We often call it the “conversion of Cornelius.” And, indeed, that is a significant moment. Cornelius was a Roman centurion—the commander of 80 men (sort of like a Captain of a company, though centurions could rank much higher in a Legion—stationed in Palestine. This was no honored placement. It was like soldiering on the Eastern Front during World War II. It was hostile, unpleasant and potentially explosive.
But Cornelius was a devout man who prayed incessantly and gave alms to the poor. God heard his prayers and honored his gifts. But that does not strike us as earth-shattering as it was in Palestinian Judaism. We are too tamed by the story, domesticated by hearing it innumerable times.
Let me say it again. God heard the prayers of a pagan soldier who served in the regime of an imperial nation that oppressed God’s people! Does God hear the prayers of a devout, alms-giving Taliban foot-soldier on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan? What Jew would have dreamed that God would hear the prayer of a Roman commander? But he did.
This shocked everyone. It even, I think, shocked Cornelius. His rush to obey God, his obeisance to Peter when he arrived at his house, and his willingness to believe and do whatever Peter told him point toward not only the excitement Cornelius felt but his utter gratitude that God answered his prayer.
Everyone included Peter. Even though he had announced that the promise of the gospel was for even those who were “afar off” in his Pentecost homily, he was unprepared for the three visitors who came from Cornelius’ house in Caesarea to the tanner’s house in Joppa. The Holy Spirit had to tell him to go with them as if Peter was racked with confusion and uncertainty.
Peter’s response was understandable. He had been taught the difference between clean and unclean all his life—clean food and unclean food, clean people and unclean people. And the Gentiles were, as a class, unclean. There was no touching them, there was no visiting them, and certainly there was no eating with them allowed within the halls of Jewish Orthodoxy.
When God told Peter in a vision to kill and eat unclean food, he refused. He reminded God of how he was raised and that only kosher food had touched his lips. Three times—mirroring the three who came from Caesarea—God invited him to eat and Peter refused. Refusing to eat what God has provided is no small act.
Perhaps Peter thought God was testing him; perhaps it was a false vision, even a temptation from Satan himself. But it was actually the first step in Peter’s conversion. He received Cornelius’ friends and they stay the evening in Joppa (they must have been Jewish friends of Cornelius—Cornelius was probably a “God-fearer”). He goes to Cornelius’ house, hears his story and concludes what he had been previously unable to even conceive, that is, God is no respecter of persons and whoever does what is right is honored by God, even among the nations (Gentiles).
But the story is not over. There is yet another conversion to come. It is the conversion of the church itself.
When Jerusalem heard that Peter had gone to the Gentiles—a Roman soldier no less—and ate with them, they were dismayed, scandalized and perhaps even hostile. Remember that those who are “zealous for the law” (even if they had become Christ-followers, as in Acts 21:20; cf. ) are hostile to any Jew who violates the traditions of the fathers, especially when it involves relationships with Gentiles, much less Roman soldiers. Circumcision—an Abrahamic covenant—must be maintained and the distinction between clean and unclean must be practiced even if Gentiles become Christ-followers. They must, so many believed, live by the Torah and embrace the covenant of Abraham through circumcision. This hostility continued for decades within the early church as it even fueled some of Paul’s letters like Galatians.
The book of Acts tells the story of Cornelius three times. The only other story it narrates three times is the conversion of Saul. This was a community-altering event in the life of church. It changed the church, and church had to undergo a conversion. The church had to rethink how it thought about Gentiles, related to Gentiles; it had to think about how it would receive Gentiles and live in the community with Gentiles; it had to think about how Jews and Gentiles could eat together, even eat the Lord’s Supper together given their divergent table manners.
That must have been an excruciating process filled with doubts, discomfort, and fear. Certainly in Acts 11 the church hears Peter’s report with joy and praises God. But the church has to hear it again in Acts 15, along with Paul and Barnabas’ missionary report as well as James rehearsal of Scripture to be convinced. Even then the Gentiles had to accommodate some Jewish sensibilities such as not eating food that had been strangled. That the process was frustratingly slow is evident when Peter himself felt so much pressure in Antioch that he withdrew from eating with Gentile Christ-followers in order to smooth the ruffled feathers of some from Jerusalem.
Gentiles in the church are fine as long as they are not in our local congregation, or as long as I don’t have to eat with them, right?
The conversion process for the church was filled with pitfalls—starts and stops and start ups again. The centuries of hostility, mistrust and scruples did not cease with one conversion in Caesarea. We might even wonder if the process was ever actually completed as the church failed to learn to live together as Jew and Gentile in peace and harmony (see Romans 14-15).
Sometimes the church needs conversion. When the church becomes encrusted in its traditional practices….when the church erects cultural or racial barriers….when the church favors particular habits over people….when the church finds spirituality only within the walls of its buildings…when the church is so territorial that it fails to plant new congregations…it needs conversion.
Sometimes the church needs conversion. It needs to hear the voice of God anew. It needs to listen to the stories of God’s work among people. It needs to hear the testimony of changed lives.
Given the history of the church in many places, no wonder that those outside the church retort back to it, “heal thyself.” Sometimes the church needs conversion just as much as those outside of it.