Opening The Old Testament
A Christ for All: Easter Reflections on Acts 10:34-43
Upon arriving in Caesarea, Cornelius greets him with an act of worship, as if Peter himself were some sort of divine being, but Peter, no doubt embarrassed by the man, demands that he "stand up; I am only a mortal" (10:26). Cornelius invites Peter into his house where "many had assembled." So Peter speaks, and his sermon, for surely that is what it is, reflects his emerging understanding of what had been revealed to him back in Joppa.
"You do understand how it is forbidden a Jew to associate with or to visit a person of another race" (10:28). One might at this point imagine a good bit of perplexed muttering rippling through the crowd, a crowd made up of many Jews and at least some Gentiles. We can hardly know whether or not Cornelius himself has been consorting with Jews personally, and they with him, though it seems highly likely that he has done so. Peter has made it plain that such relationships are in fact forbidden to Jews. Yet, here he is!
And he continues, "But God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean" (10:28). And with that theological claim the separation of Jew and Gentile ends. Note what has happened. Peter's vision in Joppa was about much more than what he now can or cannot eat; the laws of kosher are not the only thing meant by the vision of the animals. For Peter, and for Christianity henceforth, no persons are ever to be excluded on the basis of race or human-devised distinctions. In that assembly in Caesarea we catch our first real glimpse of the rule of God on the earth as Peter and Cornelius and two slaves and another soldier and some members of the local Jewish community stand and listen together to a sermon from Peter that announces the end of human separation in Christ.
He seals the sermon's theme with the following hallowed words: "In truth, I am grasping (beginning to understand) that God is no respecter of appearances (shows no partiality). Rather in every nation the one who fears God and acts righteously is acceptable to him" (10:34-35). Thus, Cornelius, a Roman soldier and a Gentile, stands in the same relationship to God as does Peter, as do those lowly slaves, as does the Jewish assembly. And the reason that is so is because though "they put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree, God raised him on the third day" (10:39-40). And that is one of the reasons we celebrate Easter with lilies and trumpets and eggs and candy and the Hallelujah Chorus. Because God has no interest, does not recognize, distinctions and differences that we create on the earth. Paul had it right, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Gal. 3:28). In Christ, there is neither Republican nor Democrat, citizen nor undocumented visitor, gay nor straight, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Now there is a reason to sing on Easter!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.