First Mennonite Church
November 22, 2020
Conversion of a Missionary and a Gentile
Text: Acts 10:34-43
For many of us who have been reading and hearing sermons on the same gospel stories for a long time, finding new meaning or discovering new treasures in them can be a little more challenging. The story of Peter and Cornelius is also very familiar to us.
I am very mindful of your familiarity with the scriptures every time I am preparing my sermons. One clue that reveals that mindfulness of mine is the phrase, “let us remember” I often use in my sermons. I know you know the Bible. For that reason, every time I am preparing my sermon, I try to look at the passage from a different perspective in my effort to find freshness or to discover something I have not seen before. Perspective matters in everything we consider and if for the sake of our own growth we dare to read familiar stories from a different perspective, we might be surprised at the treasures we might find.
Has there been a moment when while reading a scripture passage you felt that a long-held belief on a certain aspect of your faith is being challenged? Have you ever felt a need to change perspective about what you know or believe God is? If so, how did you reflect that change in your relationship with others?
Acts chapter 10 begins with the story of a vision given to Peter. In that vision Peter saw something like a large sheet coming down from above. In the sheet were all kinds of animals, clean and unclean according to Jewish dietary rules. The sheet came down three times accompanied by a voice commanding Peter to “kill and eat.” Of course, Peter was very troubled at the command in light of what he saw inside the sheet. Among the animals and birds, Peter may have seen, were eagles, alligators, raccoons, among others, animals and birds which he was not allowed to eat.
As soon as the vision ended, some men arrived at the house where Peter was staying. And once again, the Spirit instructed Peter to accompany the men who were asking for him (v. 19).
So Peter was led to the house of Cornelius, who also had seen a vision of angels commanding him to seek the words of guidance from Peter.
Interestingly, Peter began his sermon admitting that his previous assumptions of God were no longer valid. As a Jew, Peter had been taught in his synagogue and by his parents that God does have favorites, the people of Israel. Peter had been taught that because of God’s favoritism toward the Jewish people, he could not mingle with Gentiles. Everything God could offer in terms of his grace, including the gift of a Messiah, was only for the Jews. Peter also knew that God made some exceptions in accepting a few Gentiles, but they were required to pick up the ways and behaviors of the Jews.
What was more interesting, however, was that even after spending more than three years with Jesus, Peter continued with his assumptions, not only about God, the difference between Jews and Gentiles, but also about clean and unclean foods. Jesus had addressed this topic quite clearly in Mark, when he said:
“Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” . . . and when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:14b-15, 17-19).
It was until Peter actually arrived at Cornelius’ house that the words of Jesus and the meaning of the vision became clear to him.
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality . . .,” Peter confessed. God does not play favorites among people, Peter said. In other words, God is equally concerned for all peoples, making his grace available to every human being, regardless of race, gender, or nationality. The vision Peter had plus the commission he was given to enter a Gentile’s house, helped to change Peter’s view of God. And Peter readily admitted it to his Gentile host.
Peter’s opening words admitting his new discovery about the nature of God grace was rather humbling. Often times, we are tempted to approach someone we want to evangelize with a certain feeling of expertise about God, like if we knew everything about God. Peter’s realization about the scope of God’s grace effected by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, only dawned to Peter when he entered Cornelius’ house. Peter’s new understanding about God’s inclusive love, even for someone his religion excluded, only came to him when he met Cornelius face to face. It was at the house of Cornelius where Peter experienced a new stage of conversion. There, the Spirit reminded Peter the words of Jesus
Often times, we speak as if conversion is a one-time experience in our lives, like when we say, “I was converted to Christ in such and such a year.” But, conversion can be gradual and in various degrees of depth. In Ephesians, Paul says that God has given the church teacher and pastors “to equip the saints . . . until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).
How many pastor and teachers have you had along the many years you have been a believer? Have you achieved what Paul says you should? The clue in Paul’s word about the long process of pastoral equipping in order to achieve full conversion to the likeness and stature of Christ is the word “until.” Even pastors continue to be shaped and converted, just like Peter.
Cornelius received the word of the Lord. He was baptized on his confession of faith in Christ. But, Peter also had a conversion experience. His perspective about the scope of God’s love and salvation was broadened only after he obeyed the voice of the Holy Spirit, even in violation of Peter’s best judgement as to with whom he could interact and have fellowship. In verse 28, when Peter entered the house of Cornelius, Peter said, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.
My dear friends, Peter’s religious upbringing produced in him a negative prejudice against Gentiles. Therefore, he thought Cornelius was beyond the reach of God’s salvation and unqualified to receive the Holy Spirit, for various reasons. Cornelius was a Roman centurion; that is, he was someone who was part of the repressive foreign force oppressing the Jewish people. And consequently, Cornelius was a Gentile. However, Peter obediently followed the Spirit’s instruction and went to visit Cornelius.
We all have prejudices, some good and, maybe, some negative. Prejudice simply means “prejudgment.” That is, we exhibit a certain attitude towards a particular person or group of people without having enough information on which to form a knowledgeable opinion. Therefore, we can approach a person with a very good disposition, simply on the basis of how the person looks, where s/he lives, or some other factors that are agreeable to us, even when we do not know the person. On the other hand, there is also negative prejudice. And again, that means we exhibit a negative attitude towards a person or people group simply on the basis of what we find different in them, like color of the skin, religion, gender, language, ethnicity, etc. Negative prejudice most often leads to discrimination.
The story of Peter and Cornelius is a story of conversion, both of the missionary and the unbeliever. The missionary was first converted and then the unbeliever. How might God be leading us to a deeper conversion? How do we treat people who believe differently, who look, talk, eat, and live differently from us? Could it be that the Spirit is also sending us to these people? Could it be that upon our way to them that we might experience a deeper understanding of God’s inclusive love for all people?
Let us give it a try. Let us be open to know more about those we have thought are different. God wants us to experience a new understanding of his love, so that we could say along with Peter: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Amen!