There are some curious stories in West Point’s history and one of those stories is about a man named Professor Oldrieve. Edward Williams of Boston, MA, wagered a bet of $5000 that the Oldrieve could not walk on water from Cincinnati to New Orleans in 40 days. Professor Oldrieve began the water walk on January 1, 1907, and completed the journey February 10, 1907, within the 40-day time limit a distance of some 1600 miles. Oldrieve’s wife traveled along side him in a boat. He was delayed at the Falls of the Ohio in Louisville some 24 hours. He walked only during daylight and slept over at each landing through the night. He used cedar shoes that were 4’5” long and 5” wide and several inches deep. The completion of this event was reported in the New York Times February 11, 1907.
When we hear the stories of the Bible, we often wonder if there’s any truth in them. And, if there is truth, what might that truth be? Well, the stories of the Bible have a truth behind them just like the story of the West Point Water Walker, Mr. Oldrieve. There really was a Mr. Oldrieve and he really did walk on walk. We can read about his outlandish feat on-line in such newspapers as the New York Times and the Mississippi Flyer. And, the wild stories of the Bible are just as true.
When we read today’s passage, we celebrate a great event in our Christian heritage – the Gentile Pentecost. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the God-Fearing Gentiles, the newly filled believers spoke in other languages praising God. The believers with Peter who had been circumcised were astonished that the Holy Spirit was given to the Gentile community just the same as the Jewish believers had experienced on that very first occurrence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were the first to witness such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to those outside the Jewish believing community proper.
The Gentile Pentecost event was neither planned nor discussed by the Jewish believers to be their decision to answer the Great Commission assigned to them by Jesus himself. No, on the contrary, this event was organic in its origin and nature. In fact God himself saw Cornelius’ heart and the heart of the people in his household deciding for himself that Cornelius deserved to hear the Good News proclaimed by Peter.
In this story we witness that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit came to a person, Cornelius who served as a Roman Centurion in a place called Caesarea to his whole household, and the message of salvation came through angels, visions, and a man named Peter. The result of this event was the opening of an avenue of grace extended to non-Jewish believers.
But there would be conflict that would arise from this event. Peter was questioned by those in Jerusalem who were not ready for such an amazing tell (Acts 11.1-18). Peter settles the issue by remembering what Jesus said about John’s baptism of water and the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit through the disciples. He stated clearly, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way (Acts 11.17)?” The church at Jerusalem responded, “So then God has enabled the Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so they may have new life (Acts 11.18).”
But this did not end the conflict over the initiation rights of passage into the community nor the conflict over the expectations of food laws. The Jewish believers wanted the new converts to become Jewish converts by the act of circumcision before they could become saved (Acts 15). Peter understood that the Law could not be kept by the acts of humans. Therefore, Peter inquired of the Spirit filled believers why they were required to become circumcised. James noted that believers should not create problems for others who turn to God, but ask only that they avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, strangled animals, and consuming blood for Moses was known through Sabbath preaching.
Last week our passage ended with Philip being transported to Azotus then preaching in the whole area until he made his way to a place called Caesarea. It seems that Philip settled at Caesarea (Acts 8.40, 21.8). Caesarea is mentioned only in one book of the Bible and that’s the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8.40, 9.30, 10.1,24, 11.11, 12.19, 18.22, 21.8,16). Philip made his home in this community as an evangelist and apostle who was the father of four prophetically gifted daughters. Philip was one of the seven deacons serving the early church at Jerusalem who ensured the food provisions for all the widows (Acts 6, 8, 21).
Caesarea was a hotbed of activity in the first century. It has an extensive history in Palestine and we can only imagine that it developed under the reign of Herod the Great as an important seaport. Herod the Great was appointed King of Judea in 40 BC by Roman nobles Antony and Octavian. It was Herod the Great, one of four sir-named Herods, who ruled over a large area including Caesarea from approximately 40 BC to 100 AD – some 140 years. Caesarea was the official seat of the Roman government, particularly the procurators. It was Herod the Great who developed the city of Caesarea into a well-established community with an advanced aqueduct system and an amphitheater that seated 3,500 patrons. Herod the Great developed many cities and towns in his ruling territory. He believed himself to be a practicing Jew but also attempted to reconcile his Roman friends to the Jewish community. In fact it was Herod the Great who rebuilt the Temple. He also became the president of the Olympic Games. And, he established the unique seaport at Caesarea. We also know that Herod’s navy, who supported Roman occupation as far away as the Black Sea, operated from Caesarea’s seaport.
It was Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist beheaded, and he died AD 39, having served as Tetreach of Galilee (Matt. 14.10, Mark 6.16, Luke 9.9). It is here at Caesarea that Herod Agrippa I entitled King of Palestine who died after having James, one of the original 12 disciples, put to death and Peter imprisoned (Acts 12). And, Herod Agrippa II was appointed in 48 AD to govern Chalcis and who had the authority to appoint the Jewish high priests and oversee the temple at Jerusalem. He was soon given a larger dominion as King (Acts 25-26). He reigned over Palestine and the surrounding areas until his death in 98 AD.
And, we read that Paul passed through Caesarea on three different occasions – on his way to Damascus, on his way to Jerusalem after his second missionary journey, and at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 9, 18, 21). Paul stayed with Philip on at least one occasion (Acts 21.8). And, we know that Paul was also imprisoned at Caesarea, having been sent there under guard from Jerusalem to escape danger from the Jews (Acts 23).
To know Cornelius we must look at the full context of the event. Cornelius was a God-Fearing Gentile; he and his whole household were pious (moral, devout, virtuous). Cornelius is described as being devout or pious and fearing God (Acts 10.2 GNT). These two terms imply that Cornelius practiced the monotheistic and idol-less faith of the Jewish people although he and his family did not completely convert. He also practiced much charitable giving to the people (alms) and always prayed to God. I love how the angel announced, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God (Acts 10.4).” Praying, giving, and fasting were the acts of worship for many God-Fearing people of the day.
Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian Company. The Roman Empire was well established in power by 750 BC and continued through the 5th century AD. Caesarea was an important place for the Roman military. Cornelius was a soldier who commanded 100 men. He would have been a part of a cohort of 600 men. In fact we read that Cornelius sends two household servants and a personal staff soldier, who seem be a God-Fearing Gentile as well. The distance between Caesarea and Joppa meant that the three traveled some 35 miles and 16 hours to get to Peter.
Peter is one of the two main characters in this passage. We have studied Peter’s story in the Gospel of Mark and in his letters to the faithful across the Mediterranean basin in modern day Turkey (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia in Asia Minor). When we think about ancient powerhouses that influenced the Israelites, Assyria certainly comes to mind with their 300 year reign of the area from 900-600 BC. Assyria is the country that governed primarily Turkey along with Syria, Iran, and Iraq. To be sure Christianity strongly influenced all the communities around the Mediterranean basin which used to oppress the Israelites.
Peter’s response to the vision of unclean animals was powerful, “Absolutely not, Lord!” The last time we heard Peter being so adamant was when Jesus required a foot washing on his behalf. But perhaps we can note this intensity in Peter’s personality across his discipleship history. Remember the time Peter scolded Jesus in his understanding of his role as Messiah, and then Jesus promptly called him Satan, commanding, “Get behind me, Satan! You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts (Mark 8.33).” By the time this conflict is resolved sometime later, Peter becomes bold in his proclamation for God’s ways and not his own understanding. Peter confronts the issues head-on, “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15.7-11).”
As Peter has taught us we are saved by faith alone, and no works can get us into this saving relationship with Jesus. We have not been held to the same high standards that the Jewish community bore witness to in the first century but have peace in our hearts that salvation comes by faith alone.
As we look across Luke’s story of the early church development, there is a notable progression from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then outward to Rome, Italy. Through these 50 days of Easter, we have witnessed the healing of the outcast – the lame man – in Jerusalem at the Temple Gate Beautiful. We have noted the Gospel being received by the people in Samaria. Even an Ethiopian official who had worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem had accepted the Good News. And, if you are reading along in the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen preached the Gospel to the religious officials in Jerusalem before he was martyred at the observation of Saul of Taurus who later encounters the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus.
The religious zealot Saul is converted and renamed Paul, then later becoming an important advocate for Gentile believers. The first experience of God-Fearing Gentiles becoming believers was with Peter and the Centurion Cornelius. The gateway of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God was met by resistance from Jewish-Christians, particularly the of the Pharisee crowd. They resist when Peter first announced that the Gentiles had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit just like the first Pentecost. They resist again later when Peter must stand up once again to defend the rights of the Gentiles to come into the Kingdom of God without the burden of the Law.
So these wild stories we hear in the Bible – of what importance do they have for us today? When we think about the Gentile Pentecost, we can begin to think about the people in our own lives that we alienate. Who are the people whom you have alienated in your church and community because they are “them?”
Our Methodist Heritage reports to us the inclusion of many people that may offend you. Black folks, including slaves, were a large part of the Methodist movement at its inception in America. John Wesley himself affirmed women as exhorters and preachers. Methodism has always been ecumenical at its roots. Across the early settlements circuit riders collaborated with other churches to serve communion to the people. There were even German-speaking congregations. A wide variety of peoples were welcomed in the name of the Lord Jesus in the Methodist communities. The only requirement was that they love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, gives thanks in everything, lift your heart to God at all times, love everyone as your own soul, purity in heart, keep all the commandments, gives God the credit, and follows the doctrine of God.
Read more about Mr. Oldrieve:
Read more about the Herod Family Tree: