But a more literal translation of the Greek would be, “And having opened his mouth, Peter said…” This is not an informal, back and forth conversation, not just another “Person A said, then B said…” Luke’s phrasing suggests, This is important, so sit up and pay attention.
Acts 10:34-43 gives us Peter’s first (and only, as far as we know) sermon to an audience of Gentiles. It is all about who God is and what God has done through Jesus. His audience probably already knows much of the story. But Peter’s sermon puts it all together in a way that welcomes Gentiles into the story.
“I truly understand,” he begins, “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b-35). Again, a non-Jewish believer today might take a statement like that for granted.
But imagine how it sounded to Cornelius, a Roman who wanted to worship Israel’s God properly, but as a Gentile had to remain an outsider. He was waiting for Peter to speak a word from God.
And Peter’s first words were, “God accepts you.”
Most of the rest of what Peter says he already knows at some level. As in the rest of the book of Acts, God is the protagonist, the hero of the story Peter tells. God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit. God sent Jesus to the people of Israel with a message of peace, of shalom, and the message spread throughout all of Judea. Jesus was put to death on an accursed cross, but God raised him on the third day. God chose people to be witnesses to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and commanded them to testify.
Cornelius is a centurion. He reads his news feed. As part of his station in life, he keeps up with current events involving the Jewish people. As a God-fearer, he knows some of Israel’s history and beliefs. And he’s probably heard at least some of the gospel directly or indirectly through the work of Philip.
But then Peter ends as he began: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
Everyone who believes. Everyone. God accepts you.
This is what God intends. This is what the story is about.
It’s what the story has always been about.
Luke, of course, doesn’t tell us what was going through Cornelius’ mind as Peter preached. But we can take a good guess. It was indeed the start of something big, as the next and even more surprising event will show.