This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the reading from the Book of Acts, 10.44-48, that is set for this Sunday, Easter 6.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
This week’s lectionary reading from Acts 10.44-48 gives us the conclusion to the story of the coming to faith of Cornelius and his household which is the subject of the entire tenth chapter of Acts. It begins with Cornelius’ vision in Caesarea, then Peter’s corresponding vision in Joppa, which leads to Peter accepting the invitation from Cornelius’ messengers and travelling with them back to Caesarea. An account offered by Cornelius of why he has asked Peter to come is next, followed by Peter’s retelling of the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection and promise of forgiveness of sins.
At this point the current lectionary reading picks up the story, as the Holy Spirit ‘fell upon all who heard the word’, and Cornelius and his household are baptised. And the chapter ends with what seems a lowkey, almost throwaway line, ‘They invited him to stay for several days’ (Acts 10.48).
However apparently throwaway lines are sometimes the most important and interesting in scripture. One of my favourites comes in the story of Joseph in Genesis 39.6, ‘Now Joseph was handsome and goodlooking’. With a sentence like that one can be sure that there is going to be trouble ahead!
What we have here in Acts though is a throwaway line that takes us to the very heart of the Christian story.
It is traditional (indeed officially ‘required’) to read extracts from Acts in Sundays throughout the Easter season, up till Pentecost. I am not quite sure of the logic of that – why before, rather than after, Pentecost? But given that this is the part of the church’s year when we seem to read Acts most systematically, it is probably appropriate that for at least one week this lectionary blog focuses on Acts, using the set reading as our starting point.
To return to our throwaway line, ‘They invited him to stay for several days’.
One of the insights of Luke, the writer both of the Gospel and Acts, is that hospitality, offered and received, is not an optional extra – but the very key to Christian mission. God is the great party-giver, and one of the most powerful images of the Kingdom in the New Testament is the ‘Great Feast’ to which all are invited – even the most unlikely. There is a delicious comment by the biblical scholar Robert Karris that picks this up: ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.’ A slight exaggeration – but it also contains a deep truth.
As regards Acts, the sequel to this Gospel, it is interesting to discover how often the motif of the sharing of food as well as wider hospitality also appears in this biblical book. It is certainly a key motif in this episode with Cornelius, who was of course a Gentile, a Roman officer and living in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine in New Testament times. First Peter’s vision in Joppa so clearly focuses on ‘food’, and in particular the different foods that were considered clean or unclean under Jewish dietary laws (Acts 10.11-15). Next there is a brief note (another throwaway!) that Peter offered the messengers of Cornelius overnight lodging (Acts 10. 23). It is also interesting that Peter’s presentation in front of Cornelius of the story of Jesus specifically mentions that the resurrected Jesus ‘ate and drank’ with his disciples after his resurrection from the dead (Acts 10.41). And then finally we have this concluding line which suggests that Peter accepted Cornelius’ hospitality.
To understand the radical nature of what is happening we need to be aware of the strict social protocols that separated Jews and Gentiles in New Testament times. They were partly linked to Jewish dietary laws, which meant that it was very difficult for both groups to eat together. Peter’s comment to Cornelius, ‘You yourself know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile’ (Acts 10.28) accurately sets out the situation. It was also telling that Peter’s vision precisely focused on ‘unclean foods’, even though in the context of the vision they are intended as a metaphor for his then perception of Gentiles.
So the giving and receiving of such hospitality was a visible ‘symbol’ of the breaking down of division and of Christ’s work of reconciliation. Hospitality is not an optional add-on to the work of the Gospel, it is the work of the Gospel. I cherish and often come back to the ‘throwaway’ remark made once by Professor David Ford, ‘Christian mission is offering the hospitality of the face of Christ.’ (David Ford)
What is the practical expression of such Gospel hospitality in our context, our place and time?
Quite a few years ago I edited Partners in Learning, an ecumenical all-age worship publication (now morphed into Roots). For several weeks one year we looked at key themes in the Book of Acts – which of course included an exploration of how hospitality is a theme that is so central to the book. I wrote a number of imaginary ‘invitations’ – all in fact linked to specific moments in Acts when hospitality was offered and received. The invitations were intended to be used in an all-age worship service, or possibly study group, with people being invited to reflect on the invitation and write their response. The series of imaginary invitation letters was intended to get people thinking – and comments we received back suggested that some people certainly did!
I set out some of these invitations below – I am particularly proud of my effort on behalf of the people of Malta! Please do feel free to make use of them if it would be helpful to you.
1. To Sextus, Septimus and Octavius, servants of Cornelius.
I gather you have had to travel from Caesarea to Joppa, because your master wants to meet me. You must be hungry. Do come in, have a meal with me and stay the night. Shalom, Peter. (Acts 10.17-23)
2. To Peter.
Many thanks for sharing the wonderful news with me about Jesus. Before you have to return to Joppa it would be marvellous if you would stay with me a few days, even though I am a Gentile.
Gratefully yours, Cornelius. (Acts 10.44-48)
3. To Paul.
You wonderful man! I do so love listening to you. Come on, make the leap, come and stay with me while you are in Philippi even though I’m a Gentile. It will be one small step for Paul, one giant leap for Christianity. Ever yours, Lydia. (Acts 16.13-15)
4. To the Jewish inhabitants of Rome.
Please come and have a meal with me at my house and listen to what I have to say to you. It’s important. Grace be to you, Paul. (Acts 28.23-31)
5. To Peter.
Can you stand the smell? If so I would be chuffed if you could stay at my house. I know a tanner isn’t considered quite OK in the best Jewish circles, but then as you told me yourself your friend Jesus used to accept some odd invitations as well. Hopefully yours, Simon the Tanner (Acts 9.43-10.16)
6. To Arete and Hermione, widows.
I am sorry that you took umbrage the other day when there wasn’t enough to go round. You are quite right – the Hebrew speaking widows were taking more than their fair share of the food. But I hope we’ve sorted that out now. My friends and I have just been officially appointed as’ deacons’ with a special responsibility for you Greek speaking ladies. Do come to the next common meal. Stephen (on behalf of ‘The Seven’) (Acts 6. 1-6)
7. To Paul and his companions.
How cold and wet you all look! Do come in and let us warm you up. We have a lot of experience of welcoming holiday-makers and travellers, even though they don’t normally arrive as dramatically as you. Swimmingly yours, the inhabitants of Malta.
PS Take care not to step on any of the snakes. (Acts 28.1-10)
8. To Ananias.
Can you come quickly? There’s someone staying with me that I very much want you to meet. You may be able to help him. Do keep quiet about it, his name begins with S… Please come this afternoon and stay for supper. Judas. (Acts 9.10-19)
9. To Paul and Silas.
My wife and I would be most honoured if you could spend a few hours at our house. I’m sure you could do with a wash and clean-up after your time in jail. It was all a misunderstanding. Your friendly neighbourhood jailer at Philippi. (Acts 16.25-34)
10. To Apollos.
We have heard about you from our mutual friends Prisca and Aquila. We are longing to meet you. Can we put you up when you come to Corinth? Sorry to be so brief, but we are not as eloquent as you. Best wishes, some Corinthians. (Acts 18.24-28, 1 Corinthians 16.12)
11. To Paul.
Any chance of seeing you again, Paul my old friend, on your trip to Jerusalem? Do pop in and stay with us if you can. You haven’t met my daughters, have you? I will try to keep them quiet while you are staying with us – they are rather keen on prophesying, and I hear that you think the ladies should keep silent.
Affectionately yours, Philip (Acts 21.7-14)
12. To Paul.
I’m sure that you could do with somewhere quiet to stay while you are in Jerusalem this time. I would be most honoured if I could put you and Timothy up at my house – it’s conveniently near the temple.
Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21.15-16)