It’s the year 2018. We are sitting in a Catholic Church, attending Mass celebrated in the Roman rite but in our native language. Some of us were cradle Catholics and inherited the Catholic faith from their parents, while others converted Catholic at a later stage in their lives. But it can safely be said that none of us here is of direct Jewish stock; to use the rather old-fashioned and dated term, we are Gentiles. For millennia, Christians claimed sole ownership of Jesus and of everything associated with him as their birthright in admittedly sometimes violent opposition to the Jews, quite forgetting that He and virtually all his early followers were Jewish. Our collective discipleship of Jesus, both here in Scotland and throughout the world, was sparked in the house of a certain Roman officer stationed in the Palestinian coastal city of Caesarea. That event is described concisely in today’s first reading.
We need to have some background in order to see how revolutionary that encounter was. Firstly, we have to understand that the Jews were very protective of their national and religious identity. Generally speaking, they despised foreign influences brought to their land over the centuries by invading powers including the Babylonians, Alexander the Great’s successors and the Romans. Politically powerless, the Jews made religion their space of freedom, jealously protecting it from anything they regarded as a threat. The Jews’ dislike of foreign culture met with equal disdain from those outside it. The early Church, arising from the Jewish community who believed in Jesus, remained deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition and virtually closed to anybody else. So, when Simon Peter was urged by God to pay a visit to an officer of the occupying army in his family home and to tell him about Jesus, you will appreciate that Peter was very apprehensive for political, religious and cultural reasons. Every fibre in his body protested against such a visit. Had he not been compelled by God to do so, Peter wouldn’t have paid such a visit in a million years. He made that very clear when he addressed the Roman officer Cornelius and his household: ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not consider anyone unfit or say they are not pure.’ (Acts 10:28)
So, Simon Peter is in the centurion’s house. What’s the plan now? His assumption was that he was there to tell that small gathering of people about Jesus. Then, if they were willing to become Christians, in essence they would have to become Jews in a religious sense, including undergoing circumcision and adopting the religious duties and obligations of the Jews. Eventually they would be baptised and become Christians. In the early Church, which was essentially comprised of Jewish converts, that was considered the correct path to follow. The only problem was that God decided to do it differently. While Simon Peter was still speaking about Jesus, those congregated around him received the Holy Spirit, the definitive gift promised to those who believe in Jesus. Simon Peter and his companions, baffled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, had to resolve their bafflement on the hoof. They resolved it by baptising those present. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the door to the Church was opened slightly to admit non-Jews. The event sparked fierce discussion within the Church, culminating in the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). The Council’s decision threw the door of the Church wide open to the Gentiles and eventually spread the Faith even as far as the north-east of Scotland.
Who would we be now, had it not been for Simon Peter’s openness to the prompting of God and his willingness to champion the necessary changes? Peter went against his traditional cultural disposition when he responded to the prostration of Cornelius’ before him by saying: ‘Stand up, I’m only a man after all.’ These were astonishing words uttered to a Gentile by a Jew with an inherent and deeply-ingrained sense of superiority.
That whole situation was a practical implementation of Jesus’ call to love one another as prescribed in today’s gospel: ‘A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.’ Peter laid down his life-long cultural, political and religious objections in the name of love. What are you going to lay down for your friends?