Acts 10:1-16 (NRSV)
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. About noon the next day, 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.
My brother, Marion Wallace McCurdy Jr., Lt. Col. (USAF, ret.), wrote his Masters thesis at the University of Texas on the Roman army. I asked for his commentary on Cornelius, and this is what he wrote:
As the centurion of the Italian cohort, Cornelius was probably the “battalion sergeant-major” — the senior centurion in whatever legion to which he was assigned — senior NCO out of 60 centurions, or the equivalent of a warrant officer. Chances are his duties were largely administrative, both in terms of legion administration and carrying out executive orders from the governor — who was headquartered in Caesarea. The majority of the legion may have been stationed further east, on or close to the Syrian frontier with Parthia. At any rate, Cornelius was a very successful soldier who had most probably risen through the ranks to this lofty position. He was almost definitely a native Italian, as the cohort’s name suggests, and if not already a citizen, would be upon his retirement and simultaneous elevation to the equestrian order. Thus, he was a Horatio Alger in the military world and significant in his own right: the most uncommon of the common man: self-made.
After reading, then, of these sterling characteristics of this non-aristocrat, we find that his spiritual life is just as self-made and original as his professional life. He has abandoned the gods of paganism for the worship of the Jewish god, but as a pagan God-Fearer who was impressed with the antiquity and righteousness of Judaism. Like other God-Fearers, he gave to the poor generously and doubtless to the local synagogue, too. This is not a requirement of classical paganism, though such actions were believed to be rewarded by the gods. What Cornelius the God-Fearer also feared was circumcision! Thus, he had the best of both worlds. Plus, his military career would most certainly not have been advanced by a total conversion to Judaism — especially with the tinderbox environment in Palestine at this time. So, Cornelius is also a living symbol that Christianity is not a threat to Rome, is kosher, so to speak. I take it that he, Gentiles, and Rome are all (now) acceptable in the eyes of the Lord (and so the growing Jesus Movement) just as the once forbidden foods are.
The conversion and baptism of Cornelius taught Peter and the first Jewish Christians that all people are acceptable to God and worthy of inclusion in the new church. It also teaches us that God loves those outside as much as those inside. But he does not have a Plan B for evangelism. We who seek to follow Jesus are it, just as Peter was it back then.
So the question for us now is — who is Cornelius today? Who are the people who are drawn to God by his Spirit and who perhaps admire the good works of the Christians they know and seek to emulate them, but who are outside our boundaries of the Church? Are we neglecting to appropriate this powerful testimony of witness and evangelism in Acts because we have not had a specific vision like Peter? Or more likely, are we afraid to speak a word about the Word because we want to be non-offensive and politically correct and so respectfully decline to share our faith with anyone outside it?
Years ago, I read that most people who start to come to church say that they did so because someone invited them to come with them. Well, maybe it is time to issue more invitations.
The featured image is from Francesco Trevisani’s “Peter baptizing the centurion Cornelius” (1709). It is in the public domain.