44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 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, 46 for 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?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
The full story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, and his household, unfolds over two chapters of the book of Acts. We have been given just a snippet of that story by the Revised Common Lectionary, but this snippet is powerful. It is a reminder that the one who pours out the Spirit on the church is the initiator of mission, not us. It is also a reminder that the Spirit of God is in the business of breaking through barriers and boundaries, whether religious, cultural, or social. Standing in the center of the story that lies before us is the Spirit of God, who fills a Gentile household, giving to each of them something that had been given to Peter and his community on the day of Pentecost. That would be the gifting of tongues, which in this case becomes a sign of inclusion. Where there was once a barrier separating Jew and Gentile, the Spirit broke through and set the stage for what was to come.
This isn’t the first boundary-breaking act of the Spirit to be encountered in the Book of Acts. Moving forward from Pentecost and outward from Jerusalem, we have seen acts of inclusion that begin on the day of Pentecost as the Gospel of Jesus is proclaimed to Jews of the diaspora in the languages spoken in the lands in which they dwelt. Then we have the setting aside of the seven to care for the widows who themselves come from the diaspora—Greek-speaking Jews. Among this group of leaders is Philip, who preaches first of a group of Samaritans, drawing them into the kingdom, and then to an Ethiopian eunuch, whose religious orientation is not revealed, but whose status as a eunuch prevented him from fully engaging in Israel’s worship, and thus he still needed to be included by the Spirit in the ever-expanding realm of God (Acts 8
In this reading, Peter has heard the invitation to preach to Cornelius
, a Roman military officer, as well as to his household. He did as he was asked, but I’m not sure Peter quite understood what God intended when Cornelius’ people knocked on his door and told him that Cornelius wanted to hear from him. This request followed Peter’s vision, where God told Peter not to call unclean what God called clean, though I’m not sure that Peter originally saw the connection between the vision and the request until Peter’s sermon was interrupted after the people were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in tongues (glossolalia
Here is the word for the church. Peter’s companions, the circumcised, were astounded that these people, whom they looked down upon, had received something they had received—the gift of languages. That meant they were now members of the same community, or so it seemed. As Peter will later tell the Jerusalem church, Cornelius and his household had received the same mark of the Spirit as they had, so how could he put on them more requirements? That requirement would have been circumcision, which was a stumbling block to many if not most Gentiles. Peter didn’t ask for them to be circumcised, but he did offer baptism as a sign of inclusion.
What Peter did here is what Philip had done in Samaria and on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza. He baptized the community in the name of Jesus Christ. As before baptism is the sign of inclusion in the Christian community. It seals a confession of faith. It is a sign that one has chosen to become part of the family. It is, as revealed in Acts 2, a sign of God’s forgiveness (Acts 2:38
). I should note that there is debate over whether there were small children present who might have been baptized along with any adults who were believers. If you do believe there were children baptized it is an argument from silence, but then so is mine—that only those who professed belief were baptized. We simply don’t know. We can’t even assume anything about mode either. We know Peter baptized but with what? Nonetheless, baptism plays a significant role in the ongoing mission of God. In the Book of Acts, when people respond to the gospel, they get baptized. In this case, as before, baptism marks a boundary-breaking act.
The final word of the passage is this: “Then they invited him to stay for several days.” Cornelius and his household responded to their inclusion in the realm of God, by inviting Peter to share in their hospitality. Baptism had sealed the relationship of Jew and Gentile—in the name of Jesus Christ—and now that relationship takes the next step with Peter accepting the hospitality of his new sisters and brothers in Christ. Willie James Jennings makes this comment concerning this request.
The reading habits of the church tend to run past these slender words, but they capture divine design. This is what God wants, Jews with Gentiles, Gentiles wanting to be with Jews, and together they eat and live in peace. This is surely not the eschaton, not heaven on earth. It is simply a brief time before the chaos and questioning descend on Peter and the other disciples who will follow the Spirit, before the returning to the old regime, and before the lust for the normal returns. But in a quiet corner of the Roman Empire, in the home of a centurion, a rip in the fabric of space and time has occurred. All those who would worship Jesus may enter a new vision of intimate space and a new time that twill open up endless new possibilities of life with others. Peter, however, must soon do a strange thing—he must give witness to the witnesses of Jesus and try to convince them that God transgresses. [Jennings, Acts:Belief, p. 115).
Jennings is correct. I would have passed by these words had he not pointed them out. I would have stopped with the command to baptize and missed the true revelation of God’s boundary-breaking action. The Spirit had knit together two peoples, and Peter finally understood that having been told to kill and eat, even that which had been declared unclean, he was permitted to share fellowship with those whom he had previously stayed separate from, fearing that he would be made unclean. So, having shared the Gospel, he is invited to share the hospitality of Gentiles, that would include sharing meals with them. Yes, that would require him to bear witness to the home church of what God had done, and what he had done in response.
The God revealed to us in Jesus is a boundary-breaking God, which is important since we tend to erect walls and barriers to separate ourselves from others. That means God is still transgressing the boundaries we set up, often in the name of God.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.