Every day during the Easter season, the 1st reading at each Mass is taken from the Acts of the Apostles – the sequel, so to speak, to the Gospel according to Luke – the story of what happened next, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. It’s the wonderful story of how a mere 120 disciples were transformed by the Risen Christ’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit into a missionary movement that spread from Jerusalem to Rome and in the process was transformed from a small Jewish sect into a world-wide Church with a universal mission.
To us, who already know the story, that all seems to have been so obvious and inevitable. For the first Christians, however, it must have seemed like one new learning experience after another. Today’s 1st reading [Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48] recounts one pivotal point in that process. The story actually began earlier with Peter, the leader of the Christian community, making what we today might call a “pastoral visit” to the disciples in a town called Joppa (near today’s Tel Aviv). While there, Peter had a dream, in which he saw various animals, not all of them kosher, and heard a heavenly voice tell him to kill and eat them. When Peter responded that he had never done such a thing, he was told, What God has made clean, you are not to call profane. That’s a good example of something the meaning of which, to us in retrospect, seems so obvious, but which at the time, in its actual context, must have seemed so perplexing.
When such situations occur - whether on world historically significant occasions such as Peter found himself a part of or in the more ordinary challenges of daily life – what is required is what our spiritual tradition calls discernment. As Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent Apostolic Exhortation on holiness, it is how we can “know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil.” We need discernment, the Pope writes: “at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow” [GE, 166, 169].
Meanwhile, when Peter was beginning his discernment process, pondering his perplexing dream, emissaries from a Roman centurion, named Cornelius, came calling and asked Peter to accompany them back to Caesarea, which Peter promptly did. And that is where today’s reading picks up the story.
Cornelius was a Roman, a foreigner, a pagan. He was in fact a rather pious pagan, and was somewhat sympathetic to Judaism; but he was still a pagan, an uncircumcised Gentile! No observant Jew would normally have entered his house, but these were not normal circumstances. Already “prepped” by his perplexing dream, Peter crossed that boundary. Once inside, he spoke with Cornelius, and - no doubt as much to his own amazement as everyone else’s - he said: “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” He then did what no one had yet thought of doing. He proclaimed the Good News of Jesus to a house full of Gentiles. Suddenly what had happened to the original 120 disciples on Pentecost now happened to Cornelius and his household – a “Pentecost for pagans,” as it has been called. And so, Peter asked, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”
Thus began the momentous change that enabled Christianity to spread and take root throughout the world, becoming eventually the largest religion in the world and the largest growing religion in the world today. I say “began,” because, of course, the full implications of something so unexpected took time to sink in. There were other Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism at the time. Some even went all the way and converted. Had Cornelius converted, become a Jew, and then acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, he would not have been all that different from the other early Christians, who were, of course, also Jews who acknowledged Jesus as the promised Messiah. Cornelius, however, had “jumped the line,” so to speak, directly into Christianity. Soon the Church would have to debate whether Gentiles needed to become Jews first in order to become Christians, and Peter would cite this transformational event as the key to understanding God’s will for this Church – that it be the vehicle for conversion and repentance for all, without exception and without restriction.
Given the apostles’ own Jewish background, the long history of separation between Jews and Gentiles, and the seriousness with which all that had been taken up until then, this was quite a radical step. And it was not taken lightly, as the debates elsewhere in Acts illustrate. But eventually it was accepted as a recognition of how God’s original covenant with Israel was now being universally fulfilled in Christ.
Of course, this didn’t all just happen. It was God who took the initiative – inspiring Cornelius to invite Peter, prepping Peter with his dream, and then dramatically demonstrating God’s plan to include the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit. As leader of the Church, Peter, through the gift and practice of discernment, recognized God’s action and accepted its implications, baptizing the first Gentile Christians and incorporating them into the community.
This story speaks volumes about the very nature of the Church – not just the 1st century apostolic Church, but the Church of the 21st century, which is, if anything, even more global and more universal than ever before. The Church is not a club, a fraternal association, a social networking group, or even a prayer group, though it may have elements of all those things. As Pope Pius XI put it, almost a century ago: “The Church has no other reason for its existence than to extend over the earth the kingdom of Christ and so to render people sharers of his saving redemption.”
As a practical matter, of course, we experience the Church largely as part of a locally defined parish community. The parish nourishes and supports us in our faith. It brings us together to hear the Good News that makes our lives so different from what they would otherwise have been. It brings us together to respond to that Good News with worship and prayer, support for one another, and service to others in the day-in, day-out dying and rising that defines a disciple’s life. But it doesn’t stop there. The parish is never just about itself. In union with Peter’s successor, the Pope, and the apostles’ successors, the Bishops of the entire world, the Church unites us across time back to the faith and witness of the apostles their first converts - pagans like Cornelius - and across space to take in the entire world, today’s world.
Precisely as Christ’s Church, we too are constantly being challenged at every level to expand our horizon. Just as the apostolic Church had its horizon expanded, we too are constantly being challenged to understand our own local experience of Church as one with that of the young, emerging Church in Africa, the aging Church in Europe, and the even more ancient Churches in India and the Middle East, ancient Churches currently endangered once again by war, terrorism, and persecution.
Likewise, we too are constantly being challenged to understand how our own middle-aged American Church is being rejuvenated and revitalized by many new members from all over the world. Here in America, we have long been a Church of immigrants in a land and nation of immigrants. In the 19th century, Isaac Hecker’s process of discernment led him to see the two as “working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people” [CA, 99]. Then as now, not everyone was ready to recognize that. Hence the particular relevance for us, in this time and place, of Christ’s command to welcome the stranger. As Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation has also reminded us: we absolutely may not act as if “the situation of migrants” were some sort of “lesser issue,” compared with other moral and political priorities [GE, 101].
As we work together to welcome one another – and others – into our nation and our American Church, we are being challenged to recognize our own local experience in the wider terms of God’s great plan for the salvation of the world – God who sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him [1 John 4:9].
Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 6, 2018.