Today I want to tell you the story of a Roman soldier named Cornelius. We can read about him in the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts.
The Book of Acts tells the story of the work of the church after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Peter and the other apostles have preached the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem, throughout the country of Judaea and to the borders of Israel. Everywhere they have gone, people have heard them with joy and turned their lives over to Jesus. Little communities of ‘Followers of the Way’, as they were called, are springing up all over Israel - people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah come to set Israel free.
Up until now, however, the message has only gone to Jewish people, and the early Christians probably see that as a natural thing. After all, in their mind Jesus was the Messiah of Israel - the one God was going to use to restore Israel to God’s plan for her. The idea that Gentiles - people who were not Israelites - would be included in that plan might never have occurred to them.
However, even though Israel as a whole was not interested in the Gentiles, the fact is that some Gentiles had become very interested in Israel. Throughout the ancient world at this time there were many people who had become disenchanted with the traditional religions and gods of Greece and Rome. These people were attracted by Israel’s belief in one creator God, and also by the high ethical standards set out in the Ten Commandments. A number of these folks had begun to attend synagogues and practice the three duties of godly Jews - prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. They had not taken the step of becoming Jewish - probably the idea of circumcision was a bit of a problem for them! - but they had moved a long way toward Judaism, believing in one God and trying to obey his commandments. Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in the town of Caesarea, was probably one of these ‘God-fearers’, as they were called.
What can we know about Cornelius? Well, we’re told that he was a ‘centurion in the Italian Cohort’. A centurion was a non-commissioned officer in the Roman army, roughly equivalent to a sergeant-major; he would have had command of one hundred men, and would probably have been a Roman citizen. A cohort was about six hundred men, or one-tenth of a legion, and we can assume that the Italian Cohort was stationed in Judea as a part of the Roman army of occupation. In other words, to Jewish people, Cornelius was one of the enemy.
But the story in Acts doesn’t stress these details; instead, it describes Cornelius’ religious practices. Apparently he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God’. In other words, he was one of the ‘God-fearers’ who had begun to worship the God of Israel and follow his commandments, although he had not taken the step of becoming a Jew himself.
Acts tells us that one day Cornelius was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon, which was one of the traditional hours of prayer. Suddenly an angel appeared to him and told him to send a message to Joppa to a man called Simon Peter who was staying there at the home of another Simon, a tanner. So Cornelius immediately obeyed; he sent two of his servants and one of his soldiers who was also a God-fearer, told them the whole story and sent them to Joppa, which was about a day’s journey from Caesarea.
The next day, in Joppa, the apostle Peter went up on the roof of his friend Simon’s house to pray, and in his prayer time he had a vision from God. He saw a sheet let down from heaven, filled with all sorts of so-called ‘unclean’ animals – that is, the animals that Jews are not allowed to eat, like pigs and reptiles and so on. A voice from heaven said to him, “Peter, get up and kill and eat!” He replied, “Lord, I’ve never eaten an unclean animal in my life”. The voice replied, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. This happened three times, and then the vision ended.
While Peter was trying to figure out what it meant he heard voices from down below; Cornelius’ messengers had arrived. They told him the whole story, and at once Peter figured out what was going on. As a first-century Jew he would have seen these Gentiles as ‘unclean’, and he wouldn’t even have gone to their house – especially since they were part of the army of occupation. But Peter knew that God had given him his marching orders, and so he obeyed and went back with them to Caesarea.
When they got to Cornelius’ house the next day they found that Cornelius had gathered his whole household, his relatives and friends together. Peter told them about the vision and how it had led him to cross the racial and religious divide and come into their house, and he asked Cornelius what this was all about. In return, Cornelius told him about his own vision of an angel and the instructions he had received. “Now we’re all here”, he concluded, “waiting to hear what the Lord has commanded you to say”.
So Peter began to explain the gospel to them. Here’s how one Bible version, the New Living Translation, describes his speech:
Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favouritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right. This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel – that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, after John began preaching his message of baptism. And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all – the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name (Acts 10:34-43 NLT).
It was a wonderful sermon, but Peter didn’t get to finish it; God stepped in, in a dramatic way. The Bible describes it by saying that the Holy Spirit ‘fell’ on all who heard the message, and they began to speak in languages that they had never learned, praising and worshipping God. The Jewish believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because these people were Gentiles – they were the enemy, the idol worshippers, the oppressors of Israel, but God had poured out the Holy Spirit on them, just as if they were part of the chosen people! Peter took one look at what was happening and said, “Well, I guess we’d better baptize them, since God obviously wants them!” And so Cornelius and his whole household were baptized, and Peter stayed with them for several days, presumably telling them more about Jesus and instructing them in their new faith in Christ.
What does this story of Cornelius have to say to us today as we seek for God?
First, it tells us that it’s not just us who are seeking for God – God is seeking for us as well. In fact, God had been guiding Cornelius for a long time. What was it that caused Cornelius to lose faith in the ancient gods of Rome like Mars, Diana, Neptune and so on? It must have been a shattering experience for him to realise that he no longer believed in these gods whose stories he had been told from childhood. But somehow he came to realise that these false gods were unable to meet his deepest needs, and he began to look elsewhere for help. Somehow - wouldn’t we love to know how? - he found out about the God of Israel, and was attracted to this belief in one God, the Maker of heaven and earth, and also to the high moral standards which this God required of his followers. So Cornelius began to put his faith in this God and to try to practice his commandments. And now God was leading him even further along, to faith in Jesus who the Bible calls Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’ – the one who Peter had told him is ‘Lord of all’.
And this same kind of thing is happening today; God is leading people home to himself. All around us there are people who are discovering that the false gods we worship in our modern society - financial security, worldly success, youth, beauty, power and popularity - are not delivering the lasting happiness and fulfilment that they promise. Maybe we have even begun to realise this for ourselves. This failure of our false gods can be a frightening and disorienting experience for us, but it is also a definite sign that God is leading us closer to himself. And when we find ourselves asking questions like, “Why isn’t my success making me happy?” or “Why can’t I be the kind of parent I want to be?” or “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” – then we can know for sure that God is at work in our lives.
So God is seeking for people and pointing them to Jesus, and this leads us to the second thing the story tells us: Jesus is the issue. It’s quite clear in this passage that the issue is not just to ‘get people to believe in God’. Cornelius already believed very strongly in God. He had already turned away from the idols of Rome and believed in the Creator of heaven and earth. Not only that, but he had done his best to live a godly life; Acts tells us that he was a devout man who gave generously to the poor, and prayed constantly to God. But from God’s point of view, something was still missing.
Peter believed this very strongly, and so in his sermon to Cornelius and his family he emphasises the central place of Jesus in God’s plan to heal the world. Jesus is the one whose death and resurrection have reconciled us to God and made forgiveness possible. Jesus, he says, is Lord of all, the one through whom God’s healing and liberation come to people, and the one who will one day judge the living and the dead. Peter is not saying that Cornelius’ faith in one God is wrong; far from it! He’s saying that it is incomplete; if Cornelius wants to experience the full salvation that is God’s will for him, he needs to put his faith in the one God has sent as Messiah and Lord - Jesus.
A friend of mine was teaching a ‘Christian Basics’ course once when a woman made this comment to him: “I don’t like it when you talk about ‘Jesus’. ‘God’ is safe; I can make that word mean anything I want, but ‘Jesus’ is far too close and specific”. And that’s exactly the point. In Jesus, God has come close and become specific! At a certain point in history God came to live among us in Jesus, and at the end of his life he sent out his followers to all people - many of whom already believed in God - to tell them to trust in him and follow him, because Jesus, the Son of God, is the key to knowing God.
The third thing the story tells us is that the Holy Spirit seals the deal. When Cornelius and his family hear the message of Jesus, God does something supernatural in them; the Holy Spirit comes to live in them and fills them with new joy, so that they begin to praise God and worship him in a new and living way. Jesus is no longer past history; the Holy Spirit has come to live in them and makes Jesus real to them.
This is what the Christian faith is all about. It isn’t just about getting people to believe in God, and neither is it just giving them historical information about Jesus. Rather, the Holy Spirit wants to make Jesus a living reality to people today. He wants to help people connect with God in a personal and experiential way.
In the story of Cornelius this personal connection was entirely at God’s initiative. Sometimes you hear stories about that today, too; people will say, “Jesus has always been real and close to me; I never remember a time when I didn’t know him”. But there are also many people who have not yet found that kind of a relationship with Jesus.
And maybe you are one of them. Maybe you are like Cornelius. Perhaps you’ve been listening to his story this morning and thinking, “Yes! That’s me! I believe in God and I’m trying to be a good person, but I’ve never seen before that Jesus is the key to knowing God, and I’ve never experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit! That’s what I want!” If that’s you, then you can take a very simple step of faith this morning. Jesus is present with you right now, even though you can’t see or feel him. Simply turn to him in your heart, put your trust in him, ask him to help you know him and follow him and to send his Holy Spirit to bring you closer to him. That is the sort of prayer that he loves to answer!