SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER [B]
USCCB link to all three readings.
When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
"Get up. I myself am also a human being."
Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
"In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him."
While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?"
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles is most profitably read in its entirety. As it is presented here in Sunday’s Mass, we have no context for the intentions of Peter or Cornelius. Without the full narrative, the Sunday passage above is badly disjointed and somewhat stripped of its impact. To set the stage liturgically, I would simply recall that last weekend’s first reading described the vision of the risen Christ to Saul, who undergoes a conversion to the following of Jesus and gradually embraces a preaching ministry in Jerusalem to both mainstream Jews and the “Hellenists,” those Jews whose world view was shaped by Gentile philosophy. Saul had a rough time of it; it was not enough that he was preaching “heresy” to traditional Jews but he was also addressing the call to a population with secular and Gentile sympathies. Neither audience accepted his word, and the Hellenists tried to kill him. This was new territory for the infant Church as well, and Saul’s persona and mission remained somewhat suspect.
After the conversion and early preaching of Saul, the Acts turns the narrative back to the Jerusalem mother church and the awakening of Peter to the simultaneous idea of a Gentile mission. Acts 10 describes two distinct divine appearances which occur in tandem. The first is a revelation to a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Acts 10 describes him as a God-fearing man who extended financial generosity to the Jewish community and may have prayed with them. In a vision he is told to make connection with a Simon Peter presently in Joppa.
Peter’s vision is a vivid literary metaphor. Acts reports that Peter, hungry, fell asleep before dinner. In his vision-dream, a large canvas drops to the ground before him upon which stood all the “four-legged” creatures and birds of the earth. God then commanded Peter to “slaughter and eat.” Peter, ever the observant Jew despite his Christian conversion, withstands God, rather indignantly, informing his Lord that “never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” God rebukes Peter for referring to any of his creatures as unclean. [I thought of this sequence last summer in Holland when my Dutch hosts introduced me to raw herring.]
Acts 10:16 records that Peter and God had three successive exchanges on the propriety of designating certain foods as “unclean,” a staple of Jewish observance and the basis of the term “kosher.” It is important to note that God in this context is not condemning Jewish observance; rather, He is advocating the universality of Jesus’ kingdom; as the breath of God rendered all creatures holy in creation, so too God rendered all people worthy of admission to the saving grace of Christian baptism and Eucharist.
Peter is deeply troubled by the exchange and its implications. While he is contemplating this new revelation, the servants of Cornelius find him and ask Peter to return with them to Caesarea to meet the Roman. Cornelius had evidently invited his Gentile household and friends for a dramatic meeting in his home, and Peter arrives with his Jewish/Christian brethren. It is at this juncture that Sunday’s reading begins with Cornelius falling to his feet to venerate Peter. Here Peter begins a sermon that many scholars believe to be a template to the first Gentile audiences of the Christian mission. The sermon is not recorded in the Sunday text, however.
The third paragraph of Sunday’s reading indicates that as Peter was preaching, a Pentecost event broke out and the household of Cornelius, filled with the same Spirit as the Apostles had received, began speaking in tongues and glorifying God. If this drama surprised Peter, it “astounded” Peter’s Christian companions that the Holy Spirit might pour out his gifts upon Gentiles. Peter’s response to them—and ultimately to the reader—is that saving baptism can be denied to no one, and Sunday’s reading concludes with the first recorded baptism of Gentiles. The issue of Christian identity as separate from Jewish membership was far from settled, however, and in several future chapters of Acts, as well as in the writings of Saul/Paul himself, the Church would wrestle with variations on this theme, such as the need for circumcision as a prerequisite.
Acts 10 describes several key factors in the development of the Church, none greater than the influence of the Holy Spirit in assisting the Church to form its identity. Although the Church does have one feast entitled “Pentecost” [two weeks away] there are numerous Pentecostal events where God opens the eyes of the disciples to the fullness of the divine plan. We saw this on Good Friday in St. John’s Passion narrative, where Jesus gives the Spirit with his dying breath; when the soldier lances his corpse, the outpouring of blood and water symbolizes the lifegiving force of Baptism and Eucharist. On Easter Sunday, the risen Jesus breathes the Spirit upon the Apostles and empowers them to forgive sin.
When we talk about the Easter Season and its liturgical observance, we are talking about the Holy Spirit as the ongoing power of Jesus during his post-resurrection sojourn on earth and particularly after the Ascension. Repeatedly the Spirit will lead the Church into new and difficult phases of self-understanding and missionary outreach. What is often forgotten is the Spirit’s continuing power within the Church to develop its identity and self-understanding until the Lord comes again in glory. This is the ultimate purpose of the Acts of the Apostles—as template to empower the Church in its life today.