In Acts 10, we meet a Roman military officer named Cornelius. For reasons we’re not told, he’s a big fan of the God of Israel, being a “devout man who feared God.” He’s simply one more example of how God is reaching into every nation and finding people who are open to his love. We’re also told he keeps a regular practice of generosity and prayer. And this practice of prayer opens him up to a vision. An angel appears, affirming his generosity and devotion to God, but still has a long and encouraging road ahead of him. He is to find the apostle Peter. Why? Cornelius isn’t told yet. So he sends some servants a day’s journey away to Joppa, where Peter is lodging.
Then we drop in on Peter himself. He’s also having a prayer-induced vision. Luke loves to tell stories about how prayer can take the consciousness to new and strange places (Luke 3:21, 9:29). In this vision, Peter sees a sheet being lowered from the sky, and this sheet is holding a multitude of animals. Peter notices that these animals are the kind that the Law of Moses has prohibited, which makes what follows difficult for him. A voice says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” Peter immediately says no. Those animals are unclean! It’s unthinkable to a good, observant Jew like Peter. While saying no to a direct command from God seems like a bad idea, let’s be fair to Peter. He feels trapped in an impossible riddle. He can either disobey the giver of the Law, the God of Sinai. Or he can disobey the God of this vision. Imagine God telling you to disregard some religious custom that had been ingrained in you since childhood. God has to give Peter this command three times, eventually saying, “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean,” before it starts to sink in for Peter.
The vision comes to an end and the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and Peter is prodded by the Spirit to go with them. For what purpose? Again, Peter is not told. Neither Peter nor Cornelius is told what will happen once they meet, but they’re both excited. Acts is full of the Spirit giving unexplained invitations to a new journey. As Peter is invited to the home (and table) of a Gentile, he realizes that the issue isn’t so much clean and unclean animals as much as clean and “unclean” people. Peter, along with some fellow Jewish Christians from Joppa, meets Cornelius, along with some family and friends, and begins to preach a sermon that begins with, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” As he’s telling Cornelius and his people the story of Jesus, suddenly the Holy Spirit floods the room. Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So Cornelius and company are baptized.
What kind of person do we consider “unclean?” Another way of asking it is, what kind of person is it that I have a hard time imagining sharing life and table with? The Bible’s word for that is “unclean.” Whatever kind of person that is, could God be trying to get our attention and say, “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.”
Peter is starting to get it. Israel’s story is not just Israel’s story. And Israel’s God is not just Israel’s God. In baptism, Jesus washes us clean of any prejudice, division, and assumption that keeps believers separated. In baptism, Jesus heals us of anything that makes another believer seem alien to us. In baptism, God creates one family.