In Luke 14, Jesus tells a story about a generous host who invites his inner circle to dinner. They say yes initially, but then back out at the last minute, so the host extends the invitation to the outcasts in the city and the travelers (strangers!) out in the middle of nowhere. This parable is about God’s invitation to come and feast with him at his Kingdom table, no matter our past.
In our shepherding groups at Westside, we read a story that ties in perfectly with this parable: Cornelius and Peter from Acts 10. When you read that story against the backdrop of Luke 14, you start to see all kinds of connections.
In Luke 14, Jesus was trying to teach the religious insiders that one day soon, God would be extending the invitation to the kinds of people they used to look down on or reject. At the same time, he was reassuring all of the outcasts and “the least of these” that God doesn’t judge them they way other people do, and they have a place as his table just like anyone else.
And then in Acts 10, all of these themes come together in a really powerful way. In that chapter, there’s two conversions that take place. One is really obvious, and the other is more subtle. But both are equally important in God’s Kingdom.
The Two Conversions in Acts 10
The first conversion is Cornelius, and he’s the obvious one. He is a Gentile—a religious outsider—and no one like him had ever become a disciple of Jesus before. Up to this point every single Christian was also a Jew. But that would all change when Cornelius received the Holy Spirit and was baptized into Christ. Cornelius was converted to faith in Jesus the Messiah.
And it is rather significant that Cornelius, a military officer representing the most powerful empire in the world, finally realized that true salvation comes from the criminal that his compatriots crucified on the cross. Imagine the humility needed to finally accept that a nobody criminal from a nobody people was the true source of power. His decision to trust the power of Christ over the might of Caesar is an important reminder for all of us today.
The second conversion is Peter, and that’s the one that’s less obvious. He’s already a disciple, so he doesn’t need a conversation to faith, he needs a conversion to free-flowing grace. Peter, just like all the Jews, assumed that God chose Israel and rejected everyone else. Peter was honest about the fact that Jewish customs said he shouldn’t even share a meal with a Gentile like Cornelius. But that would all change when God revealed to Peter that the invitation to the Kingdom was now open to everyone, because God doesn’t show favoritism. Peter was converted to a more expansive view of God’s grace–even for the Gentiles!
Cornelius needed to learn that salvation came from an unlikely place. Peter needed to learn that God’s grace extended to people from all walks of life. By the end of the story, both men had a significant change of heart.
Reading Acts 10 With Luke 14 In Mind
In Luke 14, the host sends his servants far outside the city to bring in outsiders and strangers that he’s never even met. This is a foreshadow of the way God will one day include Gentiles like Cornelius in his Kingdom. Acts 10 is the specific fulfillment of that foreshadowing. But one interesting detail that you might not notice right away is that Cornelius is the first person God appears to in Acts 10, and he’s the one who sends servants to invite Peter into his home. In this context, Peter is the outsider and Cornelius is the host, which directly challenges our assumptions about insiders and outsiders in the story.
Most of us tend to identify with the heroes (or victims) of the story. We are David fighting Goliath, we are the Israelites who need to be set free from our slavery, we are Peter or Paul preaching about Jesus. We don’t stop to consider that we might be the Pharisees, or the Egyptians, or the crowd of people ready to push Jesus off a cliff (and yes, that really happened).
When you read Acts 10 from Peter’s perspective, Cornelius was a good-but-not-great man who did most things right, but didn’t have Jesus. As good as he was, he wasn’t good enough. And Peter could ride in on a white horse, preach a Gospel sermon, and play the part of the hero. In that reading, the story becomes about a flawed person joining Peter’s inner circle by placing his faith in Jesus. But when we read Acts 10 from a different perspective, we see that Peter’s conversion was just as significant. Peter wasn’t the hero of this story, he was an outsider in need of conversion–just like Cornelius. So it’s not just the religious outsiders who need to have a change of heart, it’s the insiders as well. Through the preaching of the Word and the power of the Spirit, Cornelius was converted to faith. But don’t miss the fact that Peter needed to be converted, too. He needed to open his eyes to the unrelenting grace God was ready to pour out into the world.
An Ongoing Conversion
We as Christians need to experience an ongoing conversion of our hearts and minds because we are both Cornelius and Peter at the same time. Perhaps that’s why the Apostle Pauls writes these words in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (NIV)