In reading through Acts, we have seen the good news of Jesus spread out from the original disciples to those gathered at Pentecost and on to other Jewish people who witnessed the signs and wonders of the apostles.
We have even seen the good news come to the Ethiopian eunuch who is Jewish by faith but not by ethnicity, and to Paul, a passionate opponent of those who follow Jesus. For the earliest Christians, this would seem to be as far as the gospel could travel—the entire Jewish world.
As unexpected as the Spirit’s movement is in the first nine chapters of Acts, it is the events of chapter 10 that are truly shocking: Peter baptizes the first Gentiles into the new faith community.
With Cornelius’ baptism, the path is set for the early Jesus-followers to form a distinct faith rather than continue to function as a Jewish sect. This radical shift in the early church requires two heavenly visions sent to two people who are faithful in prayer. We are told that Cornelius “prayed constantly to God” (verse 2), and Peter sees his vision when he has gone “up on the roof to pray” (verse 9). God speaks to these men because they are listening. But God speaks in distinct ways.
Cornelius’ angelic vision gives him strikingly specific directions: send men to Joppa to Simon the Tanner’s house by the seaside (verses 5-6). Peter’s vision, in contrast, needs some interpretation. At first, it’s not clear to Peter what the vision means; it’s not even clear what it is: he saw “something like a large sheet” (verse 11). Though this vision initially puzzles Peter, when Cornelius’ men invite him to Caesarea, he agrees to go with them.
Afterwards, when Peter is criticized and questioned about why he ate with uncircumcised men, he tells the story of his vision (Acts 11:2-18). In trusting God and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Peter learns that he should “not make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12).
Peter and Cornelius both take risks to follow the vision that God gives them. Peter deeply valued the Jewish laws and customs, yet he is called beyond them into the unfamiliar. Cornelius is clearly a man of power and means, yet he is baptized into a community that insists on equality and sharing of resources. We don’t know the rest of his story, but we can imagine his life changed after his baptism.
This story of Peter and Cornelius is a reminder to us—as individuals and as a church—that prayer is risky business. Sometimes when we talk to God, God talks back. And sometimes what God says will change our lives, will change our families, will change our communities.
- When and how do you usually pray?
- How might you expand or deepen your prayer practice?
- What risks have you taken for God in the past?
- Is there a risk God is calling you to right now?
God, give me not only a voice to speak to you, but also ears to listen. May my mind and my heart be open to any visions you might send. And may my spirit be willing to take the risks needed to follow your call. Amen.
This Bible study comes from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia.