Acts 10:34, NRSV: Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Luke’s narrative of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is not a story of Cornelius’ conversion, but a story of Peter’s Liberation. The God-fearing and just Cornelius waits for Peter’s awakening so that he may receive the good news of God’s salvation. Are there God-fearing and just people in the world waiting as Cornelius waits? Do those today who assume the messianic title Christ (Christian) stand fully awake as Peter with a message of reconciliation and peace to a world that becomes increasingly alienated?
The author of Luke/Acts sets out to tell the story about the Gospel as the only hope for a chaotic world. Luke makes the reader aware that this good news of God’s salvation cannot remain locked up within a religious superstructure that reduces the Gospel to cultic taboos and ritualistic requirements that close out anyone who does not conform to these things. The Christ event, according to Luke, defines the very nature and purpose of history. It recapitulates the life of the whole world in one act of God through Messiah who establishes God’s covenant of justice so that “in every nation anyone who does what is right is acceptable” to God. Luke’s message is one of radical inclusiveness—particularly of those least esteemed by the religious/social systems of their day. Only Luke begins with a narrative of the birth of Jesus Messiah, and utilizes hymns of celebration for God’s salvation of the poor, the humble, the besieged nation of Israel, and the non-Israelite. Only Luke includes Mary among the disciples; only Luke has stories such as the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (Luke 15), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–33), the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14); all showing how God goes for those that religion and society excludes.
In reinforcing the deep implications of this point, it is very important to look more closely at the memory text for this lesson. The Greek New Testament text reads thus: “Concerning truth, I understand that God is not one who shows partiality, but in every nation, the one who fears him and does works of justice is acceptable to him.” Very importantly, the word translated righteousness literally means justice.
Doing justice is an overarching theme in Luke/Acts. Only Luke has Jesus beginning his ministry by declaring his manifesto from Isaiah the Hebrew preacher of justice: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, the let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Fearing God and doing justice is precisely how Luke describes Cornelius: “a devout man who feared God” and “gave alms generously to the people” (Acts 10:2). Cornelius was a Gentile whom the average Jew of that day saw as unworthy of receiving the promise of the Gospel simply because he was not a practicing Jew. It did not matter that he had devoted his life to God and to God’s justice. It is easy for the present reader of Luke’s account to take for granted the preaching of the gospel to everyone who will listen. This was not so in Luke’s day. Jews believed that only they were the people of God and the heirs of the Abrahamic promise. Anyone could access this blessing as long as they become fully practicing Jews. Indeed today, many still have this attitude in the practice of their religion, so that religious tradition today is the most profound demonstration of tribalism and divisiveness. But the early Church opposed this very attitude. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9–16), which prepared him to go to Cornelius, underscores this opposition.
In the story of Cornelius’ reception of the Holy Spirit, the focus is not Cornelius; rather, the focus is Peter. Cornelius is not the one in need of conversion, it is Peter the apostle—prominent among the “twelve.” Notwithstanding that many have labeled the book of Acts as the Acts of Paul (because Luke’s ultimate concern is with the spread of the Gospel outside of Jerusalem, to the whole world, from the preaching of Jews to the conversion of non-Jews), in the most significant sense, Peter is the liberated/liberator of the narrative. It is at the point at which the angel unlocks the prison door and releases Peter (Acts 12:1–18) that the narrative takes up singular focus on the work of Paul to the Gentiles:
A light shone in the cell,
Peter was awakened,
and the chains fell off his wrist (Acts 12:7)
That miraculous undoing of the prison is a powerful symbol of the release of the Gospel to the Gentiles through the spiritual liberation of Peter. Luke uses the ministry of Peter to portray the journey of the Church—a Jewish movement embracing the coming of Messiah as a spiritual rather than religious/political event. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles begins in Antioch, but it is Peter who, after his visionary enlightenment, convinces the Jerusalem Church that the gospel to the Gentiles is according to the just providence of God. It is as a result of this conviction that the Jerusalem church sends Barnabas to validate and organize the growing Gentile Jesus-followers, thus establishing the first Gentile church—the church at Antioch (Acts 11:1–26). Peter’s liberation signifies the liberation of the Church and the dissemination of the Gospel of peace and reconciliation. “But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has brought both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14).
A Religion(less) Church?
It is important to underscore that ultimately the conversion of the Gentiles by the Jewish Jesus-followers was not a conversion to a Judaism requiring them to conform to Jewish practices (contrary to the desires of many Jewish believers [See Acts 15:1–29]). Neither was it a signal of the start of a new religion. The early Church comprised believers who were on the one hand practicing Jews, and on the other God-fearing Gentiles who had no interest in Jewish practices. In a strict sense both these groups underwent deep spiritual transformation in order to worship and minister together in spite of their radical diversity. The conversion of the Gentiles was a conversion to God who is One—a turning away from idolatry in all its divisive forms, and all manner of immorality—greed, self-gratification and oppressive structures that characterized life in the Greco-Roman empire. As Paul puts it, because God is One, there cannot be one God for Jews and one for Gentiles. Rather God is One and will grant the spirit to both Jews and Gentiles (See Romans 3:29–30). As Peter puts it in his defense to the Jerusalem church, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)
In as much as a world religion, Christianity, emerges from this great spiritual awakening of the first century, Christianity has in many places become the very thing against which the early Church fought. When Christianity became the Roman state religion, it suppressed all other religions including Judaism. Luke’s narrative heralds a gathering together of a divided world through Christ—“a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). According to Luke, God liberates Israel from her oppressors so that Israel may become a light to the world (See Luke 1:67–79). Though Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter to the Jews (Galatians 2:8), it is Peter who initiates the spread of the Gospel, because it is he (among many others), not Paul, who receives anointing at Pentecost. Having been liberated from his own divisive prejudices, Peter takes up the God-given responsibility and leads the initiative to break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles making possible a movement of diversity—a powerful witness to God’s reconciling Grace.
Liberation of the Church?
It is the responsibility of the church today to initiate the liberation of a world in chaos. But it has no power to do this if it remains shackled to the divisive prejudices that is the very problem that this world faces. There are many today who fear God and practice justice that the Church does not reach because it judges these people unworthy in one form or another. “America has become a new missionary frontier.”1 Studies show that America’s unchurched population is the largest mission field in the English-speaking world and the fifth largest globally. Among the unchurched are children and grandchildren of faithful church goers and church leaders who believe that the church is not Christian. Yet among these non-churchgoers is a keen and rising interest in spirituality.2 This scenario is becoming increasing so in many other parts of the world. In defending before the Church his unqualified outreach to the “unworthy/unclean” Gentiles, Peter asks: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed, who was I that I could hinder God?” The church heeded the Spirit’s prompting through Peter and began perhaps the most unifying movement in history.
Where does the church stand today? Some say that it needs “revival and reformation.” If we are to take Peter’s ministry as the paradigm, perhaps what it needs is liberation.
Notes & References:
1. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), 85.
2. Leslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda (London: SPCK, 1985), 242.
Olive Hemmings is professor of religion at Washington Adventist University.
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