Acts 10 (excerpts)
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
As they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. The Spirit said to Peter, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”
They came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
Then Peter began to speak to them: “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. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
It’s inevitable, really. It happens to all of us in different ways from time to time throughout our lives. I’m talking about the reversal. You’re apparent, and you raised your child from infancy, always teaching them, always explaining life and the way things work to them, and then suddenly, one day they’re teaching you something you never new. Or you’re a supervisor, a manager, and one day one of your trainees shows you how to do something better than you ever could. Or you’re a teacher, instructor, professor in academia, and one day one of your students offers a fresh new insight that had never dawned on you before in all of your years of experience.
The reversal in those cases is a bit bittersweet – because really, who ever enjoys being moved to second chair when you’d always been in the first chair up till then? – but at least there’s a sense of satisfaction, of pride, sometimes even some joy in it, because it means you’d done your job of teaching them well, and really, that’s the way things are supposed to be in both the micro- and macro- of human existence – “I must decrease so that you can increase,” as has been said. Those kinds of reversals are expected.
The unexpected ones feel different, though. They’re the ones where the reversal comes entirely out of the blue. Where the one teaching you some lesson isn’t anyone you’d ever imagine. The teacher is someone unexpected, or it happens in a surprising way or setting. That’s the kind of reversal we see in this reading from Acts today.
This is an event that happed after Pentecost, which we’ll observe in two weeks. I’m not sure why the Lectionary bounces around chronologically here, but on Pentecost, we see Jesus’ disciples flowing out into the streets in Jerusalem, speaking in tongues, and Peter speaking out, proclaiming the gospel to the Jewish pilgrims there for the religious holiday, and proclaiming to them that Jesus was the messiah.
As we heard, when this story begins Peter has had this strange vision, three times in fact, in which God tells him to not consider anything unclean and unacceptable to God, even something the scriptures, the Law, declared to be unclean, if God declares it to be clean and acceptable. Peter probably wasn’t completely certain what this vision was all about, or how it might apply to him in the moment. He was probably still trying to understand its implications when Cornelius’ servants arrived looking for him. They ask Peter to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea – a good Gentile, we’re told, but a Gentile nonetheless, and maybe even worse, a Gentile who was part of the Roman Empire’s occupying military force – surely, someone the Law would consider unclean to a good, devout Jew as Peter and pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples were.
Apparently, Peter was able to at least make some immediate connection between his vision and his current circumstances, though, since he invited these unclean Gentiles to spend the night there, at the house, recognizing that offering hospitality to others is more important than maintaining rules of ritual purity.
When they did arrive in Caesarea, even though Cornelius had sent for Peter, to learn from him, the reverse actually happened – Peter learned by listening to Cornelius, that the message of the gospel isn’t just for Jewish ears, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for Jewish hearts, but for Gentiles, too. And just as Phillip came to understand the universality of the Kingdom of God in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, now here Peter learns the same thing. Just as at Pentecost, Peter ends up preaching, and people are again speaking in tongues – but where on Pentecost, it was the speaking in tongues that brought the audience to hear Peter’s preaching, and it was his preaching that led many of those listeners to follow Jesus; here, in Caesarea, Peter says that it’s him who’s learned something. And the speaking in tongues comes only afterward. In this story, God uses a very unlikely and surprising person to teach Peter an important lesson about the kingdom and the gospel – that there is no one who God considers unclean – that all people are God’s people; that all people are loved by God, that all people – all people – are created in God’s image, and dwelt within by God.
It wasn’t anything new for God to teach things to people in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, with the teacher becoming the student, and the new teacher being someone from completely out in left field. Even Jesus himself experienced this, in his surprising, even shocking, experience of being schooled by the Syrophoenician woman who taught Jesus that his mission was to Jew and Gentile alike.
I’ve come to think that this is God’s favorite manner of revelation, because its very outrageousness and surprise shakes us out of our assumptions and our complacency enough to actually be able to see and understand the message God has in mind. It’s easy to miss, or even intentionally ignore, some important but challenging message delivered in a way that’s too conventional, too expected, too polite. The scriptural account of God’s actions in human existence seems to be a strong witness to the idea that important messages like that often need to be conveyed in ways that are unexpected or even shocking, whether in Peter’s time or in our own.
If that’s true, then who in our own lives might God be using to speak some truth to us? What unexpected people, situations, what unexpected ways might God be using to try to expand our own understanding about God and the nature of God’s kingdom? I mean, most of us can imagine experiencing an encounter with the divine on some majestic mountaintop, or in the middle of an old-growth forest, or while watching some breathtaking sunset on a deserted beach. That’s where we expect to find God. But what if the reality is more often that God is in the unexpected? What if God is trying to speak to us through people and situations that would shock us to even imagine? What if God is less about the beauty of the rain forest and more about the shock of the reversal?
I invite you to think about the people you know, in whatever way, large or small. And imagine the person, or people, that you’d consider the least likely candidate for God to use to teach you something important. Now ask yourself, what if God actually is using that person to try to break through to you – and if so, what might that something be? Recognize that unlikely person is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image every bit as much as you, that they illustrate some particular facet of the multifaceted image of God just as much as you. Consider what surprising, unexpected insight God might want you to learn from them.
It’s an important, humbling exercise that we should all do for ourselves as individual Christians, but also in a collective sense, as the church. Even we Presbyterians, who place a high value on things being done “decently and in order” have to admit that so often, God is the God of the reversal. The unexpected. the unorthodox; the indecent and disorderly. The God of “we’ve never done it that way before;” the God of “well that would be different;” the God of “I’d never thought of it that way before.” Because of the very outrageous, unexpected way that God dwelt among us as one of us, and that God reconciles with us, we should always remember that God might very well be trying to do something unexpected at any time, in any way. Maybe sometime this month. Maybe this week. Maybe even yet today. The idea that God is the God of the unexpected, the God of the reversal, is good news for all of us because it means then that we can have hope in all things, in all situations, even when the odds don’t seem to be in our favor. It’s good news for us because the most powerful ways that God shows us how loved and precious we are so often revealed to us in the unexpected, in the reversal. Our God is indeed the God of the great reversal. Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch learned that. Peter and Corneilus learned that. And, with God’s help, so will we.
Thanks be to God.