There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called theItalian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!”
And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?”
So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
It may come as quite a surprise to us, but the apostles, starting with Peter himself, still had a lot to learn about the new Christian way of life, even after spending about 3 years with Jesus during his ministry and another 40 days after the resurrection. Can’t say they weren’t warned: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). Here is a major lesson for a devout Jewish man: one of the pillars of keeping a distinct identity so as not to be swallowed up in the dominant Gentile world was to observe the ritual purity commandments of God right in the Bible (see Leviticus 11). These included keeping kosher: eating the right kinds of foods with the right people. Peter had to be shocked by a revelation that arrived through his daily routine of being prayerful (which is quite different from just saying prayers). He had never eaten anything forbidden for legitimate spiritual reasons. Now Peter found himself in puzzlement before the God he thought he understood, who had done something new in Christ that threatened a central feature of traditional religion: ritual purity laws no longer matter because of Jesus’ powerful healing and reconciling ministry. Although he could not possibly understand the radical implications of this for Christian mission and witness, Peter is about to find out (notice how the passage begins with Cornelius, a non-Jewish Roman military officer). What might the Lord have in store for us as we seek him through our prayerful rhythms in the privacy of our own homes? Be ready: we could be in for something we don’t expect either.
Father Harry Pappas is the presiding priest at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangels in Stamford, CT.