Commas and Cornelius

Peter’s encounter with Cornelius was a breakthrough in the inclusion of Gentiles into the early Church, which began as a Jewish community which obeyed Jewish purity and cleanliness laws. God put a comma where there once was a period.  God is still speaking today through the Holy Spirit, opening the Church to include people who once were considered outsiders, “welcoming everyone” (as stated in our congregation’s mission statement).  

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Acts 11:1-18


I would guess that all of us have things that we’re “nerdy” about, things that we’re really into that sometimes can become an obsession.

One thing that I’m kind of nerdy about is grammar.  I pay attention to things like sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation.

I’m not sure where this nerdiness came from– I do vividly remember diagramming sentences in 6th grade, and really enjoying it.  I also won a couple of spelling bees in elementary school.

Maybe it’s my interest in grammar that attracted me to an image and slogan that came out a while back from the United Church of Christ denomination.

The slogan was “God is still speaking”, and the image was a bright red comma.  They even had big metal commas that members of their churches could put in their yards –our neighbor when we lived in Bluffton had one of them.

The comma is used in contrast to a period.  You know, sometimes I’ve heard Christians use this phrase that communicates this period mentality:

God said it; I believe it, and that settles it.   

Now there’s some truth to this phrase.  There are certain truths in scripture that remain constant that never change.   Things like God is love.  And Jesus is the incarnation of God, God in the flesh.  And Jesus is Lord and Savior.

At the same time, to say “God said it: I believe it, and that settles it.” often implies that the person has a certain interpretation of scripture that is set in stone, and they’re unwilling to consider other ways that the passage can be interpreted.

Like “This is the way it is.  Period.  End of conversation.”

It can close people off to being open to God revealing us new ways to see and understand things in a changing world, a world that is very different from the culture and context that the Bible was written in.

Many of you know that I grew up in the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church is kind of known as a church that thinks more in terms of periods than commas, in terms of doctrines and traditions.  Historically, things don’t change very quickly or often in the Catholic Church.

But when I was kid growing up in the 1960’s, there was a big gathering of leaders in the Catholic Church called the Vatican II Council, held in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome over a period of 4 years.

Vatican II was an effort to discern how God through the Holy Spirit might be leading the Catholic Church to change its doctrines and its practices in a world that was changing.

I was an altar boy right after Vatican II finished, and one of the changes that I saw firsthand was the Mass being conducted not in Latin anymore but in English, in the language of the people, the common vernacular as they say.

And along with it, the priest was now allowed to face the people during the mass, instead of having his back to them which was the way it had to be done pre-Vatican II.

A couple of doctrinal changes that happened as a result of Vatican II had to do with Catholics’ understanding of non-Catholics:

Vatican II affirmed that there can be truth and holiness in other religions, and also Protestants—non-Catholic Christians–would no longer be considered as heretics of the faith.

All these things were a pretty big deal, and as expected, not everyone in the Catholic Church welcomed the changes enthusiastically.  But the bishops and cardinals and pope who met during the Vatican II Council believed that God had led them to adopt these new doctrines and practices, which in many ways opened up Catholics’ minds and eyes to see God working in people and places they had previously been closed to.

In a way, it was like putting in a comma to acknowledge that God is still speaking to the Church, and  revealing new ways of being faithful and relevant in a the contemporary world.

In our scripture story today, we see how God used Peter and a guy named Cornelius to put a comma where people in the early church thought there should have been a period.

And it led to the Church spreading and growing in ways that most people didn’t think was possible, specifically to the inclusion of Gentiles, those who weren’t Jews, to become part of the Church.

Peter was like everyone else in the first Church that started in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost—he was Jewish.  Jesus–the one they had come to believe is their long-awaited Messiah—was Jewish as well.

To these first Christ-followers, to be part of this new community meant keeping all of the purity and cleanliness laws that were detailed in the Old Testament, around 613 of them.

Belief in Jesus as the Messiah and obeying all of the cultural laws of their faith went hand in hand—you couldn’t separate them.  It was part of their identity as a people of faith.

So to them, the good news of Jesus the Messiah was meant for the Jewish people only.  Period.  There was no place for Gentiles in the Church.  Period.

But then through the working of the Holy Spirit, God changes that period into a comma.

And this comma was kind of like the big red umbrella in the children’s story, because it opened the door wider for people of all backgrounds to be included and welcomed into the Church.

Really, that’s what the book of Acts is all about—the growth of the Church that first started in Jerusalem, and as the risen Jesus tells his disciples in Acts 1:8, right before he ascends into heaven,

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

And the author of Luke makes the book of Acts feel like a real page-turner, like a novel that you can’t put down, as he recounts how God through the power of the Holy Spirit used people to expand the Church by breaking down barriers–cultural, economic, social, relational barriers, to include more and more people in places that are farther and farther away from Jerusalem, the center, through men and women like Peter, and Philip, and Paul, and Lydia and Priscilla and Aquila and many, many others.

The history of the early Church as described in Acts shows us that the key to the initial expansion of the Church, the biggest barrier that had to be broken down, was the one that would allow Gentiles to become part of the Church.

It was a barrier that required divine intervention, and that’s what happens with Peter and Cornelius.  To recap the story:

Chapter 11, which we heard today, is actually Peter’s recounting of the event which is told in Chapter 10.   And his audience here is a zealous group of  gatekeepers of the Israelite laws knows as the “Circumcision Party”.

I wonder if that party still exists today?  Imagine being at an interfaith gathering, someone says, I’m part of our faith and life commission,  I’m on our denominations outreach council, some says, I’m part of the “circumcision party”.

That’s a conversation stopper right there.  Or maybe a starter, depending on the audience! (I wonder if that party still exists today?)

Anyway these guys in the circumcision party are skeptical and probably pretty upset of the news they heard that this Gentile named Corneliuswho wasn’t circumcised and who ate food that was unclean— was let into the Church by Peter.

So Peter had a lot of explaining to do.  I can imagine a very tense scene where emotions were running high, kind of like some “discussions” about the Church or politics that some of us may have had with family and acquaintances or on social media in the past couple of years.

Things could have gotten out of hand real fast in Chapter 11, but it seems like Peter stays calm and just explains what happened, using gentle persuasion to show how God through the Holy Spirit was a big player in everything that happened.

How an angel appeared to Cornelius and told him to send for a guy named Peter, and how when Cornelius’ messengers were on their way to get Peter, Peter has a vision where he sees this big sheet coming down from the heavens, filled with all kinds of animals that were considered unclean to Jewish people like himself.  Then he heard a voice that said to him three times: Get up Peter.  Kill and eat these animals!

After that, the story says that the Holy Spirit told Peter about these men who were looking for him that were sent by God, and to go down and welcome them into his house, and then go with them to the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Then, Peter is explaining to Cornelius this new revelation he received from God,    that God shows no partiality toward people, that God accepts people from all backgrounds and nations, and explaining to him and his household all about who Jesus is, and his death and resurrection,

All of a sudden the Holy Spirit makes a grand entrance, an exclamation point to the story by being poured out on everyone in the house, Jews and Gentiles alike, and people start speaking in tongues and praising God.

This is the story that Peter recounted to the circumcision party.  And he finishes by saying,  “if God gave Gentiles the same gift that God gave to us when we believed in Jesus, who am I to stand in God’s way?

And the story says that the men fell silent, and then they glorified God saying, God has also given Gentiles the opportunity to know him and experience new life in Jesus.”

Now this wasn’t the end of the controversy of the inclusion of Gentiles into the early Church.  As can be expected, a lot of traditionalists were not in favor of it.

And the early Church decided to bring leaders from the different churches together and hold a meeting to decide about including Gentiles or not in the Church.

So in Acts 15 we read about what’s known as the Jerusalem Council, where different people shared testimonies of how God had worked among Gentiles, and at the end of the meeting, a letter was drafted that said,

“it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit” that Gentiles should be accepted into the Church even though they don’t keep all of the Jewish laws.

As a result of this gathering, and Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, outsiders had now become insiders in the Church.

In grammatical terms, a period was replaced by a comma. God was still speaking, still working to welcome people into the Church who before had not been welcomed at the table, or under the umbrella.

I believe that God is still speaking today.  Yes, it’s true that the book of Acts in the Bible has 28 chapters.  But the Holy Spirit has been working in the Church and in people’s lives since then and will be working until Jesus comes to redeem the world for once and for all, whenever that day may be.

So I think it can be theologically and grammatically correct to imagine a comma, not a period at the end of the book of Acts, knowing that the history of the Church of Jesus Christ is still being written.

In fact, I’ve heard of a church group called Acts 29, which reflects this idea that the story isn’t over yet, God is still working, the Holy Spirit is still moving, to reveal to the Church and to people of faith what it means to be faithful in a changing world.

I believe that we need to discern as Peter did— first, he got a vision he thought was from God.  Then he saw the fruit of that vision in the life of Cornelius and his family.

Then he took what he experienced and tested it with other people in the community of faith, all seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And then there was confirmation of this new revelation from God, a new way that was working to turn outsiders into insiders, expand the reach of his grace and love to people who had once been excluded from the community of faith.

I also believe that this idea of commas, of God still speaking, can apply not only to our community but also to us as individuals.

Sometimes we feel stuck in a situation or a relationship, or in an attitude or behavior that we know needs to change, kind of like U2 says in their song, “Stuck in a Moment”.

There’s a barrier like a period, that prevents us from moving forward or knowing what to do next.  But maybe we are called to trust that God is still speaking, and can change that period into a comma, and keep working to show us the way, to change us so we can be more free, more faithful, more joyful.

In a moment, we’re going to sing “Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me”.  Sing it first “fall afresh on me”, then as a community,  “Fall afresh on us”.

As we sing, I invite you to see this as a prayer asking God to touch you with His Spirit, maybe where you need hope or healing or insight or guidance right now, maybe in your relationship with God or with someone else, or regarding a decision or change that is coming up in your life.