Thursday, October 20, 2016

What's Next

We know that after the conversion of Cornelius, his household and his close friends, Peter stayed with Cornelius for a "few days."  Acts 10:48.  We do not know from the Bible what happened over those few days, so we have indulged in a bit of speculation.

I am sure that Cornelius had many questions, but I suspect there were three that predominated.  First, I suspect he wanted to know what had just happened to him and his household.  While Peter was still preaching the gospel Cornelius and his household began praising God and speaking in tongues.  Acts 10:44-46.  I am certain it was an experience unlike anything Cornelius had ever experienced before.

The second question I suspect Cornelius had of Peter was aimed at discovering what it must have been like to have known Jesus as Peter did.  What was it like to literally do life with Immanuel -- God with us?  What was it like to break bread with him, to see his ministry on earth first hand, to laugh and to cry with him?

The third thing I suspect Cornelius wanted to know was what to expect next.  And, this is the question we spent some time on last night.

I don't think Peter would have had much of an answer for Cornelius.  We live in a relatively predictable world and a relatively predictable church.  Not so in the time that Peter and Cornelius lived. 

Peter knew that the journey Cornelius travelled with Jesus would be different from his own.  It is the very nature of a spirit-led life.  ("The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."  John 3:8).  He also knew that Jesus promised his followers that they would do even greater things than he!  ("Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."  John 14:12).

What could Peter have possibly told Cornelius about what to expect, except by reference to his own journey?

In my mind's eye, though, Peter would have been reluctant to talk about all God had done in and through him.  I think perhaps that before talking about his own experiences Peter would have reminded Cornelius about the moment they met -- when Cornelius fell to Peter's feet in reverence and Peter said "Stand up.  I am only a man myself."  Acts 10:26.   I think that Peter would have explained that Jesus found him as a mere fisherman -- a person of know status in his own community.

I think Peter would have explained that none of the apostles were men of position or wealth.  He might have said that no one would have believed that God would pick them.  God is, after all, unwilling to share his glory with anyone.  When the earth saw what was accomplished by these men, everyone would know that it had to be God's hand and nothing else.  They were incapable of such things on their own.

I think perhaps Peter would have explained how even after three plus years with Jesus none of the apostles really understood.  He would have talked about how many times they were confused about what Jesus did and said. Indeed, even after Jesus rose from the grave and spent forty days with the apostles they still didn't really understand.

Even at the very end of their time with Jesus on the earth, the apostles still believed Jesus had come to establish an earthly kingdom:

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

No, Peter could only speak of God's story told through Peter's life when it was clear to Cornelius that Peter himself had contributed nothing to that story.  Indeed, the only thing that Peter himself did was to respond to the call by Jesus to follow him.  Everything else was done through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Cornelius must have been astonished to hear how the Holy Spirit fell upon the apostles during Pentecost, and how the tongues of fire appeared over them.  Even more, he must have been amazed at how a man of no religious, social or financial standing, a man with no education and no training, could speak the gospel for the first time to Jews from all over the world.  How Peter could stare into the crowd with confidence and power and tell them that it was they, with the help of some wicked man, who had nailed Jesus to the cross.

Cornelius must have been amazed that the church added 3,000 to its number on that day alone, and how it grew rapidly in the days that followed despite overwhelming odds and overwhelming opposition.  He must have been amazed at all the miracles that were being performed -- so much so that the sick and hurting gathered in the streets in the hopes that Peter's shadow might touch them so that they would be healed.

As a soldier, he would have known that simple men like the apostles could not, on their own, stand up to the Jewish authorities after their arrest.  Not only did they do so, but they refused to yield when ordered to stop preaching about Jesus:

The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem.  Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family.  They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people!  If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.  But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together.  “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it.  But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!  As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Peter and the others did many more amazing things through the Holy Spirit and were witnesses to God's power in many other ways before Peter had the vision that lead him to Cornelius.  Still, though, the journey God had planned for Cornelius would be his alone -- unique.  Neither Peter, nor anyone other human, could fully prepare him for that journey.

And so it is with each of us.

In this day and age, of course, we do not expect to experience anything close to what the early church experienced.  And, perhaps that is the problem.  We expect a fairly uneventful journey with Jesus, and our low expectations are fully realized.  Put another way, we go as far as our faith will allow us to go.

But I wonder.  What if when we first believed our expectations of what the journey would look like were more like those of Cornelius -- albeit in the context of our attempt at historical fiction?  What if the people who led us to Jesus prepared us to expect the Holy Spirit to work miracles through us and, most importantly, to reach hundreds or thousands of people with the Gospel?  What if we began our journey with the lift completely lifted from any God box?

I just wonder.  By the way, one last thing.  Are you curious about what became of Cornelius? 

Well, according to church tradition, after Cornelius and his household were saved he retired from his worldly life and joined with Peter to preach the Gospel (according to both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition Peter ultimately appointed Cornelius to serve as a bishop in the church).  As the story goes, at some point Cornelius was dispatched to the City of Skepsis, which was particularly known for its idol-worship.

Skepsis was the home of a prince named Demetrius, who was a student of Greek philosophy and hated Christianity.  As was of course common in the day, Demetrius worshiped pagan gods -- Apollo and Zeus, in particular.  According to legend, when he learned that Cornelius was in the city Demetrius summoned him and asked the reason he had come to Skepsis.  As any good Christian man would do when confronting a pagan prince, Cornelius told Demetrius that he had come "to free him from the darkness of ignorance and lead him to knowledge of the True Light."  See Hieromartyr Cornelius the Centurion, Orthodox Church in America ("OCA")

The prince, not surprisingly, responded in anger, and demanded that Cornelius offer a sacrifice to his gods.  When Cornelius entered the pagan temple, he prayed to the Lord, and immediately the earth shook and the temple of Zeus was destroyed.

In anger, Demetrius had Cornelius bound and thrown in prison.  And while there, the prince learned that his wife and child had been in the temple when it was destroyed.  But, in the night one of the pagan priests heard the voice of the wife and son somewhere in the ruins.  And not only that, the two were praising Jesus from within the rubble!

Cornelius was brought from the prison to the destroyed temple.  He prayed for those in the rubble and they both emerged alive.  As the story goes, Demetrius too came to believe in Jesus and the whole town was converted.

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