As long as I have attended church, and that’s a long time, I have never yet heard a sermon on the story of Cornelius the Centurion. Perhaps it’s too long. It takes up all of Acts, Chapter 10, and extends through verse 18 of Chapter 11. (This second bit gets included in the Lectionary, but it leaves out important, if repetitious, elements.) Preachers tend to quote a pithy set of verses, and work from there.
The Book of Acts tells Cornelius’s story in a looping, roundabout way — and it includes, what’s more, a more famous passage (Chapter 10: 9-16) describing the Apostle Peter’s vision of a sheet being dropped from Heaven, bearing “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” A voice commands him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter puzzles over the imperative, which violates Jewish dietary laws. The vision is repeated three times.
All in all, it’s an awkward and mixed and large chunk of scripture, and it gets overlooked, unfortunately. Because the story of Cornelius settled the issue of racial discrimination for Christians two thousand years ago.
Here’s the story: Cornelius, identified with pleasingly journalistic precision as “a centurion of the Italian cohort” in Caesarea, sees an angel, in answer to his constant prayers. The angel tells him to go to Joppa and find the Apostle Peter. Cornelius sends “two of his slaves and a devout soldier.” During their journey, Peter has the aforementioned vision of unclean animals. Cornelius’s emissaries arrive at the house where Peter is staying and re-tell the story of Cornelius and his angelic vision. Peter returns with them to Caesarea to meet Cornelius. Peter re-tells the story of his vision, explaining that he ordinarily would not have come to the house of a Gentile. But, as he explains, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Cornelius re-tells the story of his vision, too. (See the problem here?) Peter responds by telling the story of Jesus and the forgiveness of sin through his death and resurrection.
Acts 10: 44-47: “…The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”
Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household. They become the first Gentile converts to the new Christian religion.
In Chapter 11, Peter returns to Jerusalem and tells the whole story again to the “circumcised believers” there (the new Jewish Christians). By now, the story has become a sermon, which Peter concludes with the words, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us…who was I that I could hinder God?”
It is impossible to overstate the cataclysmic nature of this revelation. It fell like lightning on the Holy Land, a place where the usual practice between tribal and ethnic groups finds grim summary in the Old Testament book of Judges, Chapter 12, verses 1-6. “…The Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites,” who were trying to escape from their defeat in an earlier battle. The Gileadites challenged each fugitive, asking, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If the fugitive denied it, the men of Gilead would command him to say the word, “Shibboleth.” The fugitive, unable to pronounce the phoneme “sh,” would say “Sibboleth,” and the Gileadites would kill him. “Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.”
“Shibboleth” has entered modern English as a synonym for a nonsensical belief. (“Shibboleth” means “river, or ear of corn,” according to Bible dictionaries.)
All this is not to say that Christians have never discriminated on the basis of race or ethnicity, or do not ever do so now. We all sin and fall short of God’s grace. But two millennia ago, God himself gave us our reason and our command for racial amity. As the hymn says, “In Christ, there is no East nor West…”
As the University of Michigan case on racial preferences in college admission moves before the Supreme Court, Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission wrote recently in National Review Online, “A review of the amicus briefs in the Michigan case … reveals a nigh religious belief among elites in the benefits of diversity.” And he argues that modern devotion to “diversity” will likely prevail no matter what the Supreme Court rules.
Does this “nigh religious belief” evince a devotion to the sharing of the Holy Spirit? Or is it a species of shibbolethism? Is it new? Is it “progressive”? Or is it more correctly the modern version of the barring of the fords of the Jordan?
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