February 7: Cornelius the Centurion

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

•   •   •

Cornelius the Centurion

About this commemoration

All that we know about Cornelius is contained in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 10–11). He was the first Gentile converted to the Christian faith, along with his household. A centurion was commander of a company of one hundred men in the Roman army, responsible for their discipline, both on the field of battle and in camp. A centurion was a Roman citizen, a military career man, well-paid, and generally noted for courage and competence. Some centurions, such as Cornelius, and those whom we know about from the Gospel narratives, were men of deep religious piety.

The author of Acts considered Cornelius’ conversion very momentous for the future of Christianity. He records that it occurred as the result of divine intervention and revelation, and as a response to the preaching of Peter the chief apostle. The experience of Cornelius’ household was regarded as comparable to a new Pentecost, and it was a primary precedent for the momentous decision of the apostolic council, held in Jerusalem a few years later, to admit Gentiles to full and equal partnership with Jewish converts in the household of faith.

According to tradition, Cornelius was the second Bishop of Caesarea, the metropolitan see of Palestine. Undoubtedly, Cornelius and his household formed the nucleus of the first Church in this important city, a Church that was gathered by Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8:40 and 21:8).

Collects

I    O God, who by thy Spirit didst call Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles: Grant to thy Church, we beseech thee, such a ready will to go where thou dost send and to do what thou dost command, that under thy guidance it may welcome all who turn to thee in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II    O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles: Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons

Isaiah 56:6–8

Acts 11:1–18

Luke 13:22–29

Psalm 67

Preface of Pentecost

Text from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

•   •   •

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

If you’d like to participate in the official online trial use survey, click here. For more information about the survey, click here.

To post a comment, your first and last name and email address are required. Your name will be published; your email address will not. The first time you post, a moderator will need to approve your submission; after that, your comments will appear instantly.

10 Responses to February 7: Cornelius the Centurion

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    New Hebrew Scripture reading: This reading seems to be an appropriate choice.

  2. Bruce Wilson says:

    Acts does not have Peter telling Cornelius that if he is to be a Christian he must resign his commission. This contradicts people who say that before Augustine made up the jus war theory military service was seen as incompatible with Christianity.

    [Editor’s note: all posts must include first and last name; post edited to reflect this policy.]

  3. John LaVoe says:

    The middle paragraph is the crucial one since it tells the biblical story of Cornelius. I find it covers the right ground but not with the weight it needs. Cornelius is a major but representative figure in three bigger stories, the church’s, Peter’s, and God’s.

    Story #1 is about what must have been a tremendously difficult adjustment for Jerusalem Christians who were the lifelong products of “segregationist” acculturation (Jew-Gentile separation). That, in Paul’s letters, is a tectonic shift in how God’s world, and the gospel, are to be seen, felt, understood, and lived. Expressing that simply as a decision of an apostolic council may have worked well for Luke as a historian, but it hardly expresses the massive reality challenging the mindset (prejudices) of the actual Christian community. Cornelius is a symbol in the story but it’s about far more than him.
    .

    Story #2 is Peter and his rooftop vision. Acts focuses on Peter’s role in making the shift just described. His paving the way is a virtual necessity. Paul gets surprisingly blunt (Gal 2:11-14) about Peter’s reverting to segregationist ways, but Acts portrays a clear and clean change of purview on Peter’s part. The rooftop vision and interpretation in Acts (10:9ff.) is interwoven with the Cornelius material for a reason, and is told twice, witnessing not just to Peter’s endorsement, but to God’s initiative, regarding gentile inclusion in the new covenant (see the selected NT reading today).
    .
    Story #3, then, is God’s universal offer and action for salvation in and through Christ, the “mystery” so well articulated in Paul’s own first hand writings. These layers of the story have to stand out in the write-up, otherwise I don’t feel we’ve done justice to the Cornelius story as a whole. While “included” in the write-up, they somehow just don’t “stand out.” I think perhaps the language of the write-up is detached, vaguely general, written partly in the passive voice, and (literally,) talking about the author of Acts rather than telling the story directly. (“The author of Acts considered Cornelius’ conversion very momentous for the future of Christianity. He records that it occurred as the result of divine intervention and revelation, and as a response to the preaching of Peter the chief apostle. The experience of Cornelius’ household was regarded as comparable to a new Pentecost, and it was a primary precedent for the momentous decision of the apostolic council, held in Jerusalem a few years later, to admit Gentiles to full and equal partnership with Jewish converts in the household of faith.”) To sum up, “Where’s the beef?”
    .
    The lead paragraph has no variety: four sentences beginning, 1) “What we know,” 2) “A Centurion was,” 3) “A Centurion was,” and 4) “Some Centurions … were.” If it’s important that he was a Centurion it would be nice to say why. “Some” is helpful for general context and to “profile” him as “gentile,” but I don’t see it as more important than the Church/Peter/God dimensions of the story (not to mention the angelic element, Acts 3:10, 22, 11:13).

  4. John LaVoe says:

    THE READINGS: Kudos on the psalm selection and the NT reading from Acts. The latter tells the story well, and deserves the extra length it was given. The OT lesson is okay, but to my ears it sounds as if its focus is on foreigners becoming Jewish – an unfortunate overtone in this commemoration, since the Cornelius story is about the church opening its (originally) Jewish horizon to the rest of God’s world!
    .
    I’m not so pleased with Luke 13:22–29, since verse 28 names three (Jewish) patriarchs and “all the prophets” admitted to the kingdom but “you yourselves thrown out.” WHO are the “thrown out”? They COULD sound like non-Jews! (We may know that’s not the intent, but how are less informed hearers of the lesson to know that?) Verse 29 doesn’t clarify the matter, since ”people will come from east and west, from north and south,” could easily mean either gentiles or diaspora Jews. There has to be a better message for this feast than the twice spoken, ‘I do not know where you come from.’

  5. Steve Lusk says:

    The bio seems to have overlooked R. S. Surgirtharajah’s warning: “What we often overlook is that Peter too was converted. It was a rude shock to him, as it was to Jonah before him, that God’s grace knows no bounds.”
    The frequency with which centurions show up in the Gospels and Acts partly reflects the fact that these officers were the ubiquitous face of the Roman government, exercising far broader and more varied responsibilities than their military rank might suggest (as noted below). But even more, the fact that centurions supported this strange new religion would have reassure a Roman audience. It meant that, despite the unsettling novelty or their religious beliefs, the Christians posed no threat to the imperial order. For in Cornelius’ day, as it had been in Polybius’ time a century earlier, “Centurions . . . were men remarkable not so much for their daring courage as for their deliberation, constancy, and strength of mind.”
    Junior centurions did in fact command centuries, which after the 2nd century BC were — despite the name — 80-man units. The senior centurion in each legionary cohort commanded the entire cohort, and the senior centurion in the legion, the primus pilus, was a member of the commander’s staff council. The praefectus castrorum (“chief of the camp”), the third-highest ranking officer of a legion, was invariably a former primus pilus. It was the praefectus castrorum who normally commanded the legion in the absence of the legate, as the nominally second ranking officer was often a young senator serving his first military tour.
    Centurions were also detached to serve as district centurions (centurio regionarius). In parallel with, but independently of, the civilian authorities, these officers investigated crimes, especially ones with political overtones like the disappearance of a tax collector, the killing of an official’s donkey, the misuse of authority by local officials, or outbreaks of banditry or rebellion. Others commanded small detachments of troops at major customs and tax offices, where they both protected and kept an eye on the tax collectors.
    If Cornelius’ “Italian cohort” is, as many scholars suspect, the Cohors II Italica Civium Romanorum, and if Luke has most of his basic facts right, Cornelius may well have been serving as princeps praetorii, the chief of the governor’s military staff. Inscriptions put Cohors II ItCR in Syria before AD 69. There’s no evidence of the unit ever being in Judea, not that it would have left much of a footprint if it had been there. In any case, Cornelius does not seem to have been serving as a regimental officer. He’s living “on the economy” at the provincial capital, with his own household, yet with soldiers under his command.

  6. Jay Johnson says:

    I love Cornelius! This is nicely done. I do have a question, however, about “first Christian among the Gentiles.” I suspect that language was very carefully chosen, for a number of reasons. “Christian” for example makes sense only in the context of a post-resurrection community. That said, however (and I need help from biblical scholars, please!), I’m wondering about the “syro-phoenician” woman in, I believe, Mark’s Gospel. I believe that ethnic identity marker does indeed indicate that she was a Gentile. What are we to make of that story? Did she become a kind of disciple in some way? I suppose it’s too much to call her the “first Christian among the Gentiles” (as I noted above). But she is nonetheless a really significant non-Jewish figure in the Christian biblical texts who suggests (and even appears to teach Jesus!) something above the expansive vision of the Gospel….

  7. Danae Ashley says:

    I do various weekly services where we reflect on the saints and this blog has been a wonderful addition to the reflection. Thank you, Callie, for finding worthwhile images that I can show my people, while we discuss the inspirational and educational lives of the saints. I really appreciate the work you are doing–please keep it up!

  8. Pingback: February 7 – Cornelius the Centurion : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  9. Pingback: February 7 – Cornelius the Centurion : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  10. Pingback: Cornelius the Centurion. « anonymouspresbyter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: