The following is the manuscript of a teaching given by Leah at Haven on May 10, 2015.
William Joseph Seymour was an African-American man born in Louisiana in 1870. His childhood was not an easy one. His parents, Simon and Phyllis were former slaves. William was the oldest in a large family that lived in abject poverty. He grew up in a dangerous time for African-Americans in the south. The KKK actively terrorized the blacks of southern Louisiana, and violence against them was extremely common.
As a young adult, William came to faith in Jesus and experienced a call to ministry. After surviving a bout of smallpox that left him scarred in the face and blind in one eye, he attended a bible school in Houston, Texas. Because of strict segregation laws, he was forced to sit outside the classroom full of white students and listen to the teaching from the hallway. Yet despite the significant challenges William Seymour faced, he obediently walked forward into what he felt God was calling him to.
In 1906, William was invited to speak at a church in Los Angeles. When he told the congregation that he believed that when the Holy Spirit came, people could be released to pray in tongues, he was literally locked out of the church. Undeterred, William began preaching to a small group of people in the home he was staying at. Through those meetings, God's spirit was poured out in a wondrous way. People began falling to the floor, speaking in tongues, and experiencing what could be described in no other way but revival.
Word spread and soon hundreds of people black and white gathered, spilling out of the house and on to the porch. Prayer meetings took place around the clock. There were so many people, that the floor of the house gave way and the revival meetings had to be moved elsewhere. Under William’s leadership, the group moved to a barn on Azuza Street, and there, William Seymour led his ministry through an increasingly more significant outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This phenomenon would come to be known as the Azuza Street Revival, and what God began there would impact the church around the globe. The revival gave birth to a number of church movements that believed that God moved today through his Holy Spirit in significant ways, including Pentacostalism, and other charismatic movements like the Association of Vineyard Churches, and now Blue Ocean Faith.
William Seymour was used by God in an amazing and unexpected way. He did not set out to change the history of the people of God. By all reports, William was an extremely humble man, who would preach behind a stack of boxes or with a paper bag over his head, because he didn't want people to be distracted by him, or his wandering blind eye. But God was pleased to use William not only to bring a fresh wave of his Holy Spirit, but to challenge the cultural biases of the day. In a time when blacks were without privilege or advantage, where it was especially dangerous to be a black man, William Seymour became the leader of a movement in the church that would affect myriads of Christian believers: black, white, Latino, Asian, and beyond.
Now today is the next message in our current series on the Book of Acts, I’m calling “Now It’s Your Turn”. And while there are lots of fascinating episodes in Acts we could look at, and lots of interesting people we could focus on, we don’t have time in this series to explore them all. But the passage I’ve chosen for today seems particularly relevant to us because it focuses on a particular character whose involvement in the Biblical story was arguably the foundation for the inclusion of most of us in the people of God. Furthermore, the character at the heart of this story was a person whom even the closest friends and followers of Jesus could not have foreseen entering the Biblical narrative.
You see, thousands of years out from the events of the Bible, it might be easy sometimes to forget that the origins of our faith lie in a relatively small, extremely ethnocentric religion. Remember, the Jews were not just a spiritual community; they were a race with an ethnicity and a culture to themselves. They were a people with a fervent belief that, though they may have lived an occupied, even persecuted, existence as a race, they alone among the people groups of the world were God's chosen people, and their culture alone reflected a commitment to Yahweh. It is against this background, in the early season of the life of the church, that we meet our character today; a man named Cornelius.
From Acts 10, starting with verse 1:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
OK, let’s break there for a moment and talk about what we know so far. Cornelius is an interesting character. On the one hand, he’s presented as a centurion. He’s an officer of the Roman army, a man of great status and authority, and is stationed at a place called Caesaria, which at the time was the center of Roman government and the headquarters of the Roman army in the region.
However, Cornelius is more than just a tough Roman soldier. Verse 2 also tells us that Cornelius is “god-fearing”. Apparently, not only was Cornelius a centurion, but he was one of a minority of people called “God-fearers” who lived alongside Jews in the ancient world, and adopted some of the spiritual practices like prayer to Yahweh, and giving to the poor.
The significant factor here is that they were not full converts to Judaism. People like Cornelius were not circumcised. He did not go through ritual cleansing. He did not observe the Jewish dietary laws or practice the sacrifices that they did. He had not renounced his culture or his cultural status as a Roman Centurion. Yet Cornelius is called by Luke, the author of Acts, “devout” and “God-fearing”. Apparently God recognizes his devotion because he sends him an angel to give Cornelius instruction which he immediately obeys.
Now the next part of the story doesn’t feature Cornelius directly, but it sets up what’s to come in his story. Let me summarize what happens.
The narrator moves our focus from Caesaria to Joppa, a city about 30 miles away, which would take a day or two to travel on foot. We now zoom in on Simon Peter, the apostle, one of the closest friends and companions of Jesus, and one of the key leaders of the early church. Peter is praying on the roof of the home in which he is staying, and as he prays, he has a vision. Now this vision needs a bit of cultural context to make much sense. Peter, of course, was a good kosher-keeping Jew, and as such, he could not eat a number of different animals which the law of Moses had declared unclean. The practice of observing these cleanliness codes was so stringent that any contact with animals that were considered “unclean” would contaminate the “clean” animals that Jews were permitted to eat.
So while Peter is praying on the roof, and he’s hungry, waiting for lunch, he has a picture of a sort of divine tablecloth being lowered of animals – but the animals are a mix of clean and unclean, which means, because of cross-contamination, they are all effectively unclean. Peter resists a voice urging him to “kill and eat” and responds to it “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” This happens three times, and each time Peter is corrected and told by the voice, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Dramatically, as soon as this happens the third time, voices are heard from below. Let’s pick up the story there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
Quick aside – we know something is up because for an observant Jew like Peter it is not kosher to invite a gentile into your home. However, it’s even more taboo to visit a gentile’s home because there you really have no control over the food or the environment. Keep that in mind as we finish with a longer section of the story below.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only human myself.”
27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
So this is a revolutionary moment. It’s a votes-for-women kind of moment. A Rosa Parks type moment. A first-black-president-is-elected kind of moment. In this moment of history, the boundaries that have surrounded what it means to be a person of God have been instantaneously torn down. How? For the first time the good news of Jesus has been shared and the Holy Spirit has fallen on a man – with foreskin. Seriously. This is a radical revelation.
Since the arrival of Jesus, the kingdom of God has been advancing. It’s become more and more inclusive, bringing in all kinds of folks from the outskirts of religious life: women, the poor, lepers, Samaritans, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. The early church continued this expansion, but thus far, all the people the good news had been shared with had something in common. They were all Jews or converts to Judaism. Essentially, if they were men, they were circumcised…
Until this shocking moment. Cornelius the Centurion finds himself in the middle of the biggest scandal of the early church. Shortly thereafter Peter is called by the other Jewish followers of Jesus to explain why he is fraternizing with and baptizing these gentiles, and before too long a whole council of early church leaders would be convened to decide what to do about the gentile problem. Cornelius and the other gentiles in his home are the start of a revolution.
But is Cornelius a revolutionary? Interestingly enough, Cornelius is not the activist in this story. To be sure, he plays an important role, but the primary actor, the catalytic character moving this revolution forward, is not Cornelius. It is the Holy Spirit. God Himself. God, the initiator of Cornelius’ vision; God, the initiator of Peter’s vision; God, the one who cleverly unites their visions into a shared story which brings them together, and then God, who bursts into the center of their encounter in such a dramatic fashion that Peter must say “Surely no one can stand in the way” of what God is clearly doing. But while Cornelius is not an activist driving the agenda, he's clearly involved. How?
First of all, Cornelius is listening. His heart is turned toward God. He's been worshiping him, not as a Jew to be sure, but worshiping him nonetheless. He's prayed, he's given to the poor. He is already in a place where he is giving God honor and authority in his life, which makes room for God to communicate with him through the angel.
Secondly, Cornelius is obedient. He doesn't stew on the vision he's had while praying. He doesn't consult family members or respected companions. Cornelius grabs on to the experience he's just had and responds decisively. He immediately calls forth trusted servants and a soldier under his leadership and finances their trip to Joppa. He knows there’s risk involved. He knows Jews don’t typically want anything to do with gentiles, and what he is asking - for Peter to come to his house - is a bold request. But he doesn’t hesitate.
And while he awaits his men’s return, he doesn't coyly keep his cards to himself, waiting to see if this vision will be proved true. No, he tells his family. He tells his friends. He puts his status and reputation on the line as he tells apparently large numbers of other gentiles that the God of the Jews has spoken to him through an angel(!), and that God is sending him a Jew named Simon Peter, to come to his house and tell him more about this God. And Cornelius' influence is significant enough and he shares this news in such a way that many of his family and friends feel compelled to gather at his home and see what this Jew from Joppa has to say. Through his actions, Cornelius demonstrates that he is listening to God, and he is receptive and obedient to the story God is casting him in.
But there's another point that's vitally important about Cornelius. Cornelius is ministered to and used by God exactly as he is – an uncircumcised gentile whose heart is inclined toward God. God was pleased to change history through Cornelius, and he did not expect Cornelius to become a Jew either before or after he came to faith in Jesus. Like William Seymour, Cornelius was not looking to change history – he was just looking for God. But God had higher aspirations.
Carl Medearis is a follower of Jesus who has spent years living in Lebanon and other places in the Middle East sharing the good news of Jesus with Muslims. Listen to this story he shares in his book Speaking of Jesus about an experience he had with one of these Middle Eastern Muslim friends who was visiting a group of his back in the United States. His Muslim friend had just walked away from a tense conversation with one of Carl's Christian friends.
The next thing I knew, my Muslim friend (not yet a follower of Jesus) had gone out on the deck and was smoking a cigarette like his life depended on how fast he could suck it down. I walked out and nonchalantly said, “What’s up, bro?” His response: “Why the $%&^@ do these people want to convert me? Why can’t they just leave me alone? I know that you don’t want to convert me. Right?” Talk about a loaded question full of semantic nuance. Here’s my answer and what happened.
I asked him what he thought my other friend wanted to convert him to. He said, “He wants me to be a Christian, but I’m a Muslim.”
I asked him what he thought this friend meant by becoming a Christian. “He wants me to stop living in the Middle East and loving my family.” I told him I was pretty sure that’s not what this friend meant, but if that’s what “conversion to Christianity” is, then I agreed—he shouldn’t convert.
“See,” he said to me, “I knew you weren’t into conversion.”
“No I’m not,” I said. “Not like that. Not at all. I think you should stay in your country, love your family, and be who God has made you to be.” Then I asked him this: “What do you think God thinks when He looks down at all 6.5 billion people on earth?”
“He thinks they’re all screwed up,” he said.
“Yep, that’s what I think God’s thinking too. So what do you think God would like to do with all these messed-up people? Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, nothings, everyone?”
He had never thought of that before, so he wasn’t sure. But he did say God would probably want to “help them not be so screwed up.” I agreed.
“So you might say that God would like to convert all 6.5 billion people on earth. Not to a religion, but to Himself. He would like everyone to be like Him. To be converted into Him. But how would He do that? He’d need a converter.” I went on to tell my friend that if he bought an appliance here in the States and took it back to the Middle East, he’d need something to change the current from 110 to 220 volts. “What’s that called?” I asked him.
“A transformer or converter,” he said.
“That’s right. So what is God’s transformer to get us all back the way God wants us to be? To change us? To convert us?”
He gasped (literally) and said, “It’s Jesus. I never thought of that—but it’s Jesus. He’s the converter.” He got so excited he called his wife out and told her the whole conversation. She started to cry.
We sat on the deck and prayed that God’s “converter” or “transformer” would change us into the current that can be connected to God. And that He would do this with all of our friends. It was a profound moment. Amazing that just a half hour earlier he was about to bite this other guy’s head off for “trying to convert” him and now he sat with me in tears praying. The power of words.
This story represents Carl's whole philosophy. He's not trying to convert anyone to Christianity. He doesn't even like to call himself a Christian because he resents the cultural baggage that comes with that term. Carl doesn't want Muslims to stop being Muslim. All Carl is doing is helping Muslims to become Muslim followers of Jesus.
Cornelius is being given the same invitation, but this story isn’t just about him. This story is also about Peter, and the “converting” Jesus has to do with his view of what it means to be included in the kingdom of God. Three times God gives Peter a vision, which challenges his understanding of religious boundaries. Caught up in this vision from God, he suspends judgment when the strangers arrive at his door, and he accepts the request to visit Cornelius the centurion. But it is not until he arrives and hears of the miraculous encounter Cornelius has also had with God that Peter really understands. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
The word here in Greek is ethnos. The way that it is translated here is “nation”, but it is really better translated, “people group” or “culture”. It is a word not only for nation-states but any gathering of people who share a common way of life. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every distinct culture and sub-culture who fear him and do what is right.”
I came to a real faith in Jesus during my college years, and in those early years, I experienced first-hand a strong divide between my secular and my spiritual spheres. In my theatre program, I was the lone Christian. In my Christian settings, I was one of the only artists, and so it became natural to label these areas of my life differently. I called them “the world” and “the church”. When it came to choosing a vocation, this worldview had a profound influence. While various pastors and Christian leaders encouraged me to channel my leadership gifting into ministry, I declined. “No,” I told them. “I’m for the world, not the church.” In my mind, to give myself to vocational ministry meant turning my back on the people my heart was most moved toward – those who had not yet experienced the life-transforming presence of Jesus that I had.
It took God’s intervention in my own life to challenge and change my thinking. After saying “no” to ministry, I spent several years as a gigging musician in the secular music clubs of Chicago. At the same time, I always maintained leadership roles in my local church, but saw that simply as a means of serving Jesus, not a vocation. It took a serious bout of pneumonia which had me bed-ridden for six-weeks, for me to reconsider my choices. As I lay on the couch, unable to perform any shows, unable to work my day job, unable to lead any ministries at church, I puzzled at why it was that the only things that I truly missed were my ministry involvements. “Why do I miss ministry, and nothing else?” I asked Jesus.
“Because that’s what you were made for,” I felt Jesus speak back to me. “
But I thought I was made for the world, not the church.” I responded.
Jesus spoke in return, “Why do you think it has to be one or the other?”
In that moment the Holy Spirit made clear to me the lie I had internalized as truth: that I was making a false choice between church and world. God was in the business of tearing down the walls between sacred and secular. He was looking for his church to be in the world not apart from it. And he was inviting me to play a role in leading that effort.
Like Peter, my vision was limited by what I thought I had seen God do, and how I believed he worked. I needed God to broaden my thinking, to reveal my incorrect judgments, and to convert me to His view and His purposes.
So as we end our look at this story of Cornelius and Peter, where are we left? What is God’s invitation for us?
Perhaps, like me, some of us resonate with Peter. We recognize that we have internalized certain assumptions about the community of God. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, envisioning us to see ways in which we have called others unclean due to our own cultural biases. To us, God is communicating the truth that God does not show favoritism; that his kingdom is to be extended to people from every ethnos; every culture and subculture. He is opening our eyes and inviting us to envision his kingdom extended to people from every race, every political party, every gender, every profession, every class, every sexual orientation – for God does not show favoritism. We are invited to celebrate that truth, to proclaim it with boldness, and to partner with the Holy Spirit in bringing all people to Jesus.
There are others of us, however, who might resonate more with Cornelius. There are folks here who recognize that God is doing a new thing, a new thing with them. There are those of us who have spent time on the margins, women in male-dominated fields, folks of color in majority-white culture, people who find themselves in the kind of vulnerable spaces that Cornelius and William Seymour inhabited. To you who are there, I encourage you to follow the leading of those pioneers. Fix your eyes and your attention on God. Allow Him to be the primary actor. And as He gives you a role to play, do not hesitate, but cooperate with what He is doing, making space for God to use you as he will to accomplish his transforming purposes. And as the lead pastor of Haven, I say on behalf of our community, in whatever arena you are doing this, we’re with you. We want to stand at your side, to bless your risk-taking, and to have your back however we can.
This isn’t just theoretical teaching to me; it’s personal. As I think most of you know, it was through several years of discernment with the Holy Spirit, through study of Scripture, and through relationships with friends who were gay, both inside and outside the church, that I came to the conviction that whatever church God was calling me to start in Berkeley would, among many other things, need to be a safe place for LGBT persons to encounter Jesus in community. There were a lot of factors that were part of that process, but more than any other single passage or argument for inclusion, this story spoke to me the clearest.
You see, Peter had heard from the Holy Spirit, but he could have ignored it. He could have just sat on the vision and mulled over it for a while. He could have rationalized it away. The safe kosher thing to do when Cornelius’ messengers were at the door was to turn them away. But Peter didn’t. He went to Caesaria unsure of what he would find. Peter took a real risk. He went, and when he saw the work of God’s Spirit in his midst, he did not try to force the spirit of God to conform to his systems and paradigms. He did not say, “ok, well you have God’s Spirit now…oops. Guess we better get the knife out.” No, Peter understood that God was doing a new thing. And he had enough faith in the Spirit of God to allow his understanding of how God worked to be changed.
I remember one Sunday in Iowa City serving on the prayer ministry team at the end of our Sunday service, when we invited folks in the congregation forward who wanted to experience more of the Holy Spirit. A woman who had recently started attending the church, a new friend of mine, came to the front. She was new to this whole Jesus thing, but she was eager and hungry for more. And as she came forward and I laid hands on her, I watched with wonder and awe as God’s Spirit came clearly upon her. Her eyes fluttered, her hands began to shake, her breathing deepened. She showed all the signs of a person having a genuine encounter with God. And like Peter, I blessed and celebrated something new for me that God was doing. Because my friend was gay. She was married to a woman. They had two children, and, even so, God’s Holy Spirit was pleased to come to her, to move in her, to empower her just as she was, without any conditions; without requiring anything of her but her own openness to God’s work in her life.
So why does all of this talk of inclusion matter? To what end are we moving? What happened through Cornelius and Peter was one of the first blows toward the power of racism, prejudice and sectarianism in our world. But it was not the last. It is true that two millenia later, we still feel the pain of these evils in our world. But the pain is not without hope. Cornelius and Peter remind us that God is doing the work of tearing down divisions and creating a people for Himself that calls forth men and women from every people group. The work is not yet finished, but we know the end towards which it is moving.
The vision given to John, spoken through the book of Revelation reveals the picture of the story’s end.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every ethnos: every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9-10)
And then all gathered in heaven, the multitudes, the angels, all of them bow before God in worship, saying:
Amen! Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanksgiving, and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen! (Rev. 7:11)
Oh, hasten the day, Lord. We long for Your kingdom to come, and for us to gather with the multitudes from every ethnos to see you in your glory. Amen.