Acts 10:1–23

Cornelius Calls for Peter
10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Peter’s Vision
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

My father had a number of prejudices, although he was not an overly prejudiced man. I think he liked to hang on to them simply to provoke discussion. When I was in seminary one of my roommates came with me to visit my family and when my father discovered that my friend, David, had grown up in France, he said, “I’m boycotting France. The damn French, we bailed them out of two world wars and they’re still not grateful!”

Another friend visited who sold steam power turbines for General Electric. My dad greeted Harry with, “I’m boycotting GE. I bought a GE dryer once and it was a piece of junk!”

These were rather superficial prejudices, but we can grow up with much more profound prejudices against nations or races or religions or sexes.

I have a brother-in-law from Somalia who grew up hearing fictional stories of the horrible things Jews in Israel do to Palestinian and Arab babies. Israeli children also hear terrible, fictional stories about what Arabs and Palestinians do to Jewish babies.

If you grew up in the racism of the US or under the apartheid of South Africa, chances are you grew up with your own racial prejudices. The racial prejudices in the US came out into the open this last year as videos showed white Americans what black Americans have always known to be true about the racial prejudice of some police. Tribes in African countries have prejudices against other tribes. Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants can grow up with strong prejudices against each other’s religion.

This morning I want us to look at the deep-seated racial prejudice Peter and the other disciples had against Samaritans and Gentiles and how in Acts 10 that prejudice was overcome.

To see how deep this prejudice was it is helpful to understand a bit about the Samaritans. By the time of Jesus, the prejudice of the Jews towards the Samaritans had lasted a thousand years.

The history of the Samaritans began with the breakup of King Solomon’s kingdom into the northern kingdom of Israel with Samaria the capitol city, and the southern kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capitol. For two hundred years the two kingdoms made alliances and broke them, fought against each other, made peace and then fought again.

Finally in 722 BC, Samaria was captured by the Assyrians. Thousands of Jews from the northern kingdom of Israel were deported and the country was repopulated with foreigners. The foreigners intermarried with the Jews who remained, which from the view of the Jews of Judah, made the Jews in the northern kingdom ritually unclean. They were put into the class of lepers and other outcasts.

There were centuries of history that separated the Jews and the Samaritans. In John 4:9 when John recorded the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman asked Jesus: (John 4:9) “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” John felt it necessary to insert an explanation for his readers, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.”

When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples to minister in his name, he told them: (Matthew 10:5) “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.”

In Luke 10, when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he needed an example of someone who was among the most despised by the religious establishment to be the one who helped the person in need. So Jesus chose a Samaritan for his parable to say that even a Samaritan is the true neighbor when he helps someone in need.

In Luke 17 when Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank Jesus, what is astounding is that this healed man was a Samaritan. Imagine that?

At the heart of Israel’s disdain for the Samaritans was the fact that they had contact with Gentiles and intermarried with them. That is why they were defiled.

So as bad as the Samaritans were, the Gentiles were even worse. The Gentiles are what made the Samaritans unclean.

Remember that Matthew, the writer of the gospel, was a tax collector and considered unclean because of his collaboration with the Roman occupiers and the resulting frequent contact with Gentiles. He was a religious outcast because of his association with non-Jews.

As religious Jews, Peter and his fellow disciples were forbidden to have any contact with Gentiles. If a Gentile entered a home, it was considered defiled until the evening. If milk was drawn from a cow by a Gentile or bread or olive oil was made by a Gentile, it was forbidden to eat or drink it.

The prejudice against Samaritans and Gentiles was deeply ingrained in Peter and yet in this chapter of Acts he went into the home of a Gentile, ate with him and stayed with him. How did Peter move all the way from his deep-seated prejudice against Samaritans and Gentiles to having fellowship and baptizing a Gentile into the family of God? How did Peter move so far away from what he had understood to be true?

It all started with Jesus. Jesus came to Peter as he was fishing and said, (Matthew 4:19) “Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people.”

Peter left his nets and followed Jesus and then proceeded to get an education. Jesus passed by Matthew, a tax collector, and told him to “follow me” and Matthew came to be one of Jesus’ disciples. There must have been discussion among the disciples at this invitation. Matthew was unclean because of his contact with Gentiles. Didn’t Jesus care about this?

Then Jesus went up to lepers who were unclean because of their disease and touched them, making him, by Jewish law, ritually unclean. A woman who was bleeding came to Jesus and touched him and he did not seem concerned that a ritually unclean woman had touched him, only that he wanted to know who had been healed.

One day Peter and the other disciples went to get some food and came back to find Jesus sitting and talking with a Samaritan woman by a well. What kind of a Jew was he? Didn’t he understand the rules?

Over the three years Peter was with Jesus his view of the law changed. He learned from Jesus that (Matthew 15:11) “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, violating the Pharisaic laws of what work was permitted on the Sabbath, Peter learned that (Mark 2:27) “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, Peter learned that it is not our religious affiliation that defines who we are but how we care for those in need.

His education continued after Jesus died, was raised to life, and ascended. When the believers fled into Samaria because of the persecution in Jerusalem, they took the good news of Jesus with them and Samaritans began to turn to become followers of Jesus.

“Could this be?” the disciples asked in Jerusalem when they received this word. “Is it possible that the good news of Jesus is meant for even the Samaritans?” So Peter and John went to Samaria to investigate the situation and prayed that these new believers would receive the Holy Spirit and then set off on a preaching tour of the areas they had formerly despised.

To show how far Peter had moved from the Pharisaic obedience to the law, Luke puts in the detail at the end of Acts 9 that Peter is staying at the home of Simon the tanner.

Someone who worked with hides of animals was considered unclean because they worked with dead animals. And yet here was Peter living with him, not just associating with him but living with him. This indicates that Peter had learned from Jesus and had moved beyond the laws of the Pharisees and was no longer bound by them.

Peter had come a long way from where he was when he first set out to follow Jesus but now Peter was to be stretched even further in a set of God-orchestrated events that led to Peter’s acceptance of the first Gentile believer among the followers of Jesus.

Because of the example of Jesus, Peter had moved away from the law of the Pharisees and was willing to associate with Jews who were considered to be unclean. But that is only a speed bump compared to the enormous wall Peter had to climb over to associate with and accept Gentiles into the kingdom of God.

An indication of how huge a step this was is the reaction of those in Jerusalem when they heard what had happened.

When he got back to Jerusalem there was a meeting of those critical of what Peter had done. (Acts 11:1-3)
The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

This was a huge deal in the early church and Peter led the way. How did Peter get to the point that he was willing to let go of his lifetime prejudice against Gentiles and baptize Cornelius and his household into the family of God?

Let me walk you through what Peter experienced and then we’ll look at the steps Peter took to break with this bedrock understanding of the earliest Jewish believers.

Peter’s part of this story began when he went up to the roof of Simon the tanner to pray in the afternoon.

Pious Jews prayed three times a day and Peter was in the habit of following this practice. Remember that it was on the way to the afternoon prayer time that Peter and John healed the man born lame who was begging at the gate called Beautiful. And it was at this time of prayer that Peter went up to the roof of the home of Simon the tanner to pray.

He was hungry and as he prayed he received a vision.
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

There is a detailed list in the Law of Moses of what Jews were permitted to eat. (Leviticus 11:1) “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “Say to the Israelites:” and then the Lord proceeded to set out regulations that allowed Israel to know what they could and could not eat.

Camels, rabbits, and pigs were forbidden. Lobsters, clams, oysters and all other sea creatures without fins and scales were to be viewed as detestable. Eagles, vultures, ravens, owls, hawks, ospreys, storks, herons and bats were off limits. It was ok to eat locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers, but all other crawling insects were forbidden. Weasels, rats, lizards and snakes were not permitted.

All his life Peter had kept away from these forbidden sources of food and now they appeared in a vision on a sheet with God telling him to go ahead and eat them.

Think of a Hindu being told to eat beef after a lifetime of viewing cows as sacred animals. Think of a pious Muslim being told to eat pork when even the thought of eating pork is revolting.

Three times Peter had this vision and he sat there wondering what it meant when there was a knock on the door of Simon’s house.

Three men were at the door. Three Gentiles were at the door. What should Peter do? He had moved a long way from where he had begun. He had accepted interacting with Jews who were considered unclean by Jewish law. He had even accepted Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles. But how far was he willing to go?

In the play and movie, Fiddler on the Roof, the protagonist is a dairy farmer named Tevye. He is a Russian Jew who has three daughters of the age when they could be married. He arranges a marriage for his oldest daughter with the local butcher, a wealthy man, but old. His daughter resists and tells him she wants to marry a tailor, a young man with whom she is in love, but a poor man.

Motel the tailor finally gets up his courage and tells Tevye that it is true he is a poor tailor, but even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness! And Tevye talks it over with himself.
He’s beginning to talk like a man.
On the other hand, what kind of a match would that be with a poor tailor?
On the other hand, he is an honest, hard worker.
But on the other hand, he has absolutely nothing.
On the other hand, things could never get worse for him, only better.
They gave each other a pledge.
Unheard of! Absurd!
They gave each other a pledge
But look at my daughter’s face
She loves him
She wants him
And look at my daughter’s eyes
So hopeful
and Tevye bends and consents to the wedding.

Tevye’s second daughter comes to him and announces that she and a radical student from Kiev are in love and are going to be married. Tevye resists and then retreats to talk it over.
He loves her.
It’s a new style.
On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?
On the other hand, they decided without parents.
Without a matchmaker!
On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker?
Oh, yes, they did. And it seems these two have the same matchmaker.
They’re going over my head.
Unheard of! Absurd!
For this, they want to be blessed?
I’ll lock her up in her room
I couldn’t
I should
But look at my daughter’s eyes
She loves him
And once again Tevye bends and gives his blessing.

Then his third daughter comes to him to say she is in love with a young Russian gentile, not a Jew. She comes to Tevye and says
Papa. I beg you to accept us.

Once again Tevye begins to talk it over with himself.
Accept them?
How can I accept them?
Can I deny everything I believe in?
On the other hand,
can I deny my own daughter?
On the other hand,
how can I turn my back on my faith,
my people?
If I try and bend that far,
I’ll break.
On the other hand…
There is no other hand.
And Tevye cuts her off from the family as if she had died.

Tevye bent and bent until he could bend no further.

Peter had bent a lot. He had accepted Jews who were unclean. He was living with a tanner. How far would he bend? Could he now bend to accept also Gentiles into God’s family?

When Peter began following Jesus he stepped onto a slippery slope. He accepted tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers as followers of Jesus. He accepted Samaritans as followers of Jesus. He kept sliding away from what he had understood as right and proper. How far was he going to slide?

Peter sat on the roof, thinking about what the vision meant. He did not have to wait long. The answer came to him as the door was being knocked. The Spirit said to him
“Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

The sheet appeared three times with all the foods Peter had understood to be unclean and now Peter stood before three men he had understood to be unclean. Peter had heard from the Spirit that he was to go with these three men. Peter knew that this was another step further and that inviting these Gentiles into the house was a step he was meant to take.

Peter went with these three messengers to the house of Cornelius where he observed that Cornelius was speaking in tongues – which indicated that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit. So Peter baptized Cornelius and his household and then went back to Jerusalem to explain what it was he had done and why he had done it. I will talk more about this next Sunday.

What are our deep-seated prejudices and how far are we willing to bend to overcome those prejudices?

It might be our theology. One of the more destructive theological conflicts of the last century has been the Pentecostal / Evangelical divide. Pentecostals have taught that Christians need a second baptism of the Holy Spirit manifested by speaking in tongues. Dispensationalists have insisted that the “sensational gifts” such as speaking in tongues ceased with the early apostles and modern expressions of tongues do not come from God.

There are Christians who baptize infants and there are Christians who think such a baptism is invalid.

There are Christians who think women cannot be in authority over men as preachers or teachers and others who think God gives both men and women spiritual gifts such as preaching and teaching and wants those gifts used.

It might be racial prejudice. It might be political prejudice against liberals or conservatives. It might be prejudice against the poor or the rich. It might be prejudice from citizens of another country. It might be cultural elitism when we compare the worst of this culture with the best of our home culture.

The problem with prejudice is that you don’t think you have a prejudice, you think you are right. It is like accents. You don’t think you speak with an accent; you speak the way you should speak.

Tevye resisted change because it threatened the stability of life as he understood it. We resist change for the same reason.

We fear stepping out onto slippery slopes because once we do that, we don’t know where we will end up. If you begin to question what it is you believe to be true, where will it stop?

If I allow the “sensational gifts” like prophecy, healing, and tongues to be active in the church will I lose control and begin tossing away everything I ever believed to be true?

If I open myself to women preaching in church then what will come next? Will I move on to accepting practicing homosexuals serving as pastors of churches? And then what?

The church has drifted with the culture away from a Biblical view of divorce and today a pastor can get divorced one Sunday and keep on preaching the next as if nothing had happened. The church is drifting with the culture in our view of sexual morality. More and more Christians emphasize the love of God and push away the teaching of Jesus about judgment. Hell is ignored and forgotten and these Christians believe that because God loves us so much we will all end up in heaven, with or without a personal relationship with Jesus.

There is a critical difference between being led into truth by the Holy Spirit and drifting with the culture away from Biblical truth and it is crucial that we discern the difference.

How do I stand on a slippery slope and be led into truth by the Holy Spirit and not be pulled by the culture into minimizing Biblical truth? That is the challenge.

We need to understand that we are being led into truth. “Led into truth,” which means we do not have a complete understanding of the truth. We are being led into truth. This is a progressive process.

When I was a young follower of Jesus I was much more certain that I understood what was true and what was not. As I have lived with Christ over the decades of being his follower, I am more certain of the core of what I believe to be true and more flexible about the peripheral beliefs. My understanding of what is true has progressed. And at the same time I have grown in my appreciation of the mystery of our life with Christ, the mystery of the process of salvation, the mystery of our heavenly destination. I have become less dogmatic about my beliefs.

As I have grown in my faith in Christ, I have held on to the scriptures. As the culture drifts, I hold on to the truth in the Bible. My understanding of what verses in the Bible mean has changed, but I have not discarded Scripture to conform with the changing culture.

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, famously cut out of the Bible all the verses he did not like. There are followers of Jesus today who are doing the same thing. They do not like what Paul says about sexuality and marriage and so they ignore it, dismiss it, pretend it is not there. There are verses in the Bible I wish were not there, but I cannot cut them out or dismiss them. I have to struggle to understand how to understand them.

Peter held on to his knowledge of Scripture but allowed the Spirit to give him new understanding of how to understand the Scriptures. We need to do the same.

Trust God and move out in search of truth. Don’t be afraid to take a stand on a slippery slope. Part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to lead us into all truth. Trust him and cooperate with him in your move toward truth.

And now a few comments about how we can overcome prejudice.

First, bring your prejudices out of the darkness and into the light. Admit that you are prejudiced. Don’t try to pretend you do not have prejudices.

I grew up with biases about what men do and what women do. When I am watching American football and see a woman announcer, I think to myself, what does she know about football? And then I say to myself, “She knows a lot more about football than you do.”

I cried when Kamala Harris took the oath of office on Wednesday to be the first female vice-president of the United States. It was a very moving moment for me. But then when she and her husband walked up the steps into the White House, turned around and waved, I had a reaction because it was strange to me that she was the dominant person and her husband was secondary. I was raised in a culture in which men lead and although I know and respect many competent women who are leaders, Kamala Harris is the first vice-president of the US. I did not have a negative reaction, but it was helpful for me to verbalize why it seemed strange to me.

I have racial prejudices. I have prejudices about certain personalities, about certain body types. And once again it has helped me to verbalize to myself what I am thinking and feeling so that I do not allow my prejudice to block a relationship with someone else or make a bad decision.

If you keep your prejudices hidden they are more powerful and destructive than if you verbalize them. If I have a prejudice against certain personalities or body types and do not verbalize this, then I will shut off relationships with people before they start. But if I tell myself that I have a negative reaction because of a prejudice, then I can choose to act independently of my prejudice and be open to a new relationship.

When I am aware of my prejudices I can take them into account when I make decisions. Hidden prejudices result in bad, unfair, and unjust decisions.

We all have prejudices. It is not possible to grow up in this world without having prejudices. Having a prejudice does not make you a bad person. Allowing your prejudice to be unchecked by being unaware of the prejudice is what makes you a bad person.

Second, live in the reality that one day people you are prejudiced against will be your neighbors in heaven. You will spend eternity with people from every nation, tribe, people and language. As you stand and cry out in a loud voice, (Revelation 7:9–10) “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” you do not want to be filled with regret for how you treated the people next to you when you were on earth.

If you have a narrow identity that only allows people like you and only allows people you like into your inner world, you will deprive yourself of the people God wants to put into your life to help you and encourage you to be a more complete follower of Jesus.

Third, pray to see people through God’s eyes. When you begin to see people the way God sees them, your heart will be transformed and relationships will develop you never thought possible. I do this a lot and it really is powerful and allows me to have wonderful relationships with a wide range of people.

One of the great blessings about the community of RIC is that we are brought into contact with so many people from so many different nations and cultures. When I think back about my years at RIC I realize how rich I have become because of the great diversity in our church.

For however long you will be a part of RIC, take advantage of this great opportunity to expand your repertoire of friends. In this coronavirus time it is more difficult to do this, but whenever possible, expand the diversity of your relationships. Take time to talk to people from different nations, different cultures.

A few centuries before Peter received a word from God that he was to go to the home of Cornelius, Jonah received a word from God that he was supposed to preach salvation to the Ninevites. Jonah came to Joppa and boarded a ship to get as far away as he could from where God told him to go.

It was also in Joppa that Peter heard God speak to him. But rather than resist and run away, he put his trust in God and headed to the house of Cornelius.

Be a Peter and trust God to lead you safely into truth. Be willing to consider that you might be wrong in part of what you believe. Let your prejudices fall by the wayside as you are led into truth, into eternal friendships, and into your service for Jesus.