As a general theme, the first half of Acts is the story of Peter’s ministry. Luke reminds his reader that the Gospel has now spread throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 9:31) and that for a time the Church was experiencing peace. Peter is featured in two miracle stories which parallel the miracles of Jesus found in Luke (Luke 5:17-26 and Luke 7:11-16). Peter is the true disciple who imitates and authentically carries on the ministry of Jesus. These miracles also echo the lives of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:32-37) which suggest that Peter is acting as a prophet. Peter is filled with the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and again in Acts 4:8 and this infilling resulted in many “signs and wonders” (Acts 5:12) which serve to evangelize more and more people. These miracles also authenticate Peter’s leadership.
Commentators have noted that Luke enjoys sharing narratives in pairs. There are two miracle stories in this section of Acts. The first story is the healing of a paralyzed man named Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) who was paralyzed for 8 years. The fact that Luke shares the personal name of each individual is unusual. In this case the man is named after the Trojan hero in Virgil’s epic the Aeneid. One can presume that he is either a Gentile or a Hellenistic Jew. Luke gives only the simplest account of the healing. The result is that all the inhabitants of Lydda and Sharon “turned to the Lord.”
Much more attention in the narrative is given to the account of the healing of the woman named Tabitha. The details about her “good deeds and almsgiving,” about her body being washed and prepared for burial and laid out in the “upper room,” and finally the presence of the ‘widows’ have suggested to commentators that Tabitha was a wealthy woman in whose house a Church met and that she had a ministry among the widows. Tabitha’s importance to the community in Joppa caused them to send two men to Peter requesting that he come immediately to see them.
After greeting the community, Peter kneels down and prays by Tabitha’s body and she comes back to life. In the next chapter Peter affirms that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). The pairing of these two narratives by Luke suggests that God heals both men and women and highlights the culturally unexpected elevation of the role of women in the early Church. This new healing by Peter is even greater than the last and people all over Joppa came to “believe in the Lord” (Acts 9:42).
The next chapter introduces a Gentile centurion named Cornelius. He is a ‘God fearer’ who has been generous to the Jewish people and ‘prays to God constantly.’ An angel appears to Cornelius and encourages him to summon Peter and even gives Cornelius supernatural instructions on how to locate Peter. At the same time Peter has a vision which encourages him to disregard certain ceremonial restrictions regarding common table fellowship with the Gentiles. The Spirit tells Peter “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (10:15). Cornelius sends messengers to summon Peter to his house, which normally would be unlawful for a Jew. Peter accompanies the messengers because he has learned that he “should not call any person profane or unclean” (10:28).
At Cornelius’ house Peter gives a sermon which highlights the universal scope of the Gospel for all peoples. “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). Every nation is called to embrace the good news about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power [and how Jesus] went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38) and that “everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). While Peter is saying these things the Holy Spirit “fell upon all who were listening to the word” and they began to speak in tongues and glorify God just as the apostles had at Pentecost. This evidence prompts Peter to have the entire household of Cornelius baptized. While the experience of Cornelius’ household is a special sign that God wants to include the Gentiles in the Church, this should not lead us to dismiss the experience as not applying to us today. Tangible experiences of the Spirit seem to be the norm in the New Testament.
In modern times commentators have tended to intellectualize this as a mental assent to the Spirit’s presence instead of a perceptible experience of a ‘manifestation the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:7). This experience does not, of course, need to be tongues as we see here. In Acts 10:46 it included Spirit led praise and elsewhere many other gifts (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4:11-12). Paul appeals directly to the experience of the Spirit in his argument in Galatians 3:1-5. The Galatians “began in the Spirit” at their conversion (Galatians 3:3) but later the Spirit “works mighty deeds” among them (Galatians 3:5).
When Peter returns to the other apostles and believers in Judea they initially confront him for his apparent violation of the Jewish law (Acts 11:2). Peter recounts the whole story of his vision and experience with Cornelius. He relates how the Holy Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius as it had upon Peter and the other apostles at Pentecost. Peter says, “If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). Peter persuades the others that God is behind this new work. As a result some of the disciples began to speak to the Greeks in Antioch and a great number turn to the Lord. The Jerusalem Church sends Barnabas to encourage them and he travels to Tarsus to invite Saul to join them. The disciples are first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26).
Recently Pope Benedict XVI has called for a renewed emphasis on evangelization. We can see from the life of the early Church that this is the common apostolate of all Christians under the leadership of Peter. Holy Mary, Queen of Apostles, pray for us.
Scott McKellar is the Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.
© Scott McKellar published in the Catholic Key newspaper April 7th , 2012.