Sometimes it’s easier to see the connection between the past and present.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Sometimes some aspects of what a man experienced 2000 years ago is very similar to what we experience today when we open our hearts to God. With Cornelius we’re going to see a man who opened his heart to God, same as someone could today. The past connects with the present.
Working on “Upside Down” at this point in life is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Getting to collaborate with Sherwin again has been a dream that for a long time I’d pretty much given up on. Life had made us geographically distant and we’d had little contact with each other compared to the “old days”.
Sherwin has always been one of the most amazing men I’ve ever known. From the first time I met him I was drawn to him and had no idea that we’d become the kind of lifetime friends that get to do the kind of things we get to do. I’ve know a lot of musicians, and even a couple of good ones; but no one like Sherwin. God has been really kind to me to put us together and I just hope I don’t give him a heart attack doing this show together. What? Too soon?
Before I go on… because I do think I’m going to go on… if you’ve wandered in here by accident or something, this is meant to be a special place for a very special group of people, the cast and crew of the musical “Upside Down”. You are welcome to join us and thanks for being here. We are attempting a number of things, but here, primarily, we are reading the book of Acts together between now and the time of our show next month.
I’m the old preacher, director, and whatever; and I’m occasionally offering my thoughts, opinions… tidbits… about the chapters we read.
Or I might start rambling on about the background of the musical that my partner Sherwin and I wrote so many years ago.
Because sometimes it’s easier for me to see the connection between the past and the present than it is at other times.
I’m writing this day by day and some days, you know, I just don’t have that much to say. But today… I’m feeling a lot right now… so if you just wanted to read the scriptures and don’t have time to hang with me I understand; you see where the scriptures are; I put them in holy bold italics so as not to get them confused with my jabbering. Go on, if you’re in a hurry, read the good book and have a nice day.
I believe the best preaching is done when the speaker disappears and all that’s remembered is Jesus. As a preacher, I fail at that more than achieve it. That’s not me being self-deprecating; I’m just being honest. It’s a hard thing to sustain, disappearing.
But sometimes it’s easier to see the connection between the past and the present. Something from ‘back then’ will trigger an ‘and now’.
Cornelius. He has become one of my most favorite characters in our musical and in the bible. For a lot of reasons. First, the bible story is important and, left alone, without writing music or drama into it, it’s pretty exciting. Look again:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
First, the setting: Caesarea, the port city of Israel. Built by King Herod on a piece of shore that had no natural harbor. Look up all you want to about this place and this king, but two things I can tell you from personal experience:
One Bryant Park, one of the most iconic images on the Manhattan skyline. My friend Rick Cook designed that building. It’s his work, his vision, just one of his many masterpieces. Read about it sometime. It’s a fascinating story all on it’s own.
That’s somewhere out east of Fossil on a Ducati I used to have too much fun on. (incidentally, if you ever want to get on my good side, for any reason, call me Duke Kah Tee)
Rick is a believer.
That’s not code for, “he’s a ‘Christian’ friend but not part of my fellowship.”
I mean, he’s a true believer. A disciple, and yes, we’ve been in the same fellowship for years now, but Rick is one of those guys whose faith shapes his life in every way. He and I have stayed close over the years, and over the miles, and he is one of the most inspiring guys I ever talk to. Even if it’s only twice a year at 5 am.
It was Rick who first gave me a string to pull on regarding Caesarea.
We were at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center and I’d just preached a lesson that had a point in it somewhere about what it meant to be a carpenter in Jesus’ day and Rick pulls me aside and says, “Hey, Steve, do you know who the most famous architect in history is?”
I say no; he answers Herod the Great, and goes on to tell me why. With child-like glee he explains Herodian stones and the theatre built in Sepphoris.
And the port city of Caesarea.
How Herod, in a desire to impress Rome and defy the gods, built a port where all nature would be against it. Having no natural harbor, he sank thousands of barges loaded with hydraulic cement until he’d built reefs that grew into a sea wall and formed a harbor. So my first feelings of looking at Herod up close and personal came from Rick; which set up my second personal encounter with Caesarea:
2) Scuba diving. About 20 years ago I went diving with an archaeologist in the old port area of Caesarea. In the midst of a gazillion chards of ancient pottery, and just as many jelly fish, I was shown first hand the remnants of the original foundation of the port that Herod built. You could still see the timbers that formed the barges and in places were still holding up like a wall. 2000 year old near petrified timbers which formed a barge, into which they’d pile in cement and stones and then sink the barges on top of each other. Where there was no harbor, Herod made a harbor. And then named it Caesarea, in honor of the emperor. Today it sits on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and I wonder how many people think about how it came to be so long, long ago.
2000 years ago, this busy harbor would be the first place a young Roman soldier would see when being shipped ‘over seas’ for Caesar.
The liberty I take fleshing out Cornelius in our show comes from trying to imagine how it might have happened, his back story; the experiences a Roman commander would have to have to produce someone for whom Luke could write,“ “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”
I imagine Cornelius as a little boy in Italy who grew up to be a soldier. I can’t prove what I imagine is true, but his name is a latin name and means ‘horn’. It was common for people of many cultures to take a latin name so that alone means little, but add to it the fact that Luke tells us that Cornelius is from the Italian band… Cohors Italica… and that’s all I need to let my imagination run wild.
I picture a veteran of many military campaigns, now assigned to an incendiary spot in the empire and, maybe because I’m old and tired, well, I picture Cornelius being a little old and tired. Not old in the head, just beyond his years and not tired of life; he’s tired of brutality. He’s not cynical, he’s found enlightenment and wisdom from wading in Germanic blood and now, while his comrades denigrate the Israelites and despise the heat, Cornelius smiles and says he’s happy to finally be thawing out. He’s not going to be oppressive anymore. He’s seen that the fist of Rome does little to quell troubles in the long run. The more Rome is harsh, the more rebellion is fueled. That one simple insight begins to open up his heart to the idea that being kind is more powerful than being harsh. With heart opened, he comes to Israel fully primed to find something that will fill that hole in his heart that a polytheistic upbringing did little to satisfy… that same hole we all have before we really find the Lord… and… well, Cornelius gets to Caesarea and ‘goes native.’ In time he’ll fully embrace the ancient faith of the people who saw the Red Sea parted and the Lord hover over them as a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night. He sheds his armor when not called upon to wear it and falls in love with a woman from the tribe of Judah who, through no fault of her own, is left without family and has made a life for herself in the market place where Cornelius goes to get his first taste of lamb with marror wrapped in matzot. They have some kind of ‘cute meet’ and soon fall in love.
She teaches him the ways of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the law of Moses. He converts to Judaism and raises a family. All this happens, in my universe, immediately after the ascension of Christ and 10 years later we find Cornelius a God fearing, devout man with a family full of believers; and he got that way because, long before he hears anything about Jesus, he began to open his heart up to God the way the Lord wants all of us to open up to him; to reject evil and to seek him in spirit and truth. And it all began with him wanting to be kind instead of harsh.
Ken is an actor. I mean, an actor. He’s the real deal and always bring his “A” game and raises the bar on every scene he’s in.
Throughout this revision process, as we’ve cast our show, I’ve been able to see things in the talent we acquired that made me want to do more to flesh out each of the main characters and consequently, in my opinion, it’s all worked out to make the show better. Sherwin’s done that brilliantly with the music as well. Ken’s wife Wendy talks about that a little here: https://vimeo.com/170059033
Ken has had a profound influence on me writing better, or trying to write better. He brings so much thought and gravitas to the role of Cornelius and I credit him as the reason I was able to add a story line about Cornelius that’s never been seen before and enriches our show. Thanks Ken.
So, we find Cornelius praying at that bible magic hour, 3 in the afternoon. An angel appears to him and the door to the kingdom of heaven begins to open to the gentiles, and thus, the whole world.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city,
This is interesting. Luke wants to connect this fact: Peter’s vision is specifically designed to prepare him for the guys about to arrive. Again, talk about precision accuracy. Aiming from heaven, hitting a the right target; Peter’s heart.
Luke is painting this picture: Cornelius sends the men to Joppa to find Peter and they make pretty good time. It’s about 36 miles between Caesarea and Joppa and they leave after 3 one day and get there about noon the next. Unless you’re running a marathon, that’s a decent clip. As they approach…
…Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Talk about ‘don’t make Jesus tell you twice!’
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
With Peter it was 3 times. Peter’s lucky number, huh?
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people.
A key point: Cornelius had a great reputation with all the Jewish people.
A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”
A side note: notice in the ‘miraculous intervention’ stories in Acts, the person spoken to is told that ‘someone else’ will explain things to them. Jesus could have told Saul everything that Ananias told him three days later; surely the angel could have filled Cornelius in on the same material Peter will go over. What do you think? A messenger from heaven appearing to the earthly; but telling the earthly that ‘everything’ will be explained by another earthly. Why do you think that happened?
23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
Look at that beard!
I’m so proud of Chase, even if he won’t go by Steven; he was named after me. No, that’s not why he got the part. If you don’t know, the dude can sing! He’s an incredible musician and performer. And I’m going to alter his name in the playbill the way it ought to be.
But for Chase, when he’s singing so much of what Peter says in our show, he’s not acting; he’s preaching convictions he shares with that apostle who helped turned the world upside down. Thanks Chase. For inspiring me, and for helping us to remember the Lord. For being a part of this attempt to turn the world upside down.
I asked Chase to lead us in prayer. This is what he sent me:
God, you are always faithful to us, even when we are not faithful to you. Even when we turn our backs on you and deny you, you forgive us and take us back. Help us to always be grateful for your amazing grace. And just like Peter, I pray that our gratitude for your mercy would spill into a life steadfastly and whole-heartedly devoted to you, that even if we are faced with death itself, we stay true to you, our Lord. I pray that I will reflect this heart on stage, and people will get a glimpse into what true faith in action looks like, to the point that they are stirred and moved to go and turn the world upside down. We remember our Lord Jesus and in his name we pray, Amen.
slj june 10, 2016