Covenant has recently been taking an informal look at the story of the conversion of Cornelius. Jean Meade’s piece gave some very helpful background on who Cornelius was and asked us to consider the very uncomfortable question of who “Cornelius” might be today — who is “beyond the boundaries.”
Paul Wheatley took us the next step by looking at the problems associated with creating one Church out of two people (Jew and Gentile). At the center of that question was the question of circumcision: did Gentile converts to Christianity need to be circumcised? Did they need to follow Jewish dietary laws? The solution, Paul said, was baptism (which helps us in the present to remember what we share in common).
I want to take yet another look at the passage. Paul’s last comments in his post include this:
The struggle over Gentile inclusion has become a totem in Church conflicts for anyone wishing to claim historical precedent for their side of the argument.
Acts 10:1-16 has become the go-to passage whenever someone wants to propose a “new thing.” The story of Peter going to a Gentile house and accepting those Gentiles becomes a story of radical inclusion, breaking the boundaries and starting something completely new. Therefore, we can do the same.
No doubt God is into doing new things. God seems to like new things: new songs (7 times in the Psalms the Psalmist says “Sing a new song!”), new hearts, new wine, new covenant, new commandments. In Isaiah 43:13, God says, “I am about to do a new thing.” But I suggest that what we have in the story of Cornelius is something totally radical, that is, something going back to the original, going back to the roots.
The big picture story, in a nutshell, is the story of a humanity that was destined for great things but that has walked away from the source of its greatness. God has gone to great lengths to restore humanity. The story within the story started with a nomad that God calls to leave home:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)
This Abram, soon to become Abraham, stands at the root, as one promised to be a blessing “to the families of the earth.” This part of the promise got lost in the shuffle, and before long the ancestors of Abraham forgot the call to be a blessing to the whole earth. Even so, there are subtle hints of that promise. For example, when Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed:
Likewise when foreigners, who are not of your people Israel, come from a distant land because of your great name, and your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm, when they come and pray toward this house, may you hear from heaven your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigners ask of you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” (2 Chron. 6:32-33)
At the end of this larger story, Jesus came, not only to deal with the primordial problem of human rebellion (sin), but also deal with the waywardness of Israel. Many times he confronted the “forgetfulness” of his listeners. When he pointed out that Elijah went to a widow “at Zarephath in Sidon” or that Elisha cleansed Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-276), that is, when the prophets went to those “outside” Israel, he received threats as his reward.
The Apostle Paul made a similar argument:
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” Romans 15:7-12 (NRSV)
It is possible that Romans was directed to a community that had seen the return of Jewish Christians after their expulsion from Rome. They returned to find a Christian community dominated by Gentile Christians. Paul reminded both parties that it was always God’s plan to save the whole world — Jew and Gentile.
And so the events of the story of Cornelius were not new, save in a specific sense: they were a renewal, another chapter in the story of God gathering in the nations. Peter received a particularly strong reminder of the larger story in which he as a Jew lives: God showed that he was, is, and will bless the whole world. God is working towards the ultimate new thing, New Creation. Human rebellion took down the whole Creation, but the really big story is that God will make that new as well.