Cornelius and Peter lived in separate worlds. Left to their own devices, they would have stayed separate. But, as told in Acts 10-11, God intrudes on both of them by means of a vision.
Their story — a tale of two conversions — holds profound implications for our understanding of the tension between the New Testament’s call to witness to Christ and its claim that the Spirit is at work beyond the church.
A vision is a moment in which we see and hear something about God that can’t be argued away.
Cornelius’ vision is of an angel who commands him to send for a man from Joppa. This man will be God’s answer to Cornelius’ prayers. Meanwhile, Peter’s prayers produce a vision of his own: a sheet lowered from heaven filled with unclean animals. Told to eat them, he is revolted by this blatant violation of Jewish dietary law.
The visions converge: The men sent by Cornelius prevail upon Peter to go with them, and Peter begins to grasp the meaning of his trance. His presence in a Gentile home is not a violation of God’s intent but a fulfillment of it.
When Cornelius and Peter meet, it’s hard to tell who is more shocked. But both are convinced God is behind this encounter. Peter’s words astonish his hearers: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
As Peter lays out his novel claim, the Holy Spirit falls on everyone in the room who believes: These outsiders to the covenant begin speaking in tongues just as the messianic Jews had done on the day of Pentecost! When he gains his composure, Peter cries out: How can we withhold baptism?
Then comes the next episode in this uncanny tale. Peter retells his astonishing encounter to messianic Jews in Jerusalem. They scold him for breaking bread with outsiders to the covenant. In response, Peter recites the highlights of his encounter with Cornelius and asks, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
At first the Jerusalemites are shocked into silence. But soon they too praise God.
Both are changed
Of the two conversions, Cornelius’ is the obvious one. But Peter also needs to be converted, because he can’t imagine that God has opened the covenant with Israel to all people.
The revolution in Peter’s ministry happens when he learns Cornelius is not an outsider — to whom he can be indifferent — but someone in whom God’s Spirit is at work. He learns that nobody God has created is unclean or beyond the call of God’s grace.
True evangelism happens when both the seeker and the witness are changed by meeting each other. The church is not “them” becoming more like “us” but all of us becoming more like Christ.
Cornelius’ and Peter’s excitement was contagious: God is at home in the hearts of everyone who will let him in. Witnessing to Christ is not a matter of trying to talk someone into something. It is being ready for a moment of truth when we put a name to the stirrings in someone’s heart.
Yet, when I imagined myself as a participant in this story, I was troubled. Why? I came up with two reasons.
First, the words of the church’s witness often seem hollow. Too much talk about God trivializes God’s reality. How can we say something new about Jesus that people haven’t heard a hundred times?
Second, attempts to persuade someone of “my truth” seem disrespectful to people of another or of no religion — people with whom we work and live every day, members of our family. Shouldn’t we respect people and not suspect them until they become like us?
I’ll try to address each of these problems. First, when words of witness seem hollow.
In our society, religion is advertised like cars and appliances. Those of us who have grown up in the church know its — and our — lapses into self-righteousness and hypocrisy. We squirm at calls for evangelism that seem triumphal and condescending. We feel that the least we can do to reclaim some level of integrity is to keep our mouths shut. There are times, surely, when the truest witness is silence.
Mennonites are good at knowing that our witness to the gospel begins with how we live, before we talk. In fact, most of our confession of Christ consists of patient and persistent love of friend and enemy.
But then there are times when the Spirit prepares someone in our life to hear in words the reason for the hope that is in us, someone like Cornelius. If we remain sensitive to the stirrings of the Spirit, we will know those times. If we remain silent, don’t we leave the impression that we’re good enough in how we live that our way of living will always point to God? The liberating message of the New Testament is not that we love others because we’re good but because we’re loved.
Tension between truths
Second, when naming Jesus seems disrespectful to people of other beliefs.
Here I find a tension between two truths. The first is that God’s Spirit stirs in all people. This means we should look for stirrings of the Spirit in people of other religions, in their prayers and in their love of justice and mercy. Only God is their — and our — final judge.
The second truth is that our role is that of witnesses. If, like Peter and Cornelius, the Holy Spirit has shown us Christ as a living presence in our lives, we cannot help but reflect that in how we live and what we say out of gratitude for the gift of Christ.
How can we hold onto this tension in life-giving ways? I have seen the Spirit call a Jew to Jesus. When I was the minister of a Mennonite congregation in New York City, we had a member named David. He once told me his faith story. He had been a secular Jew with no interest in religion. One day, as he was in the hospital recuperating from a cancer operation, he saw Jesus standing at the foot of his bed, radiating love, and saying to him, “I want you to follow me.”
David told me the call was irresistible. At the same time, coming to faith in Christ did not lead him to abandon Judaism or to doubt God’s covenant with the Jews. Yet when he encountered people looking for something they had not yet found, he risked a witness to Jesus as Messiah.
I have read of Islamic believers having similar unbidden mystical encounters with Christ.
If we hold onto this tension, we will honor the faith of others while being a sign — by our deeds, our words, our silences — that Christ is alive.
Prompting of the Spirit
The more urgent concern of the church’s mission, however, is not people with another faith but people with no faith, no community.
In our secular society, the majority of people make no religious claims. When we see them love mercy and do justice, let us make common cause with them. When we see them broken by injustice, alone in the world or seduced by things that cannot satisfy, let us point them beyond themselves — and ourselves — to the One in whom all things hold together.
I long to share the excitement of Peter and Cornelius when God turned their world upside down. There are no simple formulas, no clever tactics to being a witness. It calls for a way of living that listens for the promptings of the Spirit.
There are times for deeds, times for silence, times for words. And there are many Corneliuses, or Cornelias, women and men in whom the Spirit of God is at work, waiting for some Peter, or Petra, to be a sign of Christ.
John D. Rempel is a Mennonite minister and theologian who continues to write and preach in his retirement.