This story has become so familiar to me that I really had come to take each element of it for granted. But as I was reading it today, it dawned on me for the first time how convoluted and indirect the manner of receiving this revelation really was. And this is all the more astonishing, given the importance of the revelation that was received.
If I had never read this story before, and someone had asked me, "How would the Lord reveal to the Church that they should change their membership policy and allow Gentiles to join?" I might say, "Well, the Lord would probably appear to the Prophet -- or maybe send an angel if he wasn't going to appear himself -- and simply tell the Prophet that it was now time to allow Gentiles to be full-status members of the Church." And that is precisely what did not happen.
Here's how it actually unfolded:
Step 1) An angel appears to a righteous Gentile named Cornelius and tells him that the Lord is pleased with him, and that he should send messengers to go fetch some guy named Simon Peter, who lived with a tanner named Simon in the city of Joppa.
The way the story is worded, it's unclear whether Cornelius knew who Simon Peter was. Nor does the angel seem to be dropping any clues as to why Cornelius ought to fetch him. Though it is conceivable that Cornelius knew very well who he was, and had some idea why he was being fetched. A lot depends on the degree of contact we assume to have existed between Cornelius and the early Church, and whether or not we may assume that Cornelius had some desire to belong to the Church.
In any event, it's also interesting that Cornelius, not the prophet, is the first to receive a divine visitation.
Step 2) Peter has a "vision" on the rooftop. Now actually, the account says he "fell into a trance" (vs. 10). What Peter witnessed in a trance was very dream-like: a big canopy lowered from heaven, full of all sorts of unclean animals, and a voice saying "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." When Peter refuses the voice, on the grounds that he had "never eaten any thing that is common or unclean," the voice reprimanded him by saying "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." This happened three times.
Now, as revelations go, this one was pretty ambiguous. It was not clear at all to Peter what exactly the Lord was getting at here. The fact that it was not clear to Peter is attested by the fact he is still puzzling over the meaning of it when Cornelius' messengers arrive at the door.
Just before the messengers arrive, "the Spirit" tells Peter that three messengers are seeking him, and that he should go with them because they have been sent by the Lord.
So at this point, the only "revelation" that Peter has received is a highly symbolic, ambiguous and dream-like vision, and then a more direct command that Peter receives through the Spirit to go with three messengers who have come seeking him.
So far, Peter has not witnessed any divine beings. He's not received any manifestation more dramatic than what could have been a dream, followed by a spiritual prompting. Though, when they arrive, Cornelius' messengers inform Peter that the reason they were sent is because an angel appeared to their master. So Peter learns that an angel has appeared to Cornelius.
Step 3) When Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, Cornelius is gathered there with his entire family -- including, presumably, more distant kin and close friends. So clearly he's expecting something momentous. This is where it gets really interesting.
After his arrival, Peter explains "how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean." (Cornelius, as we know by now, is a devout and humble man, so he probably chose not to take offense at this statement that might otherwise have sounded patronizing at best.)
Now Peter is finally starting to make sense of his vision. He's finally seen the analogy between the commandment to eat the "unclean" animals, and the Spirit's prompting to travel with Gentile messengers to a Gentile household. But this understanding has come to him by a process of analogizing and reasoning, not as a result of revelation. Peter figures this part out on his own.
After Peter explains himself, Cornelius follows suit by telling Peter his story -- how the angel appeared to him and what it told him to do.
In Peter's mind, this is confirmation of what he's already started piecing together. He draws the conclusion, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." So clearly, the fact that an angel appeared to Cornelius has made an impression on Peter, and it has provoked an insight: in God's eyes, the Gentiles are no different than he is. God accepts them -- the Gentiles -- on the same terms that he accepts anybody else, based on their love of him and their efforts to do good.
This insight was not a revelation. It was the product of human reason, a human being putting together and making sense of what -- until now -- had been seemingly mysterious divine hints and clues.
Had it ended here, of course, the encounter would not really have had any ultimate significance, however. There was one final piece of the puzzle that needed to fall into place.
Step 4) So now Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and all those who are gathered. And while he's preaching, the account tells us: "the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word." What occurred was similar to what is described in Acts 2, to the outpouring of the Spirit that took place on the day of Pentecost. It says that Peter and his party witnessed them "speak with tongues, and magnify God," and they were "astonished."
At that point, Peter feels constrained to declare, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" And apparently, no one could forbid, because the account ends with Cornelius and everyone else present being baptized.
The form of that question has always intrigued me. Not: "Can we allow?" but "Can any man forbid?" It reminds me of the question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch two chapters earlier, in Acts 8: "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?"
By posing the question in this negative form: "Can any man forbid?" and "what doth hinder?" it is as if to say: "We do not have the right to prevent these from being baptized."
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is even more enlightening here, because it takes place chronologically before the conversion of Cornelius. And it helps us understand how and why it is that God reveals what he reveals to Peter in the way that he reveals it.
God had already been pouring his Spirit out on Gentiles long before Peter recognized it. The purpose of this "revelation" was not to initiate a new policy for the Church. It was to make the Church recognize what God had already initiated himself. That is why God told Peter: "What God hath (past tense) cleansed, that call not thou common."
Step 5) The events begun in chapter 10 don't actually find their resolution until Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem. Despite the outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius, and despite Peter's inability to "forbid water" that Cornelius and his household should be baptized, there was continuing controversy in the Church over how to accept Gentiles into the membership.
While Acts 10 presents a series of miraculous events (an angelic visitation; a vision followed by promptings of the Spirit; and a pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit), in Acts 15 there is none of that. There is just a good old fashioned debate. The Church as a whole has not yet accepted the reality manifested to Philip in the wilderness and in Caesarea to Peter. Peter does bear witness to these events, and ultimately persuades the gathered assembly to accept this new understanding of the Law.
In fact, interpretation of the Law is what this had been about all along. It is inaccurate to claim that Gentiles were categorically not permitted to join the Church prior to these events. Gentiles had always been able to join the Church, under condition that they submitted themselves to the Mosaic Law. Cornelius, had he wanted to join the Church prior to the events of Acts 10, could have done so all along without causing the least bit of fuss, simply by allowing himself to be circumcised, and by submitting to Jewish law. The debate at the Council of Jerusalem was not about relaxing a racial restriction on who could or could not be a member of the Church. It was about the Law. It had always been about the Law.
Why didn't the Lord just give Peter a straightforward revelation, announcing to him that the Law was no longer operative in the way he thought it was? I suspect it was because Peter would not have been able to accept such a revelation; it would have conflicted too strongly with a deeply ingrained bias that Peter had about the place of the Law in the life of the Church. The Lord realized that the only way for Peter to overcome this bias was to see for himself that what he assumed about the way in which the Lord worked was wrong. So the Lord didn't tell Peter, he showed him. First, abstractly in a vision about cleanness and uncleanness (and what we humans are not authorized to call "common" or "unclean"). Then, concretely in the bodies of Gentiles receiving an outpouring of the Spirit before his own eyes.
Peter finally understood that this was not about what he or any other man could approve or disapprove. It was about acknowledging a work that God had already begun:
Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
So here's what I know. God has poured and is pouring his Spirit out on his gay and lesbian children. I have experienced it myself, and I've seen it in others. God has not abandoned us. He loves us, and he accepts the righteous offerings we make to him, and he has blessed us and will continue to bless us so long as we exercise faith.
Just as the Gentiles in Peter's time were not excluded by virtue of being Gentiles, it is not by virtue of our gayness that we are prevented from joining the Church today. Gay people are permitted to join the Church given present understandings, so long as we submit to the Law as interpreted by our heterosexual brothers and sisters. The question is not, can gay people be baptized, but can and should the Church place the onerous burden of life-long celibacy upon us as a prerequisite for baptism? Can man forbid water that we may be baptized?
Peter, at the Council of Jerusalem posed this question in relation to the Gentiles in terms that are eloquent enough for our day, for gay and lesbian Saints:
Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?