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The story of Cornelius

I’ve always loved the story of Cornelius out of the 10th chapter of Acts. It is the account of a Gentile, an outsider, one of “those people.” He’s a Roman centurion, an officer in the occupying army, which makes him especially onerous. But he is a believer; he supports the local synagogue and contributes generously to help the poor.

In spite of being an outsider, he has a robust prayer life. So much so that God gives him a vision one day, telling him to send for Peter the apostle who is down the coast. 

At the same time, Peter is getting his own vision from God — of all kinds of “unclean” animals, those that good Jews were forbidden to eat. The call from heaven invites Peter to kill and eat.  To which the pious Peter says, “Not me, Lord. I am a good boy.” 

But God doesn’t let him off the hook.

“What God has created you must not call profane.”

The story goes on from there — of how Peter receives Cornelius’ messengers, goes to Caesarea, and while he is preaching, the Spirit of God comes to all of those “unclean” people. 

The lesson here is that we may put up borders and boundaries to keep ourselves in and others out. But God has this habit of knocking our silly walls down. This is just one case, but it is a powerful and beautiful one.

In our days, we put up all kinds of walls. Whether you are a liberal or a conservative, black or white, believer or nonbeliever, Christian or Muslim or male or female, it seems that we really enjoy putting up walls. We put them up for safety, we put them up for protection, we put them up to keep ourselves pure and we put them up for many reasons.

But God apparently doesn’t like walls. The Spirit of God is always moving around the Bible and in our lives, knocking down walls and making something new happen. It takes a while for us mortals to get in on the story, but eventually we begin to see that what is going on is not something radical or dangerous but the movement of God bringing us closer together with those we had called “outsiders.”

Lately in our town a group of Christians have been getting together with those from other faith traditions. They are not satisfied with walls and feel the joy of sitting around a table, breaking bread and sharing joys and sorrows with each other. It’s something they hope will take root and develop into a community meal by the end of the year.

In our time of fear and suspicion, it could be that the most faithful thing we can do is to trust a wall-breaking God and let our guards down with those who are different. In doing so, we may be led to a new vision of God’s presence and love — just as it did for Cornelius and Peter.

Rev. Dr. TOM ROBINSON is pastor of Farmville Presbyterian Church. His email address is robin216@embarqmail.com.