Peter, Cornelius, and Evangelical Transphobia

Peter, Cornelius, and Evangelical Transphobia April 22, 2023

“God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean”

—Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:28)

Conversion stories

When I was kid, my family used to listen to a radio drama called Unshackled! every Sunday night on our drive home from Sunday night church. Unshackled! is the longest-running radio drama in history, having first aired on September 23, 1950, and continuing to this day. To date, over 3,700 episodes have been produced. Each half-hour episode dramatizes a real-life conversion testimony. The show is so long-running that many of the conversion stories involve individuals who converted while listening to an episode of the show.

Photo by Oriel Frankie Ashcroft / Pexels

Other episodes involve individuals who have visited Pacific Garden Mission, the Christian homeless shelter in Chicago that produces the show. Like its radio drama Unshackled!, Pacific Garden Mission is the oldest, continuously operating rescue mission in the country. It was founded in 1877 and continues to this day. Its name was first suggested by the famous evangelist D. L. Moody. And it’s the place where another famous evangelist, the major league baseball player Billy Sunday, was converted—a conversion story that was, of course, made into an episode of Unshackled!

Even though the show is in many ways formulaic—and its format is from an outdated era—there is something about conversion stories that capture our imaginations. When it comes to conversion stories, the more dramatic, the better.

The Pacific Garden Mission’s men’s choir used to visit my home church about once every year or so to sing on a Sunday night. Many of the men in the choir had previously been involved in gangs, imprisoned, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. And so the testimonies they would share would have us on the edge of our pews. The more depraved their life was before meeting Jesus, the more dramatic their conversion story seemed. And, because of their dramatic testimonies, the choir’s renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “Victory in Jesus” were especially powerful.

Conversion stories in Acts

In the book of Acts, Luke offers us a number of dramatic conversion stories. Luke tells of the conversion stories of Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Paul the great persecutor of Christians. Each conversion story has seemed more dramatic than the one before it. But they’ve all been building to the conversion story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. It is through Cornelius’s conversion that the desire of God is finally exposed to the early church—and to us as readers.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus had told his disciples just before he ascended: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost, Peter interprets what’s happening as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy: that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people in the last days and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

So we’ve had early indications in Acts that God’s desire is that all people, from every nation under the sun, be saved. But the full extent of that desire has not been exposed until Cornelius’s conversion in Acts 10. Cornelius’s conversion will finally force the early church to reckon with God’s desire to incorporate Gentiles into God’s people.

We had a foreshadowing of this desire with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. But that was at the hands of the deacon Philip rather than the apostle Peter. Now the apostle Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said he would build his church, is confronted with the reality of God’s desire for the Gentiles. And this means that before we get to the story of Cornelius’s conversion, we must first encounter the story of Peter’s conversion.

Peter’s and Cornelius’s Conversions in Acts 10

Peter’s conversion story is unlike any of the others we’ve encountered. Peter was one of Jesus’s closest disciples, and now as one of the twelve apostles, he’s a leader of the young church. He has already been imprisoned and beaten for preaching the gospel. So it isn’t as though he needs to be converted from a life of sin and godlessness. His conversion story would not be the best candidate for an episode of Unshackled!, in other words. And yet it is every bit as dramatic as any episode of Unshackled! or any other conversion story in Acts.

Peter is not converted from a life of sin to a life of godliness. Instead, he’s converted from a life of exclusion to a life of embrace. And this conversion happens at the instigation of a God who can no longer wait to embrace the Gentile people.

Just as God had appeared to both Saul and the believer Ananias of Damascus in order to arrange their encounter, God now appears to both Cornelius and Peter to arrange their encounter. And so our story begins by introducing Cornelius: “In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment” (10:1).

It is easy for us to gloss over these details, but they are quite revelatory. Cornelius’s occupation as a centurion indicates that he was a commander of a hundred men in the military of the empire that was occupying Peter’s homeland of Judea. According to Mikeal Parsons, “Centurions were drawn from the ranks of enlisted soldiers, were Roman citizens, were well paid, and . . . were Gentiles” (Acts, 142).

Luke tells us that, despite Cornelius’s occupation, “He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God” (10:2). In other words, he was what Jews might have considered a “God-fearing” Gentile. But he was still very much a Gentile and still very much a representative of the occupying empire.

And yet he is also a man with a name that is known by God. And God, through an angel, calls out to him by name: “Cornelius!”

“What is it, sir?” Cornelius responds.

The angel informs him: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have been received by God as an offering!” (10:4).

This man who would never have been allowed to enter the Temple to offer a sacrifice is now told by God that his prayers and gifts to the poor have been received by God as an acceptable offering. So the angel gives Cornelius specific instructions about how to summon Peter, which Cornelius follows, despite not being told who Peter is or why he should summon him.

In order to ensure that Peter will respond favorably to Cornelius’s summons, God speaks to Peter the following day in a vision. While Peter is praying on the roof of Simon the tanner, he gets hungry and, as the meal is being prepared, he falls into a trance. In this trance, he sees “the sky open, and something like a large sheet [is] let down by its four corners” (10:11).

It’s been suggested that the four corners might represent the four corners of the earth, signifying that God is preparing Peter to take the gospel to “the ends of the earth,” fulfilling Jesus’s commission in Acts 1:8. But more significant than the description of the sheet is the description of what it contains: “all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds” (10:12). It contains a mixture of animals, some of which would have been considered clean and others unclean according to the Law of Moses. And yet the voice tells Peter, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them” (10:13).

“No, Lord!” Peter protests. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean” (10:14).

But the voice responds, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (10:15).

Peter might have responded, quite correctly, that it was not him but the Law of Moses that called these animals “unclean.” We sometimes forget when we read these stories that Peter didn’t have the New Testament, much less the book of Acts, in his Bible when this encounter took place. He was simply quoting his Scriptures, which at the time were the Scriptures, back to their divine author.

But God responds that God has had a conversion of sorts. God has made clean these previously unclean foods.

When did he do so? Peter might wonder. But the answer is right in front of him: in the life of Jesus, who fulfilled the Law.

Jesus had said repeatedly in his teaching, “You have heard that it is written in the Law . . . but I tell you . . .” Jesus had even berated the religious leaders for nullifying the Word of God by their traditions, telling the crowds: “All of you listen and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:14–15).

When the disciples, including Peter, later ask Jesus what he means, Jesus replies, “Don’t you understand either? Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer” (Mark 7:18–19).

Mark explains, “By saying this, [Jesus] declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.”

But here’s old Peter once again protesting, “No, Lord! I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.”

And so, the Lord repeats himself three times to get Peter’s attention (perhaps reminding him of the three times he denied Jesus). Then immediately the sheet is taken back to heaven and the vision ends, leaving Peter to wonder about its meaning.

As he’s still pondering it, the men sent by Cornelius arrive and call for Peter. Just in case Peter doesn’t yet get the point of the vision, the Holy Spirit tells him plainly: “Three men have come looking for you. Get up, go downstairs, and go with them without hesitation. Don’t worry, for I have sent them” (10:19–20).

This time Peter obeys immediately and greets the men, asking them why they’ve come. They reply, “We were sent by Cornelius, a Roman officer. He is a devout and God-fearing man, well respected by all the Jews. A holy angel instructed him to summon you to his house so that he can hear your message” (10:22).

Peter, still not yet sure the meaning of his vision, nevertheless shows a small sign that he’s beginning to understand. He invites these Gentiles into the house—where he is a guest of Simon the tanner—to be his guests as well.

Some conversions, like Paul’s, are sudden and dramatic. Others, like Peter’s, are a process that involves stops and starts, denials and affirmations, protests and obedience, stubbornness and openness.

Peter will soon enough learn the meaning of his vision. Here’s a hint: It’s not about food; it’s about people. God, through the Holy Spirit, is bursting through previous walls of exclusion to reach those God desires to save and embrace. The question for Peter is whether to get up and follow the Spirit in obedience and in love.

Peter takes yet another step. He travels with Cornelius’s messengers and some of Peter’s fellow Christian brothers to Caesarea. There Cornelius—along with some of his relatives and close friends—is waiting for Peter. Upon meeting, Cornelius immediately falls to his feet to worship Peter, but Peter pulls him up and says, “Stand up! I’m a human being just like you!” (10:26).

Then, as they enter Cornelius’s house, where many others are assembled, Peter makes this striking statement: “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you” (10:28). This is a fairly harsh statement, suggesting that Peter is still a fairly conservative biblical separatist.

But then he goes on to say this: “But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean” (10:28). While Peter’s separatism may have served a purpose in the past—namely, to distinguish God’s people from the surrounding nations—God tells Peter that it is no longer in effect.

If God’s character is unchanging, what circumstances have changed that have resulted in God overruling God’s prior prohibition? Once again, the answer is Jesus, who fulfilled the Law.

After retelling his story of how an angel spoke to him, Cornelius eagerly asks Peter to explain what has changed. What is God up to? Why has he arranged for this Jewish fisherman to meet with this Roman soldier? “Now we are all here,” Cornelius says, “waiting before God to hear the message the Lord has given you” (10:33).

Peter begins with a testimony of the conversion happening in his own life right at that very moment. In light of Cornelius’s testimony, Peter replies, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation [God] accepts those who fear [God] and do what is right” (10:35).

How does he see this so clearly? He’s looking right at Cornelius, a Gentile Roman centurion whom God has gone out of the way to reach through Peter.

Peter then describes the change in circumstances—historic, cosmic, earth-shattering change in circumstances—that we call gospel for shorthand: “This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel—that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (36).

This change in reality has a name: Jesus of Nazareth. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled the law.

But before Peter is even done explaining this new reality to Cornelius and his friends and family, the Holy Spirit cuts in to ratify God’s ruling. “Even as Peter [is] saying these things,” Luke writes, “the Holy Spirit [falls] upon all who [are] listening to the message” (10:44). Even though Peter’s fellow Jewish-Christian believers likely agree with Peter’s message, they are nevertheless “amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit [has] been poured out on the Gentiles, too” (10:45).

But this gift is undeniable, as the Gentiles are speaking in tongues and praising God. So Peter asks the same question the Ethiopian eunuch had asked Philip: “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” (10:47).

There is nothing Peter and his Jewish-Christians friends can do but baptize these new believers into the name of this new reality, Jesus Christ. And then they begin practicing this new reality right away by staying with Cornelius and his household for several days—thereby demonstrating that the old law is no longer in effect.

This is, indeed, a dramatic conversion story. 

But even more than the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family, this is a conversion of the apostle Peter to a new way of seeing the world and understanding the gospel—even as he’s the one called to proclaim it.

Peter has become unshackled in order to embrace those he had previously excluded.

Evangelical Conversion from Exclusion to Embrace

The question for us today, then, is this: Who are the Corneliuses in our own time and place? Who are those people who—despite often being devout, God-fearing people, who give generously to the poor and pray regularly to God—we still exclude as though they are unclean?

Last week I received a fundraising letter from the current president of the Christian university where I went to seminary. It began this way:

Dear David,

It says much about the state of our culture when people barely flinch at a man proudly and confidently claiming to be a woman (or whatever identity happens to be the trend of the month) simply because he declares it to be so.

With such flippant and dismissive language, the university president goes on to describe transgender people as evidence of a culture that has become “increasingly antagonistic to the gospel.” He cites transgender people as evidence of a generation that “denies the existence of the Creator and His laws.” He even implies that transgender identity is somehow to blame for the recent shooting at a Christian school in Tennessee. In contrast, the university president commends his own university for looking for answers to issues facing our society in “God’s unchanging Word.”

While this president’s language is clearly designed to rile up the donation base so they will give to the university, what I hear underneath the rhetoric is Peter’s plea: No, Lord! I have never associated with those the Bible calls unclean.

As with Peter, so too this university president can point to passages in the biblical law that suggest, for example, that those with altered sexual organs are not to enter the temple (Deut. 23:1). Similarly, he seems to believe that transgender people should be excluded from the faithful.

But God has already told Peter what he tells this university president and each of us today: Don’t call someone unclean if I have made them clean! Unshackle your mind so that you can embrace rather than excluding people you don’t understand or who are different from you.

As Peter declared to Cornelius: “God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean.” 

We might wonder when God declared all people clean. But, as with Peter, the answer is right in front of us: in the life of Jesus, who fulfilled the Law.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul describes how he had to directly oppose Peter to his face in Antioch for doing something Paul describes as “very wrong” (Gal. 2:11). Peter had been eating with uncircumcised Gentiles, but when some of the believers from Jerusalem came to Antioch, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles, for fear of criticism from the believers from Jerusalem. Paul calls Peter out for his hypocrisy and for abandoning “the truth of the gospel message” (Gal. 2:13–14).

Paul describes the truth of the gospel this way: “We know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law” (Gal. 2:16).

After reasoning through the relationship between the law and the gospel, Paul concludes this way: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26–28).

Peter wanted to continue acting like there was Jew and Gentile in Christ, but Jesus said no

American slave owners wanted to continue acting like there was slave and free in Christ, but Jesus said no

And now this university president wants to continue acting like there is male and female in Christ, but Jesus says no.

According to Jesus, our relationship with God is not determined by our gender identity. Whether cisgender, transgender, or nonbinary, we “are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

As with Peter and this university president, we too might still find it difficult to see the world through this new reality named Jesus. We might be tempted to respond, No, Lord! Unclean!

But to our cry of No, Lord, unclean!, God responds, No, child, unshackled! 

May God unshackle our minds so that we, like Peter, can “see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.” So that we, like Peter, can proclaim, “God has shown [us] that [we] should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean.” And rather than objecting to God’s work among those who are different from us, we can marvel at the reality of the gospel: God does indeed accept those of every nation and every gender who fear God and do what is right.

May we stand amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out on our transgender and non-binary neighbors, just as the Spirit was poured out on eunuchs and Gentiles. And rather than condemning them, may we invite them to our table to break bread, rejoicing at the new world God’s Spirit is creating among us and inviting us all to inhabit—together.

About David C Cramer
David C. Cramer is teaching pastor at Keller Park Church in South Bend, Indiana, and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. He is co-author of A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence (Baker Academic, 2022). You can read more about the author here.
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