Sunday 19 May 2019
Are you ever amazed in life at the way that things can change for you all of a sudden? One moment life is going along on a particular course, then some dramatic change occurs and a few years later you find that life has changed completely for you. You are in a place you never thought you would be.
An example of what I mean is say the change from being a single person to that of being the parent of your first child. It can often be only a matter of a few years for that sort of change to occur. Or perhaps you have made a change of career after a long time in a particular line of work. It can be quite eerie to look back and reflect on how different things are now to what you could have expected if you had not made the career change a few years earlier.
I wonder how Peter looked at the dramatic change that had taken place in his life since the time, a few short years earlier, Jesus of Nazareth had walked into his life. Instead of finding himself in Jerusalem defending himself to the circumcised believers in Jerusalem as we read today, he would no doubt have been plying his trade as a fisherman on Lake Tiberias in Galilee.
In the previous chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we read in detail the account of the incident that Peter summarized in today’s reading. He was asked to go to Caesarea to see a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, who was a God-fearer. Cornelius had experienced a vision of an angel who had told him to send for Peter who was at that time in the nearby town of Joppa. Now, God-fearers were gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and who existed on the margins of the Jewish religion. Significantly, they were not circumcised.
At this very early stage of the mission of the early church, Christians were Jews who followed the way of Jesus. For Peter to enter the house of a God-fearer like Cornelius and preach the word to him was looked on poorly by the “circumcised believers” in Jerusalem who would have regarded the centurion and his household as religiously unclean.
And so he finds himself having to give an account of himself. He describes the vision of the sheet and the variety of birds and animals that would have been regarded as unclean by the Jews. He describes God’s message to him that “What God has made clean, you must not profane.” This vision leads Peter to realise that it is legitimate for him to enter Cornelius’ house and to preach the gospel to him and his household, despite the fact that he is not a circumcised Jew.
This was an event of enormous significance because it seems that after the initial frenzy of evangelizing Jews, Peter has remembered Jesus’ command to take the gospel to all nations. Peter has opened the door for the work of Paul and his companions in taking the gospel throughout Asia Minor and into Europe over the next decades.
As I said, Peter’s life had taken a huge turn since his encounter with Jesus. Previously, his biggest decisions would have concerned whether or not to mount a fishing expedition in the light of the weather conditions of the time and how many men to engage for the work.
Now, he finds himself making key decisions about how the gospel will be preached and to whom. About what will be expected of gentiles who wish to be baptized and follow Jesus.
And despite Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all nations, it appears that this message was not clearly preached to Jewish converts outside the ranks of the apostles. It is those Jewish converts, referred to in the text as “circumcised believers”, who are scandalized by Peter’s action. It also seems like Peter had forgotten the message as well as he and the other disciples had been absorbed in spreading the gospel amongst Jewish believers.
Therefore, the conversion of Cornelius became a watershed for the universal preaching of the gospel. It had brought back to the top of Peter’s mind the commission of Jesus regarding all the nations.
It also reinforced the need for the apostles to adopt a different strategy in the conversion process of gentiles. Clearly, it did not make sense to require gentiles to take on the Jewish religion, including the laws of cleanliness and male circumcision, before they became Christians.
As I indicated, the conversion of Cornelius marked a watershed in the preaching of the gospel. If Peter had not pursued the course which he did and establish it as the method for future evangelization, Christianity may have remained a sect of Judaism. This was a momentous occasion in the developing spread of the gospel.
It suggests to us that we should not take for granted the opportunity that we have had to hear and embrace faith in the risen Christ. Failure of the early church to preach the gospel to all nations, or a significant delay in that taking place, could have had a profound impact on the way that the gospel was passed down through the ages.
And the best way for us to show our gratitude for the gift of faith is to share it with those we meet in our daily lives who hunger for spiritual nourishment. Living lives in the world that display the compassion and love of Christ is probably the most powerful way that we can achieve this. People will only be attracted to join the Christian community if they see something of the love of Christ evident in the way that the members of the community treat each other. We can preach the gospel to the world around us best by building ourselves into a community of genuine love and concern for each other. The great Christian apologist, Tertullian, who lived in Carthage in North Africa during the second century AD wrote that the pagans remarked, “See how these Christians love one another”. That should be the mark to which we here at St Matthew’s should aspire.
Not an easy task for sure, but one that is at the heart of evangelization. Let us pray constantly for the courage and wisdom to be the community of love that we are called to be.
Fr Allan Paulsen