An outsider becomes a family member
Last week we did some theology on who the current “Gentiles” are in our world. That is to say, who are the people who are having a hard time getting into the church, like the Gentiles did in the New Testament. One person suggested that those who do the good works of God but are unrecognized by the church are, and one of our pastors, Julie, led us to consider chapter 10 of Acts, where Cornelius is granted entry into the church. But how is he granted entry into the church? How is he “cleansed?” And what does that mean for us today? I want to explore that here.
Cornelius was a Gentile, that is to say, he was a Greek person, and he was the first non-Jew to become a Christian. His story is an incredible one. The writer of Acts describes Cornelius and his household as devoted and God-fearing. They describe him as giving generously to the poor and praying constantly to God.
One day, an angel of the Lord appears to Cornelius, and honors his alms to the poor, saying that they are a memorial to God, and God sends Cornelius to Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus himself.
Meanwhile, Peter receives a vision from the Lord—perhaps hunger-induced—that suggested that Peter was allowed to eat all kinds of food, even ones that were forbidden by the Jewish law. The voice said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat” after displaying a sheet full of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
After this vision occurred, the men Cornelius sent appeared to Peter and invited him to Cornelius’s home. When Peter meets him, Cornelius bends at his knees as a gesture of honor and respect. Peter thinks that Cornelius sending for him is a sign of the vision he had that there was no longer clean and unclean things—including for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. Cornelius and his household enter into the early church, and the whole church changes once again. What follows in Chapter 10 is what you might call a Pentecost for Gentiles. A whole new group of people hears the word of the Lord and decides to follow him. This is revolutionary because people that Jewish people would not formerly associate with are now siblings.
Almsgiving as a means of cleansing
What happens here to make a formerly unclean person and people group clean and ready for table fellowship with Jewish people? It is not that cleansing is no longer important, but rather it occurs through new means. Many commentators think that the cleansing happens through faith, but faith isn’t the means of cleansing, according to my friend Tim Reardon. Reardon argues that cleansing of the Gentiles is a holistic cleansing, a fully embodied cleansing, not merely an act of faith alone. Cleansing for Jewish people was a matter of obedience, and the same is true here, too.
Many people disagree with the idea that anything but faith might cleanse someone, but if we read Acts 10 carefully (where Cornelius is converted), we see a causation between Cornelius’s alms and his cleansing. From verse four, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” This piece is not a point of controversy, but the idea that anything but faith is what cleanses you comes from Acts, a few chapter later, specifically 15:8-9. From the NRSV:
“And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.”
Reardon suggests a whole different reading of this passage, which “restores the order of events, so that cleansing is located prior to Peter’s arrival.” Here’s the traditional rendering, versus what Reardon suggests:
and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.
making no distinction between our faith and theirs, on account of having cleansed their hearts
Reardon has technical reasons for his switch, but it all amounts to a simple change in punctuation (no actual change in syntax), one that restores the order of the Cornelius narrative in chapter 10, where almsgiving is the means by which Cornelius is cleansed—prior to his relationship with Peter. This linking between cleansing and almsgiving is common in the Second Temple period and through the Greek Old Testament (LXX) it represents “active righteousness, and God’s righteousness in particular.” Reardon notes well however, that “It would be a mistake, however, to see this as emphasizing exterior works over inner faith. That would only reinforce the bifurcation of inner and outer. Almsgiving is a representation of the whole self.”
Jesus sees almsgiving as inwardly transformative
This cleansing is paralleled in Luke 11, where a similar occurrence happens. Jesus draws controversy onto himself for not washing before dining with a Pharisee. And here, he launches into a rebuke. Here’s Luke 11:39-44:
Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”
Jesus here suggests that the Pharisees are clean in a ritual sense, but not holistically. They are clean on the outside, but inside they are greedy and wicked. He rebukes them for their lack of alms, their lack of giving to the poor, as a sign of their interior uncleanliness. He argues that their alms would make them entirely, holistically clean. He doesn’t dispute their ritual commitments—their tithing in this case—but he names that they remain unclean, nevertheless. Their inner action, their alms to the poor, expresses their cleanliness. Reardon says, “it is a cleaning of the ‘inner’ through almsgiving from what is within—that is, from the whole. This almsgiving is not a spiritual attitude but tangible action, which is precisely what Jesus expects of the Pharisees (and his own disciples).” The Pharisees and Cornelius show this in the former’s lack of alms, and in the latter’s cleanliness via alms.
Cornelius’s almsgiving expresses his inner and outer cleanliness, and makes a way for him in the fellowship as an accepted member of the community. What Cornelius shows us is how to find the faithful, even if they aren’t in our churches, in our fellowship, or even naming themselves as Christ-followers.
Who are the ones who are already cleansed, yet still excluded today?
Peter’s vision confirms the work that God is already doing in the life of Cornelius. Peter doesn’t allow Cornelius in the fellowship, and into his home, in order to be cleaned. He’s already cleansed. And for us, we must look at where the faithful action is, to note where transformation has already occurred. Who is offering alms today, and is thus fearing God? Who is serving the least of these, and thereby has their heart cleaned?
And alongside of those questions, who is not being included in the church? Who in the church are like the Pharisees? Ritually clean, but not holistically cleaned? Whose prejudice against the poor and the oppressed keeps them from being truly clean?
During Pride Month, I suggest we look to the faithful witness of LGBTQIA Christians across the country and world and see, indeed, that their inner work—the work of their whole selves—demonstrates faithfulness to Christ. Their witness is further strengthened by the fact that they have so much going against them, especially in the church. Every single LGBTQIA person that is in our churches is a miracle of God and a testament to Christ’s faithfulness. They join the Body of Christ even with people that are supposedly in that body rejecting them. A truly incredible demonstration of faithful witness.
But to those people that reject them, Jesus reserves his words in Luke 11. Your outward piety may make you appear clean, but the hatred and prejudice within you shows your true self. Woe to you.
I pray for the church to have a vision like Peter’s, one that shows them that their exclusion and disempowerment of LGBTQIA people isn’t of the Lord. And I pray that God keeps moving in the lives of people like Cornelius, those who were systemically excluded from the church, to show them they are indeed accepted. May more Peters be converted and more Corneliuses be found. Show us the way, Lord.
 Reardon, Tim, Cleansing through Almsgiving in Luke-Acts–Purity, Cornelius, and the Translation of Acts 15-9, CBQ, 78, 2016