Reflection on Acts 10:34-48 & John 15:9-17

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

There are a surprising number of positive stories about centurions in the New Testament.  There is the centurion whose faith in Jesus’ power to heal his slave at a distance so impresses Jesus that he says, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”[1] In Luke’s telling of this story, the Jewish elders in Capernaum tell Jesus that the centurion “is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue.”[2]  There is the centurion in charge of the crucifixion who in observing Jesus’ demeanour and his nobility at the point of death, perceives him to have been innocent of the charges brought against him.[3]  There is Julius, the centurion of the Augustan Cohort who treats Paul kindly during his journey as a prisoner to Rome.[4] Then there is Cornelius who, along with some of his relatives and close friends, are the first Gentiles to convert to Christianity who weren’t already Jewish proselytes.  Today’s reading from Acts tells of the outcome of Peter’s visit to Cornelius in Caesarea, the Roman administrative headquarters for Palestine.

It is perhaps not surprising that the centurions who encountered Jesus and his followers were considered honourable men.  Unlike the highest ranks in the Roman army, which were reserved for aristocrats, centurions were ordinary soldiers who because of their obvious leadership abilities and their exemplary character had been elevated by the provincial governor to the rank of centurion to lead the troops and maintain discipline. They had signed up to serve as soldiers for twenty years if a Roman citizen, or twenty-five years if not, and were now in command of eighty men.   Each century was made of ten units of eight men (the number of men who could fit inside one tent).  Centurions were paid twenty times more than the legionaries they led, and so could become quite prosperous, well able to fund religious buildings.  The Roman army depended on its centurions, who were full-time professional officers, unlike many of the higher ranks who were short-term gentlemen officers, who undertook military service in order to bolster their political ambitions.  Army service was a necessary step for advancement in the Roman administrative apparatus.

Peter was in Joppa when a delegation from Cornelius turned up to request Peter’s presence in Caesarea. “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say,”[5]  they told him.  Peter had just experienced a vision exhorting him to eat animals forbidden by Jewish law (such as birds of prey, four-footed creatures like rodents, and reptiles – animals we mightn’t be overly enthusiastic about eating either).  The vision was not, of course, about abolishing the Jewish food restrictions but was, as subsequent events reveal, about overcoming the Jewish belief that they alone in all the world had access to the God of the world.  Peter acknowledges this as he begins to address those gathered in the home of Cornelius.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him,” says Peter.  A truth he has only just come to understand, and one which all of us here can be truly thankful for.

Peter tells his Gentile audience about Jesus, his life and ministry, his crucifixion and resurrection three days later, affirmed by eyewitnesses which included Peter, and his commissioning of the disciples to “preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead… and that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”[6] One suspects that what Peter actually said was a great deal more detailed than Luke’s summary of the gospel, as it resulted in the conversion of Cornelius and his household, which was confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Three times the gift of the Holy Spirit was made manifest by causing the recipients to speak in tongues.  The first was in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, the second was in Caesarea when Cornelius and his household were converted, and the third was in Ephesus after the twelve disciples of John the Baptist were re-baptised by Paul in the name of the Lord Jesus.[7]  On none of these occasions was an interpreter required to understand what the converts were saying when “speaking in tongues,” so I suspect that this was a different experience to the glossolalia that seems to have been a significant feature of the worship of the Corinthian congregation, and which Paul attempts to restrict to two or three speakers at any one time, with the presence of an interpreter being mandated.[8] 

The modern Pentecostal manifestation known as “speaking in tongues” seems to be an expression of intense emotion rather than the speaking of an actual language (heavenly or earthly) intended for communication, insofar as linguists have found no discernible structure indicating an underlying language from the sounds emitted by the speakers.  I don’t wish to belittle the power of the tongues speaking experiences of my Pentecostal friends, but I do note that in scripture when speaking in tongues is mentioned outside Corinth, this is perceived to be a miracle, and miracles are miracles because they are rare.  It clearly is not true that all “true Christians” speak in tongues, and to insist that they do has a tendency to lead to spiritual arrogance.  It was an attitude Paul was trying to correct among the Christians in Corinth when he urged them to strive for a more excellent way, which in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians he explains is the way of love.[9] Paul’s more excellent way is a neat segue to the second passage in today’s readings.

The lectionary takes us back to the Last Supper and Jesus teaching his disciples for the final time.  To stress the importance of his disciples staying connected to him and his wisdom, Jesus uses the analogy of a grapevine to which the branches need to remain attached to remain alive and to bear grapes.  For his followers to abide in Jesus, they must keep his commandments, summarised by his commandment that they love one another as Jesus has loved them.  Many years ago I remember preaching on this passage and saying that to love others as Jesus loves us is a challenging, if not impossible, thing for us to do.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” says Jesus to his disciples, and irrespective of the sacrifices we may have made for others, thankfully none of us have been required to totally give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us, else we wouldn’t be gathered here today.  Nevertheless to truly love others does require a high level of self-sacrifice, and this is not something that just happens, it is something we deliberately choose to do. 

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who are non-believers, have dismissed my faith by saying that Christianity is a crutch for the fearful.  I have not found it so.  Rather I have discovered that following Jesus requires considerable commitment and at times some courage.  That is the witness of his first followers.  Within hours of Jesus delivering his last instructions to his disciples, he would be hanging on a cross and they, terrified, would be hiding from their master’s enemies.  Yet after the resurrection, they boldly confronted those same enemies and proclaimed that Jesus was the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead, which included the chief priests in Jerusalem.  That two millennia later the teachings of Jesus, as handed on by the disciples, are still changing lives is a testament to the fruitful lives of the first Christians, and of generations of subsequent believers, including us.  “Truly… God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Amen. 

[1] Matthew 8:10

[2] Luke 7:4

[3] Luke 23:47

[4] Acts 27:1, 3

[5] Acts 10:22

[6] Acts 10:42-43

[7] Acts 19:1-17

[8] 1 Corinthians 14:27

[9] 1 Corinthians 13