Acts 11:1-18; Luke 24:13-35
3rd Sunday of Easter
St Barbara’s; 23.04.2023
Rev Jeremy Bevan
Momentous. Awe-inspiring. Those are words we might use to describe the events Peter the
apostle recounts in that reading from Acts 11. His account of the vision the Holy Spirit gave
him, and his meeting with the Roman centurion Cornelius, display God’s power at work.
Momentous as those events are, today I want to explore them using two very ordinary short
English words, the words ‘and’, and ‘but’.
If you’re an ‘and’ person, you listen with eager expectancy when someone tells you of a
fresh, amazing experience of God’s love spreading. ‘And what does this mean for us?’, ‘and
how do we need to change?’ are just two encouraging ways you might put your curiosity
into words. Peter and Cornelius are ‘and’ people who see and welcome God’s new direction.
The initial response of the Judean church suggests they’re ‘but’ people, as if asking Peter
‘but why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’. They see only problems,
want to defend where they’ve come from rather than go on with God. There is, of course, a
time and a place for ‘but’. I hope, though, that we all have it in us to be ‘and’ people quite a
lot of the time. Let’s take a look at Cornelius and Peter as ‘and’ people, and see what we can
learn from them.
First, Cornelius, a devout non-Jewish friend of the people of Israel. Acts 10 tells us he prayed
constantly, gave alms to the poor in Israel. He’s also, of course, a Roman soldier, officer of
an occupying enemy power. You can see the problem some in Judea may have had with
him. ‘But why should our holy God have anything to do with this unholy enemy?’, they
might ask. Except Cornelius looks surprisingly holy, a worthy sympathiser with the Jewish
faith. And he is open to more, to the new that God has to give. When he sees an angel, an
unmistakeable sign across the ancient world of a visit from God, his heart clearly says ‘and’
in response, and he immediately sends men to find Peter at the exact address the angel has
What was the ‘more’ that God had for Cornelius? At the end of our reading, the leaders of
the church in Judea thank God for giving even non-Jews like Cornelius the gift of
‘repentance that leads to life.’ Cornelius was ‘devout’, but the Roman gods to whom he
would have had to do reverence weren’t big on forgiveness, as far as we can tell. So coming
to know through Peter that there was after all a God who forgives must have been life-
affirming for him as a professional soldier, perhaps with many things on his conscience for
which forgiveness was needed, and for which forgiveness was good news.
Hearing the surprising news that the Holy Spirit had visited both him and Peter must have
left Cornelius in no doubt there was a place for people like him in the plans of the God who
invites our ‘and’. There are plenty of ‘and’ people like Cornelius around us today, people we
all know, ‘religious’, ‘good’, ‘spiritual’, doing the things it’s right and proper to do, ready for
a nudge, perhaps, from the God who says ‘there’s more, there’s life in all its fulness’. Could
we be a Peter to the people like Cornelius that we know?
Thank God Cornelius had a friend like Peter, with his capacity to let God surprise him, with a
vision for the ‘and’ of God. Peter is a ‘good Jew’, knows the Jewish law, knows what’s proper
for a Jew to eat and what isn’t. So when he’s praying on the roof and sees a sheet filled with
animals that aren’t OK for a Jew to eat, you’d expect him to say ‘but God…?’ Three times the
same vision appears – Peter being, after all, a man who seems to need life’s most important
lessons repeating three times. And he finally gets the point: it’s not about food.
For me, Peter is a great reminder not to let the rules stop us being as surprisingly generous-
spirited as the God of ‘and’. Yes, he protests, his initial response is ‘but’; and in protesting,
he shows what a struggle it can be for all of us to escape a mindset that says, in effect, “I’m
sticking to what we’ve always done, what you told us to do, Lord”. In the end, though, he
gets that this is the authentic voice of God saying (however surprisingly) there’s more’. And
when Cornelius, together with all his household, receives the Holy Spirit, Peter recalls the
words Jesus said to the disciples back in Acts chapter 1 about baptism with the Holy Spirit.
He no doubt recalls, too, the events of the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell
indiscriminately on everyone. He recognises that the God of ‘and’ is at work. Now, as then.
In Caesarea, as in Jerusalem.
As in Peter’s time, the church today faces major challenges as it works out what it means to
say ‘and’, to be generous-spirited in a fast-changing world. Here at St. Barbara’s, our vision
of growing in love for God, each other, our community and the world grounds that Spirit-
given calling of seeking to say ‘and’ in our everyday lives. The Anglican church continues to
wrestle with whether to let non-Christian faith leaders say prayers at Charles’s coronation;
with how best to welcome among us and support those with mental ill-health; how to
welcome LGBT+ people. As I was thinking about this yesterday, I had a small vision of my
own: that stunning tapestry of Christ in majesty in our cathedral, his wounded hands and
feet offered to us, like a question: ‘And?’
In a sense, the story of Cornelius and Peter isn’t done when Peter finishes telling the leaders
what happened. Having launched things on a new trajectory, God’s Spirit still has work to do
with the Judean church people who, at the end of our passage, join Cornelius and Peter in
saying ‘and?’ to God, not ‘but’. Exactly how non-Jews should live as faithful Christ-followers
crops up again in Acts 15. It fills the letters of Paul. But it is to the eternal credit of Peter,
and Cornelius, and the early church that they didn’t get in God’s way. They responded
generously to the Spirit’s utterly surprising new direction. And as God’s Spirit continues to
move among us today, may we answer with the same generosity the God who longs for us
to say ‘and’, not ‘but’.