Summary: Peter’s explanation of the events leading to the conversion of Cornelius (a Roman soldier and Gentile) bears witness to the surprising and yet familiar ways of God and points us to the new possibilities for surprise that the Resurrection message opens in in our lives.

Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year C

May 13, 2001

Acts 11:1-18


This passage is all about the surprising works of God

but to get the surprise you must have the back story. Hang in there, the payoff in this passage for your life is worth the extended introduction.

If you were a passive observer of the world in the first century, Israel would have been the last place you would have expected something surprising or significant to happen.

Israel had little gravitas in terms of its cultural contributions and wealth. Ever since the re-establishment of the nation after the return from captivity the comparing their situation to the "good ‘ol days" before the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem and carted them away to captivity and slavery.

In a short time, a Greek by the name of Alexander appeared on the western horizon to conquer Jerusalem again. Sure, Alexander was a kind overlord, but the generals who succeeded him after his death were brutal. The people were forced to abandon their own culture and renounce their religion at the point of a sword. The pressure was so intense that it forced the Israelites to rebel against their oppressors. After all, their very identity was on the line.

Soon another invader appeared on the western horizon. This time it was a Roman. The Romans, like Alexander the Great before them, were "live and let live" overlords. But they did not suffer challenges to their authority well and would grind anyone who rebelled against them into the dirt.

In Israel the Romans governed through a procurator who, in turn, utilized the existing governmental structure established by the local religious authorities to keep the locals in line. Rome thus reigned without serious challenges over the whole region and with the blessing of its subjects.

This was the Israel that Jesus and the disciples were born into – a plaything in the hands of powerful nations: a third rate nation ruled by foreign legions from a land that was culturally and physically far from their own. Israel had little wealth, no particular cultural advancements, and no armed power to speak of.

Israel would have been the last place you would have expected something surprising or significant to happen.


Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem as his parents were registering to pay their taxes to Rome.

The Romans, in response to word that a king was to be born, set out to kill every male child in Israel of Jesus’ approximate age. Fortunately his parents fled the country before the Roman sword could find him.Jesus parents were poor Mediterranean Jewish peasants and Jesus came of age in their home in Galilee.

Jesus was nothing remarkable, simply the son of a carpenter, but he began to gather disciples around him when he started speaking of God’s new kingdom that was coming.Jesus’ message along with the miraculous works that he did put him in severe conflict with the Jewish religious leaders who in turn handed him over to their overlords to be crucified. Jesus was beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a Roman cross to die.

Again, this was the last place you would have expected

something surprising or significant to happen.

But something surprising and significant did happen.

Three days later the same body that was torn and broken under the torture of Roman soldiers was resurrected. Jesus appeared alive to his disciples and to many witnesses who would testify that they had actually seen the nail marks in his hands and feet.

The Bible tells us that the life of Jesus was significant in that he was uniquely devoted to God. So much so in fact that he lived a righteous life without sin. Jesus managed to do what no other human has ever done. He perfectly loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and perfectly loved other human beings.

The Bible also tells us that the horrible death that Jesus died was accepted by God as a substitute punishment for the sins of every other human being. We are told to trust that in Jesus, God has made a way for us to enjoy forgiveness for our sins, a restoration of our relationship with God, and a life that, like his, will continue eternally.

This is the most surprising act imaginable but further surprises were on the way.


Acts 11:1 The apostles and the brothers 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." 4 Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened: 5 "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, `Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ 8 "I replied, `Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 "The voice spoke from heaven a second time, `Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again. 11 "Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying.

The first people to become disciples were a core group of Mediterranean Jewish peasants. As word grew of his miraculous deeds and especially as word grew of his death and resurrection, more and more Israelites began to embrace him as their savior and king and came to believe that in Jesus the rule and reign of God had appeared among humankind.

This following, however, did not include any Gentiles –those pagan Greeks and Romans that were such a tangible symbol of oppression and God’s judgment. The Church at the time was made up of Jewish converts who had a vested interest in maintaining their ethnic, cultural, and religious identity in the midst of the pagan oppression. And yet in this passage God opens a surprising new door.

Peter’s vision is loaded with symbolism. The animals that came down in this sheet were forbidden to be eaten by Jewish Law. Food laws had always been a significant distinguishing feature of Israelite religious life and culture so that to observe these food laws symbolized all of the important distinctions that the people of Israel wanted to maintain between themselves and their pagan oppressors.

For thousands of years Jews did not eat with Gentiles or accept their hospitality for fear that they would be religiously and culturally polluted. God’s giving permission to Peter to eat non-kosher foods was significant in that God was symbolically giving sanction to taking the message of Jesus to Gentiles and more so to the very soldiers that had nailed him to the cross. Can you see the surprise in this development?


12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, `Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’ 15 "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" 18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."

We know from the previous chapter that the man that Peter went to see was a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Cornelius had been praying and an angel appeared to him saying that an Israelite named Peter would be the one who would bring the message of God’s salvation to his house.

Cornelius was a good man but not a Christian. He was from Italy and had probably participated in his share of Roman invasions and had probably been exposed to many different religions and cultures – all of whom had been conquered and all of whom were subject to the almighty power of Rome.

How surprising it was that this Mediterranean peasant would be the one who would be the messenger of God’s salvation and yet here he was.


The payoff in this passage is twofold.

If you are a believer and consider yourself a faithful Christian, how open are you to God’s surprising work bidding you to build relationships with a non-Christian? We are so bent on maintaining our Christian identity that we have become closed to building serious friendships with people who do not share our faith.

If you are not a Christian, or if you are a Christian but just not very religious, how open to God’s surprising works are you? What if becoming serious about a relationship with God through his son Jesus is the surprising way that you can enter into a new life?

Copyright (c) 2001 by Rev. Michael J. Pahls

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