Peter and Cornelius
“God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” – Acts 10:28b
This story is placed in the middle of Acts as part of the spreading of the gospel beyond its Jewish origins to include the gentiles. Paul was already doing this, but Peter was a little more reluctant – he was part of the “establishment” after all. This passage reflects Peter’s change of heart due to a vision he has from God that he should not call “profane” anyone that God has deemed acceptable.
Along with stories such as the call of David -- where God doesn’t see with human eyes, but instead looks in the heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13) – this is ultimately a story that declares the sovereignty of God. In the case of Cornelius, it is a declaration that God made the rules about cleanliness and separation and therefore God can eliminate those same rules.
This of course can raise a lot of issues in the modern church, just as it did in Peter’s day. The answer that arises from this story seems to be that we in the church are not following a set of rules, but rather opening ourselves to a process of discernment: listening to God’s voice, and determining upon whom the Holy Spirit rests. In full humility we must declare that the choice to include or exclude is not ours to make, but rather God’s.
This is not the only case where someone surprising receives the Holy Spirit and baptism. In Acts 8:26-39, Phillip is directed by the Holy Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch; in Acts 9:1-19, the murderous Saul is converted on the road to Damascus. And now in Acts 10, Cornelius. The spread of Christianity in the early church is tied to the idea of being guided by the Spirit to overcome prejudices. The prejudices of our world are different than the prejudices of Peter’s day, but prejudices still exist, even among people who think of themselves as very open-minded.
Baptism – Which comes first: the act of baptism, or the decent of the Holy Spirit? In Jesus’ baptism and other baptisms in Acts, the Holy Spirit seems to appear after the baptism. But this case is different. Were human beings withholding baptism because they felt Cornelius, as a Gentile, to be unacceptable? This story points out that God won’t be thwarted by human inaction.
Clean/unclean – this refers to ritual, spiritual cleanliness under existing Jewish law which are found in Exodus Deuteronomy and the Talmud. If you followed the law you were clean/acceptable. If you didn’t you were unclean/profane, and must go through a process of purification and adherence to the laws. This included circumcision for males (not a very inviting prospect for adult men in an age without anesthesia) which was a leading reason that pagans who were attracted to the God of the Jews refrained from actually joining the faith. It also included rules that were very difficult for poor or marginalized people to follow. Christianity at its core is a religion for the marginalized.
Conversion – Cornelius has been converted to Christianity. But what of Peter? He is already a Christian, but has undergone a conversion experience as well? He now accepts a people that he previously avoided because he sees that as God’s plan. Is conversion a one-time event, or something that occurs to us again and again? Is conversion always a sudden experience, or can it come upon us little by little?
Evangelism – This is a story about bringing the word of Christ to others. Peter is acting very bravely when he goes to the house of a gentile with anti-Christian political status: Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian cohort (main Roman force). Sometimes evangelism means being willing to risk for the sake of the gospel. How much are we willing to risk, lay on the line, to proclaim the word of Christ?
Jewish/Gentile – In the early church this was a debate between Jews and Gentiles, which should be read as being between people who knew the one true God (Jews) and people with pagan practices who did not know God. It is not correct to understand this passage to be about modern Jews and modern Christians (Gentiles) with the emphasis on the latter being acceptable to God. Rather we should read this as a story about Christian believers/insiders (Jews) and non-believers (Gentiles) who might have been making life choices that are questionable to the faithful. Or we can see this story culturally as a story about established people (Americans) and newcomers (immigrants); or in congregational life as people who grew up in the church and new members. All are acceptable analogies, and should call us to question ourselves: who do we declare unclean/profane/unacceptable? Who would we be very uncomfortable moving in next door to us or sitting in the next pew? Where do our prejudices lie? And what does God say to that – “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28b)
Revelation – God’s will is revealed to Peter when he is in prayer. Sometimes our prayers are too much talking (telling God what we want) and not enough listening (telling us what God wants).
Teaching this Story to Kids
Jewish/Gentile – Care must be taken to avoid sounding anti-Semitic. In modern American culture the real meaning of this passage is reversed: Christians, the majority, are the “insiders” and Jews, a minority group, are the outsiders. The newly identified rule is that God doesn’t want the insiders to call the outsiders unclean or profane. Children may have questions about Jewish dietary laws and other laws. Look up a few laws and be familiar with kosher laws in the attachment.
Clean/unclean – A good modern debate that gets to the heart of the issue is what do you wear to church? Should you dress in Sunday best or is it okay to be comfortable because God loves you as you are? This parallels the debate in ancient time of do we still need to follow the minutia of the law, or is it okay to disregard the law and rely on grace? In some parts of scripture, Jesus seems to be abandoning the law. In other places, he defends the law and claims he’s not rewriting one letter of it. How can we make sense of this? One way of answering both modern and ancient questions is that it depends upon what is in your heart. If in your heart you believe that the law is from God, then disregarding the law is disrespectful. If you don’t believe in your heart of hearts that the law is from God, then there’s no point in keeping to it. If in your heart you believe you should dress in your Sunday best to show God respect, then coming in jeans is disrespectful. If you’re new to church and in your heart that sounds like a silly idea and not from God, then wearing jeans is not disrespectful. It depends on how you were brought up. Paul, a Jew, kept the law but didn’t insist that others kept to the law. A person brought up in the church continues to dress in their “Sunday best” but doesn’t hold others to that same standard.
Holy Spirit discernment -- How do you know that the Holy Spirit was on Cornelius? How do we know if the Holy Spirit rests on someone? Holy Spirit is the least tangible person of the Trinity and can sometimes be hard for children to get their minds around. We use imagery like wind and breath, but we do the Holy Spirit a disservice if we cling to those too closely. Essentially the Holy Spirit is having an experience of God that you can’t put into words or even thoughts.
Evangelism -- Bringing others into the church sometimes means bringing surprising or unexpected people into the church. Who would the church feel uncomfortable including? We detest racism and long to embrace people of all races, but would we be welcoming of racists? In a child’s term, we are taught to empathize with the child getting picked on – but would we invite the bully? That gets a lot closer to what Peter and the early church were dealing with. Cornelius was a centurion (and Paul a persecutor of Christians); Cornelius (unlike Paul who changed his ways) as far as we can tell he kept being a centurion, albeit a good and upright centurion.
Prayer/revelation. By going to the roof to pray, Peter understood God more clearly. How does prayer help us understand the mind of God? How can we change from an “asking” form of prayer to a “discernment” form of prayer? Many children in your classes will have a rote prayer/prayers that they say at certain times of day. How can you push them to move into an asking/listening form for prayer?
- General lesson planning: www.rotation.org
- Kosher laws: http://www.jewfaq.org/kashrut.htm
- Kosher recipes: www.recipesource.com
Bible Background written by Lisa Martin from: Trinity UCC
A representative of Rotation.org reformatted this post to improve readability.
Lisa's lessons, associated with this story, can be found under specific workshops, links below:
- Art: Children will make soap carvings of the Holy Spirit, leading into a discussion of clean and unclean.
- Games: Use the parachute to explain Peter’s vision. Games will include blob tag and a memory verse game that also uses the parachute.
- Computers: Children will examine the “Color Blind” section of the Actual Reality CD (out of print), which talks about the way God sees us, and the way people sometimes discriminate. Cal and Marty’s Scripture Memory Game (older grades, optional). Children can build their speed for the memory verse or any other related verses with this program. This software is FREE to supporting members! Check it out.
- Cooking: Jewish Kosher laws will be discussed and traditional Passover sweets will be prepared.
- Drama: Script of Acts 10:1-11:18 and Bible study. Adaptations for younger ages include taping the dialogue and using puppets.
- Video: Children will watch a video on “Respect” from The Book of Virtues. They will discuss how the main characters treatment of a helpful junkyard worker parallels Peter’s opinion of Cornelius.