During his earthly ministry, Jesus mostly spoke to Jews, and all of Jesus’ followers were Jews. That can be a little confusing because we know that Christianity and Judaism are now separate religions and that Jesus is the dividing line. But it took time for Christianity to emerge as a separate religion, and our reading comes from the period before that had happened.
So, for example, even after Christ’s resurrection, Peter and the other apostles continued to worship in the temple, to follow the food laws, to observe the Sabbath, and so on. They preached about Jesus. But in other respects they resembled their Jewish neighbors. For at least a little while, the Jesus movement was more like a denomination within Judaism than a separate religion.
In that earliest period, the Jesus movement was growing and thriving. But it was growing and thriving only among Jews. No Gentiles—no non-Jews—were part of it. That fact is what makes our story matter.
Immediately before our story, Peter was in a town called Joppa. While praying on top of the roof at lunchtime, Peter had a vision. A sheet came down from heaven, and on this sheet were all kinds of animals that Jews were not supposed to eat.
A voice tells Peter to “kill and eat.” But Peter obeyed the Jewish food laws. Peter never ate “unclean” food. So Peter refused. And the voice responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Follow God, not the rules.
Peter could be a little slow, so the vision repeated three times. It was still not enough. Even after the third time, Acts tells us, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen” (10:17).
In the meantime, a Roman soldier named Cornelius had his own vision. An angel instructed Cornelius to send for Peter in Joppa. Cornelius did, and his messengers arrived just after Peter had his vision. Peter agreed to visit Cornelius in Caesarea.
By the time Peter and Cornelius finally meet, Peter has figured out that God is doing a new thing. God is working with “unclean” people, with Gentiles, with non-Jews. Peter announces to Cornelius, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]” (10:34-35).
Peter went on to tell Cornelius and his family about Jesus.
At last we reach our passage. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers”—that is the Jewish Christians, which was to this point the only kind of Christian there was—“The circumcised believers were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
The key word here is “even.” The Christians with Peter have a hard time believing that God wants the Church to include even Gentiles.
Despite their astonishment, Peter baptized Cornelius and his household, and these Gentiles became the newest members of the Christian community.
But the story is not over. The other apostles in Jerusalem were NOT happy that Peter had baptized a non-Jew and then stayed with him for a few days. The other apostles still assumed that the Christian gospel was only for Jews, not Gentiles. In their view, Peter had tainted the community by allowing undesirables to join.
Peter described his vision, which he now understood. Just as God could declare previously unclean foods clean, so God could declare previously unclean peoples to be clean. Besides, Peter said, if Gentiles were good enough for the Holy Spirit, surely they were good enough for the Christian community.
What happens next is a virtual repeat of what happened in Caesarea. The previously skeptical apostles “praise God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (11:18).
This is an important story for us for at least two reasons.
First, it is our ticket into the Christian community. Gentile Christians—and that is most of us—could not join the Church before Peter’s meeting with Cornelius. Thanks to these events, we too have a recognized place at God’s table. You might say that Cornelius is the father of us all. For that we should give thanks.
But the second and even more important thing for us to notice is how unpredictable the Holy Spirit can be.
Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem were accomplishing great things for God. They knew the resurrected Lord. They courageously proclaimed the gospel despite fierce opposition. They built up the Church, baptizing thousands of new members. They healed the sick. They distributed money and food to the poor. If ever there was a faithful Christian community under truly inspired leadership, surely it was the early Christian community in Jerusalem under the leadership of the apostles.
And still Peter and the others could not keep up with God. Peter resists when the voice in his vision explains that his assumptions about what is unclean are no longer operative. The believers with Peter are astounded that the Holy Spirit falls on Gentiles. The apostles in Jerusalem initially refuse to believe it.
Even that community under even those leaders falls into the trap of assuming that they know how God acts, that God will keep doing what God has always done in the past, that God works especially in and through them, and not through others.
They were wrong. God acted in a way that they did not expect among people they never thought to include.
If even Peter and the other apostles had trouble keeping up with God, how about us?
God works powerfully among us. We know Jesus. We hear the gospel. We build up the Church. We distribute money and food to the poor. We visit and pray for the sick. Sometimes miracles happen.
But our reading challenges us to do what Peter and the others had to do in their time, to open ourselves up to the surprising ways that God may be acting in our time. Our reading encourages us to look for God in unexpected places and to get on board with the unexpected things God is doing. As the prayer with which our service began says, our task is to love God “in all things,” not just in familiar things.
So here is a challenge for this week. Pay attention to what Jesus calls “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). Look for God’s hand at work in the world around us. Look for God especially in unexpected places. Allow yourself to be surprised by God.
And pray about what you see. Pray that we who are the people of God will have the faith and the courage and the love to praise God for working even in those places and among those people that we might not expect. Pray that we can keep up with the God who moves ahead of us, who does new and unexpected things all the time, whose Spirit rushes through all of creation, who calls us onward and upward to ever new and expanding life in him. Pray that we can follow where God leads.
In the name of our risen Lord and of his Holy Spirit. Amen.