Anna Carter Florence: Expecting Cornelius

Well, I am not a strategic blueprint expert, but I would like to suggest that Acts 10 could be a very interesting biblical model for flourishing in faith and hope. Imagine, for a moment, if a team of strategy experts walked into your church and said, “Good news, everyone: God is about to do a new thing, and you are about to perceive it, and we’re going to tell you how, because we’ve developed tactics and metrics based on Acts chapter 10 that will ensure your church will be a house of prayer for all peoples, and it’s a simple matter of:

you having a vision over here,

while someone thirty miles away has a vision over there,

and that person sends three people to your door,

while the Spirit sends you down to open it,

and the people at the door say,

“Look, you don’t know us, but please come with us,

because our guy just saw an angel,

and the angel gave him your name and address,

and now our guy’s expecting you”

—which will be your cue to go with them, to that person’s house,

where fifty-three strangers will be waiting for you to give a testimony;

and when you see them, in that split second,

you will truly understand that God shows no partiality;

and this vision you had—the one that freaked you out—

is a big wake-up call to reevaluate your entire theological framework,

because what God has made clean, we can’t call profane anymore;

we can’t say, “That’s not how our church does it!”

—when apparently, it is now;

so, you will tell those fifty-three people what you know about Jesus;

and they will listen, and praise God;

and the Holy Spirit will pour down all over the place;

and you will say, “Could it be more obvious

that we need to register these people,

take them into the church and throw an interfaith potluck!”

—which you will, for the next three days—

before going home to tell your church

that you’ve decided to take in fifty-three new members

from denominations your church has never heard of, with more to come;

because the Holy Spirit falls there the same way it does here

And that is how you make a church flourish in twenty-two easy steps and forty-nine verbs;

here’s the handbook, any questions?

Imagine if that is what we had heard – that God’s new thing would be Cornelius and Peter in the tenth chapter of Acts. That this is what a flourishing church looks like: visions and trances and road trips with complete strangers, and twenty-two steps and forty-nine verbs, none of which we are going to see coming, all of which are going to blow our minds, and any of which could change how we know and serve God.

It might be worth thinking about. What are we expecting the future church to be? And if community that forms the future church looks like community that formed the early church, maybe what we’re expecting, or who we’re expecting, aren’t everything. Maybe there’s an Acts 10 question to ask: Who is expecting us? Because whatever new thing God is doing, we can’t perceive on our own. Whatever vision God gives us, we only get part of, and we need to find who holds the rest. Who is expecting us, and what vision has God given them to join with ours?

Peter had to learn this – that he hadn’t witnessed everything, and he wasn’t the holder of the complete vision, and he couldn’t perceive every new thing on his own – because by the tenth chapter of Acts, Peter was the leading voice of the church. He was the one who spoke up when something needed interpreting.

Peter had an explanation for every new thing that God was doing in the first days of the early church, and he didn’t hesitate to speak it and preach it and testify to the name of Jesus Christ, of whom he was proud to be a witness. And maybe he’d disrupted so many people’s theologies that he needed reminding that God could disrupt his, too; Peter wasn’t always going to be the man with all the answers. He was good, but he wasn’t God. So just like every other preacher in the book of Acts, he smacks his head on an epiphany he didn’t see coming.

They all get a turn, especially in chapters 8, 9 and 10: Philip, with an Ethiopian Eunuch; Paul on the road to Damascus; Peter, on a rooftop in Joppa: three faithful men, godly men, but not one of them could let go of the idea that some things were pure heresy, like baptism for Gentiles, or God becoming a man, or changing the law that tells us what is holy and what is not.

So, they get addressed by angels and struck by blinding light and weird visions that spell it out for them, in no uncertain terms. Listen: What God has made holy, you must not call blasphemous. What God has made clean, you must not call profane. Wake up and get with the program, because the realm of God is a whole lot bigger than you thought it was, and it is breaking its way in. For three consecutive chapters in the book of Acts – 8, 9 and 10 – it is one preacher epiphany after another, and it opens up the whole church.

And for Peter, it all happens because Cornelius was expecting him - Cornelius, who isn’t the star of the show, and never was; Peter’s the one in the spotlight at that point. And true to form, he is stubbornly (big surprise) clinging to his dietary practices and harboring certain prejudices against Gentiles. He’s about to get his mind radically changed by a vision of a sheet, some non-kosher delicacies, and a barbecue pit. But before he does, we get this little narrative about a Roman centurion named Cornelius. While Peter is dreaming about grilled pork and shellfish, Cornelius the Gentile is dreaming about him; he has a vision about an angel and a man called Peter, whom he has never met. The vision takes place while Cornelius is praying, and instead of dismissing it as a momentary lapse when he must have drifted off, he decides the angel meant business and he’d better take it seriously. He sends his trusted servants to invite Peter to return with them to Cornelius’ house.

Peter, meanwhile, is up on the roof of his friend Simon’s house, having his own out-of-body experience about exactly which animals are clean and profane. This is when he hears the voice say, “Rise Peter, kill and eat!” And completely flummoxed by it, he gets another nudge from the Spirit that an entourage is on its way to him; he should greet them and be ready to travel. The next day he returns with them to Cornelius’ home in Caesarea, where a bleacher-full of Gentiles is waiting politely to hear what Peter has to say. Strangely moved by this warmly receptive audience, Peter realizes that what he and Cornelius have going here is definitely of the Lord’s making, and who is he to refuse a bratwurst when God is buying?

To celebrate, Peter preaches a glowing sermon about the Lord’s impartiality toward all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. Cornelius and his friends convert and are baptized on the spot, and the chapter ends with a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, and (we can surmise) a truly excellent interfaith potluck that goes on for several days.

By the time chapter 11 begins, Cornelius and Peter have parted company and the spotlight moves with Peter to Jerusalem. Cornelius will not appear again in the book of Acts, but the story of what happened at his home in Caesarea is one Peter will continue to tell, over and over, as he tries to explain his own conversion: “Once,” he will say, “I thought we were God’s people and the Gentiles were not. But that was before I had my dream, and my friend Cornelius had his vision, and God brought us together. And now I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor religious differences, nor shrimp cocktails, nor pulled pork barbecue with oysters and cheese grits on the side, can separate a people from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

It's a beautiful story, a familiar story, about insiders and outsiders, befores and afterwards, and God’s astonishing knack for messing with our heads: no matter what we think the game (or the menu) is about, no matter how hard and fast the rules, God likes to change things up at a moment’s notice – to flick the switch on what we think qualifies as clean and profane, faithful and unfaithful, Christian and non-Christian, or wildly unexpected. God likes to do a new thing. Just to keep things lively, and the people hopping, while amazing grace pours down.

Whatever Peter was expecting that day on the roof in Joppa, it wasn’t Cornelius. But Cornelius was expecting him. Cornelius was expecting that Peter would be a person of another faith, nationality, and privilege – since Cornelius was a wealthy Roman official and Peter most certainly was not. Yet he was also expecting to give Peter his full attention, to really listen to him, across their theological and religious differences. He was willing to risk what his friends and family would think about this situation. And what’s more, Cornelius even invited them to come and hear Peter for themselves, which must have been an interesting conversation.

Peter preached a great sermon that day, arguably his best. It’s powerful, personal, and filled with hard-won theological wisdom. He shows us what great preaching looks like. But Cornelius, who has no sermon of his own, shows us where great preaching comes from – and in this story, that’s more important. Great preaching, we learn, comes from great listening. It takes a Cornelius to produce a Peter. Or rather, it takes an encounter with Cornelius: an encounter with the Other. What summons forth greatness in a witness is the willingness of the Other to listen to what we have to say. And that is ground we have a hand in preparing.

We’re not talking about easy listening either, in any sense of that phrase. This is hard work, because it’s listening across theological divides. It’s listening past cultural differences. It’s listening that refrains from snap judgments, no matter what our parents taught us. It’s even listening that takes place in our own homes, while the Other, at our invitation, speaks freely.

Peter may have had to dig deep to talk about what happened to him, but that’s only because Cornelius dug deep, first. Without Cornelius, Peter would have had nothing to say and no occasion to say it. Without Cornelius, Peter’s life would have unfolded very differently, and with it, perhaps the doctrine of the church.

I wonder about that. Is this how community in the future church starts – an encounter with Cornelius in order to perceive the next thing? Is this what we ought to be praying for – that God would send us our own Cornelius, someone with whom we share deep theological differences as well as overlapping dreams?

Perhaps so. Maybe the book of Acts is right. We hear God best through a person we differ from most. Maybe we proclaim God best when we stop aiming for the conversion of others and start listening for our own conversions. Maybe our biggest aversions, our greatest fears, are really invitations to God’s next thing. And maybe vitality is the willingness to be depleted, so that God can form us for a future church.

It would be nice to have some blueprints for what’s next – in the church, for what community will look like, for God’s new thing. But I’m not sure we need those blueprints. We’ve got this wild book of Acts, and we’ve got Peter, for whom God arranged a wild rumpus on a picnic on the roof that day. And we’ve got Cornelius, who is out there somewhere, expecting us to bring our half of a messy, cryptic, crazy vision.

What God has made clean, we must not call profane. What God will make flourish, we must go out and seek. And what God is doing next in the church – it will spring forth. Let’s dream our half of it.