Acts 10:1-17, 34-48
(watch here: https://youtu.be/WfcUrtJcKFM)
1In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One 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.’ 4He 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. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ 7When 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, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 14But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.
34Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
I like the one about a barber who thought that he should share his faith with his customers more than he had been doing lately. So the next morning, when the sun came up and the barber got up out of bed, he said, “Today I am going to witness to the first man that walks through my door.”
Soon after he opened his shop, the first man came in and said, “I want a shave!” The barber said, “Sure, just sit in the seat and I’ll be with you in a moment.” The barber went in the back and prayed a quick desperate prayer saying, “God, the first customer came in and I’m going to witness to him. So give me the wisdom to know just the right thing to say to him. Amen.” Then quickly the barber came out with his razor knife in one hand and a Bible in the other while saying, “Good morning sir. I have a question for you…are you ready to die?”
Probably not the most effective way to share the gospel with someone new to the faith! I don’t imagine the barber could get another word in before that customer fled in terror. Yes, Christ calls us to die daily to our sinful ways and live in him but without the razor knife. He very much wants us to live in our bodies in this time and place to serve as his hands and feet in this world. He wouldn’t condone any type of bodily harm let alone harm done with a razor knife. What’s more relevant about that joke is the barber’s sense of urgency about being a witness to Christ. He knew he needed to share the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection more than he had and was determined to do just that.
Not unlike the witness that Peter felt compelled to share with Cornelius’ messengers. The encounter in today’s reading between Peter and the messengers was equally shocking, disturbing, off-putting. The messengers, like the barber’s customer, didn’t know they would receive a powerful testimony to God’s grace when they visited Peter. According to the biblical narrative, this was the first time Peter or any of Jesus’ disciples had given a testimony of who Jesus is to a Gentile after the resurrection. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing soldier of the Roman army but a Gentile nevertheless. He didn’t know about Jesus and what he had done. His messengers knew nothing as well…they were simply doing what Cornelius had commanded them to do in visiting Peter. And Peter himself didn’t know he was going to share his witness to the messengers. He had just had an unsettling vision in which a voice from heaven had scolded him for his rigid piety. He probably didn’t realize that it was God’s way of getting him to think outside the box and reach out to the foreign Gentiles. But he reached out nonetheless and converted the messengers through Word and baptism.
This encounter between Peter and Cornelius’ messengers illustrates the power of witnessing to Christ. Jesus lived and died and was resurrected so that ALL people might know salvation from sin, death, and the devil. Not just the faithful Jewish people but ALL people, Jew and Gentile alike. And Jesus will work through people like Peter to have his salvific love realized by ALL people. More importantly, Jesus will work through you and me if we but let him. As Jesus says in Matthew, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”(5:14-16) In our baptisms, the light of Christ came into us too and is eager to be released out into the world. Each of us is called to be witnesses to his light, attesting to its power and releasing it through our testimonies.
Now being a witness to Christ comes with responsibilities. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1:30-31) Witnessing to Christ and Christ’s love can come across as arrogance and pride. That’s why it’s important to always give him the credit for the light that others see in us. It isn’t our light but Christ’s light within us! Peter writes in his first letter, “But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” (3:15) People want to know about the light they see in us and will want to claim it. But they can’t take it from us. They can only share in it with us. The light is much bigger than you and me and them. We must always convey this to those around us and pray they’ll want to share in it with us.
As Peter’s encounter with Cornelius’ messengers illustrates, witnessing to Christ often entails sharing his love with those who haven’t experienced it yet. It means reaching out to the strangers among us. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (4:5-6) It’s one thing to nurture and encourage the faith of fellow believers. It’s quite a different thing to share the light with nonbelievers. We must share it with integrity and compassion. Christ’s love is a gift not a punishment. Some may consider it the latter so we must be mindful of how we share it. And we should be persistent in sharing the love of Christ. A little earlier in his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” (3:23-24) Witnessing can be difficult at times, especially when done with hostile, unreceptive people. But being persistent in sharing Christ’s love ultimately reflects the unconditional persistence of Christ’s love. Just as Christ doesn’t stop loving us, so too must we keep loving others.
Witnessing to Christ’s love involves integrity, selflessness, honesty, and persistence. It is important work for all faithful disciples of our resurrected Christ. In last week’s reading, we heard Jesus Christ give us his “great commission:” “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Making disciples involves not only baptizing but also witnessing as our reading for today suggests. We can take comfort in knowing that our witness is not in vain either. When we share about Christ and Christ’s love, we are helping in God’s work and the prophet, Isaiah, affirms God’s work: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”(55:11) God’s love will be realized by all!
As we continue through this Easter season, let us work to become faithful witnesses with integrity, selflessness, honesty, and persistence. Let us reach out to the strangers among us as Peter boldly did. And let us do so not with a razor knife per se but with the same assurance as Paul when he wrote to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (1:16) Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.