10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation,[c] for I have sent them.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests.
The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour,[d] and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
11 Now the apostles and the brothers[e] who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party[f] criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Dear Fellow Redeemed:
Who was I that I could stand in God's way? That’s Peter’s statement that comes toward the end of our text. He says it to fellow brothers who have questioned the scope of his outreach (something he would have been inclined to do himself shortly before). They were calling him to account for who he was associating with as he shared the Gospel message. It’s a humble person who makes that statement, isn’t it? Who was I to think…something should be one way if God is telling me it should be another - is what he really means. Who was I that I could stand in God's way?
We often repeat St. Paul’s statement to Timothy, that God our Savior, 4 [who] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). All people- Our text takes place in a time of transition. Throughout Old Testament times, through Abraham’s family, and through the promise of the Savior to come in that family, people (all of whom inherit a sinful nature) were able to have God’s mercy - the forgiveness of their sins. Was it always to be that way - that salvation was to be sought through connection with that particular earthly family? A lot of Jews thought so - even ones in the New Testament era, who had come to believe Jesus to be the promised Savior.
Cornelius is a Gentile at Caesarea, who has come to know the God of the Jews - the true God. He is a true believer in the Savior Who is to come in Abraham’s line (like were all god-fearing Jews). St. Luke describes him as a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. God even sends him a vision confirming that his prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before [Him]. Cornelius believes what Old Testament Jews believed - the Messianic faith through which God would give His mercy.
The Church was still working out what was going to constitute a Christian, though. A Jewish believer in Jesus is a Christian. A Gentile convert to Judaism who believes in Jesus is a Christian. What about someone who has no connection to Judaism whatsoever, and has come to believe in Jesus, though? Is that person a Christian? That became a controversial point in the early church. We’re going to get an answer to that question in this text.
As we said, Cornelius sees a vision from the Lord. An angel tells him to send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.
Meanwhile, St. Peter, while praying, falls into a trance. God is showing him something. He sees the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it [are] all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. A voice says to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
This is significant because Jews didn’t eat the kinds of animals that were in this great descending sheet. He’s being told not to act like a Jew. He is supposed to go against everything he’s known from his youth (certain animals are unclean, and forbidden to be eaten). He protests about being asked to do something that is… “common” like this, “unclean” even. The voice responds: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Peter is being asked to shift his thinking almost as much as Saul had been asked to do so in our text a couple of weeks ago. Three times this thing happens in the vision!
Peter is Perplexed. He’s sitting there, pondering the vision. And the Holy Spirit tells him that he must go down to receive visitors sent by Him. They tell of Cornelius, and of his being directed by a holy angel to send for [Peter] to come to his house [so that he might] hear what [he has] to say.”
Peter goes with them the next day; that’s how far his thinking has already shifted. At Caesarea, Cornelius is waiting with relatives and close friends - many persons gathered, Luke says. Peter begins with the elephant in the room: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation…” But there’s more to it than that now. He goes on: but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Quite a transformation! He’s gone from a gentle protest about being told by the Lord to do something un-Jew-like, to this new recognition that the Christian message he’s proclaiming falls outside of the closed-ness of Judaism. The closed-ness was important before, for preserving the line of the Savior; but things have proceeded in a new direction now. In the era of Jesus, God doesn’t consider (and doesn’t want Peter to consider) anyone to be excluded from that message and from that fellowship.
So, here he is, in this new reality. It’s hard for us to imagine the significance of this to him. He has been thinking in terms of reaching the Jews; now he’s thinking in terms of reaching the world. Cornelius tells him the story of a man standing before him in bright clothing while he was praying, telling him that God is hearing him, and that he should send for Peter. And he has gathered family and friends to hear all that [Peter has] been commanded by the Lord.
So, Peter preaches to this new crowd. He leads with a brand new realization: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. And then, he goes on to talk about Jesus. He reminds them that John had come with his baptism. He had been pointing to Jesus’ coming (and literally pointing Him out to the people, saying at least one time: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world - John 1:29)! Peter continues, pointing to the Messianic deeds that Jesus had done among them, having been anointed with the Holy Spirit, and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him, he says.
Of course, what these Old Testament-minded believers really need to know is that the Promised One they’ve been believing in, who brings God’s mercy to sinners is Jesus. This righteous one’s death has made payment for sins. As evidence of it, God raised Him on the third day and made Him appear to Peter and other witnesses. “He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
And then, the real fireworks happen. If there had still been any lingering question in Peter’s mind about all of this (we know there apparently was in the minds of the other Jews who were with him, because they were amazed when they saw what happened next) the undeniable thing happens. The thing that happened on Pentecost to all of the devout Jews who had heard Peter’s Gospel preaching happens. The Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word, Luke writes. The gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. The same tongues-speaking and praising of God is going on. And just like in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, whose Christian faith was evident, the apostle (Peter in this case) can’t think of any reason not to baptize them in the fashion of real Christians, because that’s what they are! They don’t look and act like Jews; but they are Christians in whom the Spirit has created faith through the preaching of the Gospel. Through the same Baptism, they’re to be received into God’s family.
In the text about Saul a few weeks ago, one of the questions was: could the Church handle…this? In that case, could they handle putting their arms around someone who had been opposing them in such a damaging way? Remember that Ananias had been hesitant when God told him to go and restore Saul’s sight and basically, start treating him like a brother. We had said it came down to a matter of trust in the Lord. He was the one leading them to do this. Could they trust that He would protect them even in something that seemed to them so dangerous? Could they trust that God knows what He’s doing, and that if He was saying it, it must be the right thing? Of course, the answer was yes. God had very beneficial plans for Saul that no human would be able to anticipate. He knows what He’s doing.
Maybe you see a similarity between that, and this text. I do. Luke writes: Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” So, again, could the Church expand its thinking on a matter like this (being led by the Lord to do so)? Could they put their arms around the Gentiles, considering them equal to themselves as Christian brothers and sisters even though they hadn’t entered through Judaism?
That statement from St. Peter that began our sermon this morning looms large here: Who was I that I could stand in God's way? It comes after he has told the whole story to them about his vision of the sheet with the “common” animals, and about the Spirit’s command that he make no distinction (not only about eating, but about people who were being sent to him). He told them about going to Caesarea, and about hearing Cornelius’ story. And he told them about the Spirit’s coming upon those Gentiles in the same way He had come upon them in the beginning. Who was Peter, that he could stand in God’s way? He would have to know more than God, wouldn’t he? He would have to be above God.
What a smart angle for St. Peter to take in this discussion. We can’t be wrong if we’re following the way the Lord has directed. So then, why is it so difficult for us to avoid hesitating in the same way as the circumcision group when we think of opening our arms to those who make us uncomfortable - people who don’t think like us? Do we know more than God, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth? Has He made a mistake? Is His desire unrealistic, or unjustified, or naive? Are there some that even He can’t reach? Should He have capped His kingdom at a certain number? I’m leaving this open to cover all different kinds of prejudices we might have. All of them must fall away at the statement that God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. The message of God’s grace in Jesus the Christ is for every person in this world. When you and I have determined to limit it in some way (even because of fear or discomfort), we would have been well-served to think of Peter’s statement: Who was I that I could stand in God's way? Yes, who was I? Who am I? Am I not a sinner like all other people, deserving only of hell’s torment? Was God’s mercy less necessary to me than to others? You and I need to hear Peter’s statement just as much as the circumcision group, don’t we? No doubt it brought feelings of guilt to them as they said - in a new realization: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
In our guilt we cling to the Christ, Who sought out the woman at the well - a Gentile, a woman of ill-repute. We cling to the Christ, Who praised the centurion whose servant was sick, of whom He said, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” We cling to the one Who gathered to Himself Matthew the Tax Collector, and Who made a point of reaching out Tax Collectors and others who were considered unreachable. He did perfectly the thing at which we have failed. He loved every single person with a perfect love that desires to include them in His kingdom of mercy. No one made Him so uncomfortable that He would refuse him. When Peter talks about standing in God’s way - God’s way is bringing the Gospel message to every person in the world. God’s way is telling every person that no matter how guilty he or she feels, God longs to forgive them for Jesus’ sake, and to restore them to Himself. He longs to forgive you. He has done so. He gathers you to His Table this morning to assure you that you are His very own. God wants you to be saved. You are in Christ. Amen.