Peter was very perplexed. What could the vision mean? Just then the men sent by Cornelius found Simon’s house. Standing outside the gate, they asked if a man named Simon Peter was staying there.
Meanwhile, as Peter was puzzling over the vision, the Holy Spirit said to him, “Three men have come looking for you. Get up, go downstairs, and go with them without hesitation. Don’t worry, for I have sent them.”
So Peter went down and said, “I’m the man you are looking for. Why have you come?”
They said, “We were sent by Cornelius, a Roman officer. He is a devout and God-fearing man, well respected by all the Jews. A holy angel instructed him to summon you to his house so that he can hear your message.” So Peter invited the men to stay for the night. The next day he went with them, accompanied by some of the brothers from Joppa.
They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered his home, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter pulled him up and said, “Stand up! I’m a human being just like you!” So they talked together and went inside, where many others were assembled.
Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean. So I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. Now tell me why you sent for me.”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago I was praying in my house about this same time, three o’clock in the afternoon. Suddenly, a man in dazzling clothes was standing in front of me. He told me, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your gifts to the poor have been noticed by God! Now send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner who lives near the seashore.’ So I sent for you at once, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here, waiting before God to hear the message the Lord has given you.” — Acts 10:17-33 (NLT)
You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, as the old saying goes. You can’t reach the top without stepping on a few toes. You can’t stay at the top without whacking a few heads. And you can’t build and keep an empire by being nice.
Now I love ancient Roman history, but even I have to admit that the Roman Empire was pretty awful. The soldiers who built it were often jerks. Reading about their marching songs, reading about the way they treated their prisoners, especially the women and children, is enough to make your skin crawl. And the New Testament backs this up: the Roman Empire treated Israel like a tax farm, hiring tax collectors on the cheap so they’d have to overcharge their own people; Roman soldiers could grab anyone on the street and force him to carry this or that – remember what happened to that random guy who was watching Jesus carry his cross? – and if they wanted money, they could just stop you on the street and make you give it to them. Don’t like it? If you were lucky, they’d just beat you up. Or you could do nothing legally wrong, and you could still end up on a cross, like Jesus – naked, flesh torn to the bone, wondering if exposure, shock, dehydration, or blood loss would kill you first.
But hey, empires need running. Soldiers need paying. Eggs need breaking.
Now God willing, none of you will ever have to live under that kind of authority. But the Jews did, including Peter in this passage. So they didn’t have much to hope in. But hate keeps a man alive. And all the Jews knew, they knew it in their bones, that God would smite these Romans. He’d pay them back, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Their women, their blood.
But then Jesus did tell Peter to love his enemies. That was… inconvenient. And then God gives Peter a weird vision involving a flying zoo, and then he tells Peter to cooperate with these… these bullies, these pigs.
So I want you to understand how offensive it was for God to tell Peter to see Cornelius – even if he was nice, his people sure weren’t. Why should those awful people get a chance to be saved?
Now how much more offensive would it be if I told you that this thing God told Peter to do – this was exactly what God had told Jesus to do, by sending him to us?
Think about it – long before Jesus was born, God’s people had started to hate God. Every time God sent a prophet to speak to them about their sins, they tried to kill him. In fact they started searching the land for people who claimed God was the only God – and they’d kill them. God’s people were now his enemies. So finally he sent his son Jesus to speak to the world, because he wanted to bring us home. And what did we do? We murdered him.
But that didn’t stop God. He raised his Son from the dead. And anyone who trusts his promises will be saved. That’s how God reached out to a world that hated him, that’s how he reached out to people who were disobeying him. He didn’t bully them, he didn’t force them. He didn’t send his angel legions – he sent his son, born in a smelly cave, where animals lived. Jesus made friends with crooks and hookers. One of his closest friends was an ex-terrorist. And he was not at all impressed by the nice, religious men of his day. And we murdered him, thinking that would shut him up – but in fact that was how he won. That’s how we’re now free to come home to God.
A couple of years later he sent an uneducated, hot-tempered, fast-mouthed fisherman into the home of an occupation army officer.
And today, God keeps reaching out to awful people in weird ways. Awful people like you and me. God still sends his people out into a world that hates them – and he often picks people who don’t seem impressive or qualified at all. Sometimes they meet with success, like Peter did in this passage. Other times they get killed for telling people about Jesus – you hear about it on the news. Others get hated or shunned. And yet God keeps reaching out. That’s how he builds his kingdom. He doesn’t bully, he doesn’t dominate, he doesn’t manipulate. He reaches out.
That’s the God of the Bible. That’s the Father of Jesus Christ. He reaches out to awful people. People like you and me. He wants us to be clean. He wants us to come home. And he’s going to keep using the weirdest ways to reach out to us, whatever it takes.