Today we read the first half of the account of the conversion of Cornelius. We read that both Cornelius and Peter are given visions from heaven. Cornelius is to seek out Peter. Whereas Peter is prepared by his vision to begin his mission of spreading the Gospel to the gentiles. Notice the interesting dynamic that is developing. Peter is given the vision that all foods and by extension all people are clean. However, we know that it is Paul that will do a lot of the heavy lifting of bring the Gospel to the gentile world. Peter is the leader, the visionary, the general, the one through whom the overall plan is conveyed. Paul is the worker, the lieutenant, the one through whom the plan is put into action.
What is particularly interesting about Cornelius is that it is his works that cause him to find favor with God. At first he is neither Jew nor Christian. He is clearly a gentile, a roman soldier and not part of the old covenant. Yet he has not yet become a Christian or part of the new covenant. Despite being in this in-between state his works are merited to him.
About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. …”
Cornelius is an important example for us. He shows us that while our good works might be meritorious this is not sufficient. Cornelius’ good works “Ascended as a memorial before God” but Cornelius was still called to be in right relationship with God. He was still called to conversion and baptism (as we will read tomorrow).
Looking ahead, we can tell from the context of the story that Cornelius was a fairly powerful and influential man. He seems to have a large house for when Peter arrives he “called together his relatives and close friends”. He sends not one, but two servants and a soldier to fetch Peter. Yet, when Peter arrives, Cornelius humbles himself falling down at Peter’s feet. This is part of what it means to be in right relationship to God. To recognize who his ministers are, to recognize his Church and to submit to the authority that is higher than yourself.