Today is the Feast Day of the Conversion of Cornelius the Centurion. And, yes, it matters that he is not just “Cornelius,” but “Cornelius the Centurion.”
Cornelius isn’t the first Gentile convert. Jesus himself met with several Gentiles during his ministry, and the Ethiopian eunuch is converted under Philip’s ministry in the chapter before Cornelius’s story in Acts 10. Cornelius, however, is the decisive Gentile convert.
Cornelius has extraordinary spiritual credentials, according to Luke (author of Acts): “He was a devout man who feared God with all his household [a curious expression indicating he was not secret about his devotion, but involved all under his patronage]; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2).
Cornelius did all this, moreover, as a centurion: an officer of middle rank, meaning that he was powerful enough to have status and authority, but not enough that he could do as he liked, responsible as he was to the many layers of officers above him.
Those officers, furthermore, were not safely distant, for Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea itself, its name indicating how very Roman it was. Cornelius was an officer of the hated Roman occupation in a stronghold of that occupation—and yet he is described by his men to Peter as “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (v. 22).
Peter, of all people, is God’s evangelist to Cornelius: Peter, the focal point of the first part of the Book of Acts as he was the spokesman for the nascent church. And it is Peter who receives a vision convincing him “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fars him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (v. 35; cf. Hebrews 11:6).
Peter goes, therefore, to bring the gospel to Cornelius—who, true to form, insists that his household, his relatives, and his close friends assemble with him to hear the good news. This is a bold, brave man who fears God far more than he fears his Roman peers or superiors.
His faith is rewarded with Peter preaching a gentle sermon (compare how he lacerates his audience in Acts 2 with accusations that they murdered the Lord of glory, while here Peter merely identifies Jesus’s killers as “they”) that falls on them with Holy Spirit power, with tongues-speaking and praise to God all ‘round. As in the previous narrative of ad hoc and immediate baptism of the eunuch, so water is produced for baptism of this new Gentile household, a new stronghold of the spreading kingdom of God.
For Peter is not all that gentle in his sermon. He makes it clear from the start that “Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” An experienced Roman legionnaire such as Cornelius would have heard and said a thousand times that “Caesar is Lord,” but Jesus is now acclaimed as the Supreme Ruler. And Cornelius gladly agrees.
This is the breakthrough, so startling that Acts 11 begins with Jewish Christians remonstrating with Peter for breaking the rules and fraternizing with Gentiles. Peter would later lose his nerve on the matter, only to be upbraided by Paul, another impeccable Jew who would devote his career to Gentile evangelism. Peter here stands his ground, however, in solidarity with his new Christian brothers and sisters, and his opponents are not only “silenced,” but (to their credit and the church’s lasting benefit) “they praised God” and welcomed this new good news.
One is inclined to say that with the conversion of Cornelius, God crosses the ethnic Rubicon and marches forward toward the capital city of worldly power, intent on seizing the crown for himself. No one and nothing will remain in God’s way: the world is now open for conquest, and by the sign of the cross the gospel will conquer.
Yes, the story of Christianity’s interweaving with Roman power will prove complicated, with wins and losses both. But today we celebrate the One Main Thing: the gospel is for everyone—even an officer of the empire, even Cornelius the Centurion.