Cornelius the Centurion

ImageIn Acts 10:34-43, Peter announces that God’s amazing grace is on the move, breaking down traditional boundaries (and barriers) between the Jews and the nations (gentiles).

Through his encounter with Cornelius, Peter comes to realize that “God shows no partiality” … but in every nation (be that geographical, cultural, or social), anyone who fears God and does what is right is accepted by God.

WOW!  God shows no partiality.

Think about how that statement challenges and undermines our tendency to confine God to the comfortable categories of our own “religion” or religious beliefs.

Consider Cornelius: Why might God have chosen him and his household to be the first gentile converts to Christianity?

From Scriptural accounts, we know that he’s a centurion, a notable leader of Roman soldiers.  He’s described as “God-fearing,” someone who loves the Lord, prays regularly, and one who helps the poor.  We’re told that he even built a synagogue for the Jews.  We’re also told that he lives in Caesaria, was part of the Italian regiment, and that his entire “household” – kinfolk, friends, and servants – worshiped God.

Given the time, place, and Cornelius’s position, this was truly radical!

Even more radical, though, is that I believe Cornelius is the same man referred to either as “a centurion” or “the centurion” whom we’ve met elsewhere in the Gospels.

In Matthew and Luke, we’re told that, at the crucifixion of Jesus, “When the centurion and others keeping watch over Jesus saw … what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).  Luke (23:47) adds, “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’”

I suspect this centurion was Cornelius, paying his last respects to the extraordinary man and teacher who earlier had healed his servant.

In my humble opinion, “the centurion” we’re introduced to in Matthew and Luke was Cornelius.  Remember the story about the centurion who sought Jesus to heal his servant “who was dear to him”?

Let’s take a look:

<< Luke 7 >>
World English Bible

1 After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2 A certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.” 6 Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. 7 Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” 10 Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.

The story as told in Matthew’s Gospel is pretty much the same … except that the centurion, himself, approaches Jesus rather than sending the elders of the Jews on his behalf.

In either case, many people – including Bible scholars who have analyzed the words “dear to him” in this passage – believe there was a very special relationship, a deep, loving relationship, between the centurion and his servant.  And I believe it was this special, same-sex love that touched Jesus’ heart and motivated him to reach out and heal the man’s servant.  Not to mention, accept the relationship between the centurion and his servant!

If you were an exalted soldier of rank and power, respected by your own people, would you beseech help from a wandering rabbi of a foreign religion for a mere servant of yours?  Would you forsake your own god or gods and humble yourself in front of the supposedly ignorant natives who were your subjects, just to cure someone who worked for you?

Not likely!  Not if you were a Roman Centurion.  You would not, could not, risk the ridicule … even if you were in love with another man, as was often the custom among Roman men such as this at the time.

As the centurion made his way toward Jesus, I’m sure he was concerned that Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis, would condemn his “dear” relationship.  But he probably decided that if Jesus was able to heal his lover, he was also able to see through any lies or deception.

In response to the centurion’s love and his honesty, Jesus said without reservation: “Then I will come and heal him.” 

The centurion replied there is no need, that Jesus’ word was sufficient.

Instead of Jesus saying, “he is healed … go and sin no more,” as he did to the adulterous woman, he said, “I have not found faith this great anywhere in Israel,” and held Cornelius up as a man of real faith.

It’s apparent to me that the Lord was already working in Cornelius’ life, preparing him for the events which would occur to him and his household in Acts chapter ten.

Rather than debate and explain those “clobber verses” we so often hear, I claim this Scriptural account as an affirming one.

For centuries, the church has insisted that loving, homosexual people are nowhere to be found in the Bible and, certainly, never presented in a positive light.  Many Christians refuse to believe that God would include a positive story about a manly centurion who loves another person of the same sex.

I believe that our Creator is doing a new thing today … revealing another dimension to what it means to be loved and accepted by God.

A wild and winsome force, God’s love still can win over the hearts of centurions like Cornelius.  It says, “Bah-humbug” to the conventional categories of who’s deemed “in” and who’s cast “out.”  It eats with sinners, washes the feet of ordinary men, associates with prostitutes and other people of ill repute, and upholds loving one’s enemies as a commanding new norm.

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