The reason why Cornelius’ giving of alms is so important to Luke is because the giving of alms to the poor is a sign that God is at work in the depths of the human heart.
Talented authors often use intertextual echoes to bring points home to their readers. In a novel, for instance, something may happen early on in the story, the importance of which is seen in its fullness only later in the story when something else happens that connects back to the earlier scene.
Here in this story of Cornelius we encounter just such an echo, an echo that comes to us from another story Luke tells us in his gospel, another story that talks about alms and the human heart.
In the gospel of Luke we meet Jesus talking about the importance of giving alms to the poor; this happens in the midst of a confrontation with the corrupt religious leadership of his day Luke (11:33-34). Invited to dinner at the home of one of those leaders, Jesus deliberately skips an important religious rite; he does not ceremoniously wash before the meal. When confronted, he says in so many words, you foolish people; you are dirty on the inside as evidenced by your greed and your obsession over your social status. This is made painfully obvious by your lack of support of the poor people in your midst. Deal with the inside of your heart. Repent of your selfishness and greed and this repentance will be reinforced by your giving alms to the poor.
Jesus is teaching in this passage, as in the whole of the gospel, that it is the cleanness of the heart that counts with God, and the evidence that God is at work in the heart will be in the way people treat the vulnerable in their midst. Fast forward from that encounter, through the cross and the resurrection and into the growth of the gospel in the early church and here in the text before us we have our echo of the importance of alms for the poor in relationship to ritual cleanliness. But this time someone gets it right and the someone is one who is by definition ritually impure - he is a gentile. The one who is counted by the Judaism of that day as unclean and unwashed gives evidence that God is at work in his heart by how he treats the poor.
We will meet Cornelius again in the homily that follows communion and he will teach us a lot about God’s love for all people but as we get ready to receive the sacrament of communion let us remember that at this table each week we are invited to come close to God’s heart; we confess our sins and we are cleansed so that we may love as Jesus loves, and care for others as Jesus cares for us. It is not what is on the outside that counts but that which is on the inside - it is what is on the inside, twisted and broken that we bring to Jesus to be straightened and made whole.
In the time we have remaining this morning I want us to come back to Cornelius. We have already noted that Cornelius is a signpost of what God desires to do with the whole of humanity - to change us from the inside out so that we might participate in Christ’s self giving love. The evidence of God’s work in Cornelius is seen clearly, perhaps most clearly, in the way he treated the vulnerable in his midst, by giving alms to the poor. But Cornelius is a signpost in another important way too. His response, as one outside of Israel to the God of Israel is a signpost (like the Ethiopian Eunuch of last week) that the mission of God is to bring his redemptive love in Christ to the whole of humanity - to every sort and kind of people.
In a conversation this week with a friend who is a New Testament professor, I learned something that I was not aware of: I quote Aaron Kuecker here almost verbatim: “Every time the Spirit speaks directly to a person in Acts,
And so last week the Holy Spirit tells Philip to go and talk to the Ethiopian Eunuch and this week, Peter, is told by the Holy Spirit to go to with Cornelius’ people.
We have remarked before that part of following Jesus is learning to see people as God sees them and nowhere is this drilled home more clearly than in what the Spirit teaches Peter in this mysterious vision; but, it is the way Peter applies what he learns in the vision that is most remarkable. Look at the two passages below - one is about food and one is about people.
Acts 10:14 But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Acts 10:28 You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
In the vision Peter is told to regard foods that he regarded unclean as clean; and yet when he comes into Cornelius’ home he says that God has shown him that he should regard no person as unclean or profane. What is going on here? In the vision, there is pork and shellfish and the like, but in Cornelius’ home there is no mention of food but only of people - ONLY OF PEOPLE.
Well, something very important is going on. In the religious and socio-cultural context in which Peter lived what a person ate and how they were to be regarded as a human being were inseparable..... but here Peter says I have been taught by God to pull those things apart and to see all people as precious and dear to God.... it is what is going on in the inside that counts!!!!
Church, friends, brothers and sisters: we have no right to expect that we can follow the Spirit at work in the world when we regard the other, the one who is different from us as unclean, profane and not loved by God. To put it positively, we follow the Spirit and Jesus in mission when we take as a starting point that all people are loved by God and precious to him even though we struggle to see people that way because of our sinful fear and judgment of the other.
Questions for discussion:
1. I suggested above that the giving of alms, or our modern day equivalent, reinforces the work of God in our hearts? Do you agree with this? If not, explain why not. If you agree, why do you think God works that way?
2. On what grounds does Peter state his desire to baptize Cornelius’ people? Why does he ask if anyone wants to withhold baptism? Is that a rhetorical question?
3. Do you think, as a church, we receive outsiders as enthusiastically as does the early church as exemplified by how eagerly and quickly they assimilate the gentiles?