Baptism of Cornelius the Centurion, Corneille 1658, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these [Gentile] people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Acts of the Apostles 10:47-48.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
If we could put our feet into St. Peter’s shoes, we would be as bewildered, shocked, amazed, even scandalized at what happened to him in the course of a few days. Peter had arrived in Joppa a few days before, a small town on the Mediterranean coast. He had been called there on a mission of mercy, and was invited to stay on for a few days of rest by Simon, a friend. It was not to be. Dozing off on the rooftop of Simon’s house in the heat of the afternoon, he had a vision: a tablecloth full of different foods, much of which was forbidden according to kosher law, hence forbidden to Jews. A voice told him to eat, and he refused, being a good Jewish boy. Then a voice from heaven said, “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean” (Acts 10:15). The vision was repeated three times. That changed everything for the apostle (and indeed for us, as it cancelled the Jewish dietary rules for Christians), for he had abided by the kosher rules all his life.
Then, immediately after that, the voice told him to travel to Caesarea, a big port to the north of Joppa, to a house of a Roman Centurion called Cornelius, today’s first reading. This was an additional sledgehammer blow to Peter. Jews never entered the house of a Gentile, and especially not that of a Roman soldier, the unclean, pagan oppressor of the Jewish people. Yet clearly this heavenly voice had to be obeyed. So it is virtually impossible for us to feel what Peter must have felt on arrival at this Roman soldier’s home, gingerly entering it and then seeing God’s Holy Spirit descend on these Gentiles. With the greatest possible clarity, God was welcoming everybody, even the uncircumcised, into the new Christian community, (and allowing everyone to eat whatever they wanted).
It was Peter’s world turned upside down, by none other than God. There was to be no going back, and it all clearly made it much easier for Gentiles to become followers of Jesus. And that had massive implications when placed against Jesus words in today’s gospel, “Love one another…” Yes, even the Gentiles…. It was the beginning of the first crisis in the early church, because all that was very hard to accept by strict orthodox Jewish-Christians. Yet Jesus said love one another…. and did not place any limits on that command. The second reading, which states that God sent his only Son to us, is a sure and inescapable sign of total, unconditional love, and we are asked, commanded even, to do likewise. Love is indeed the unbreakable theme through all three readings today, along with a crystal clear demonstration of its unlimited meaning. We are to love, no matter what, and remembering Jesus’ forgiveness of his murderers from the cross, there must be no limits to our life-long mission to love everyone. Remember it was almost certainly this central teaching that sent Jesus to his death, ironically. Everyone was waiting for him to rally the troops just before Passover and conquer the Romans and restore the Kingdom of David. What they got was love….. Love does indeed conquer, but not in that sense, and never will. The loving-kindness of the Heart of our God who visits us like the dawn from on high; he will give light to those in darkness and those who dwell in the shadow of death and guide us into the way of peace (The Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79). That is true love, unlimited and super abundant; and there we must be.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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