Every day during the Easter season, the 1st reading at Mass is taken from the Acts of the Apostles – the 2nd volume, so to speak, of the Gospel according to Luke – the story of what happened next, the sequel to 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 eaten non-kosher meat, 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. While Peter pondered this perplexing dream, however, 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. He listened to Cornelius, then replied: “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 many Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism at the time. Some even went all the way and converted. Had Cornelius converted and 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 not become a Jew. He 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.
This was not like some modern or post-modern dismissal of parts of the Bible that the apostles suddenly found inconvenient, but rather a recognition of how God’s covenant with Israel was being fulfilled in Christ. It was God who took the initiative in all this – directing 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. For his part, Peter, as leader of the Church, 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 are challenged at every level to expand our horizon, just as the apostolic Church had its horizon expanded, 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, to understand how our own middle-aged American Church is being rejuvenated and revitalized by many new immigrants, to understand our own local experience of Church 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 13, 2012.