Sunday 12 January 2014

The story of Cornelius & Peter

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 12th January 2014, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, celebrated as the Baptism of Christ.

What image does the name Cornelius conjure up for you?
If you’re a certain age like me, it might be that wise old elephant Cornelius with the wrinkly forehead, who was Babar’s friend and trusted counselor in the children’s book. Or if you’re a bit younger perhaps it’s Cornelius the chimpanzee archaeologist in the cult SciFi movie Planet of the Apes, who believed that apes descend from humans.
How many of us, I wonder, would think immediately of Cornelius the Roman centurion, whom St Peter addresses in today’s 2nd reading from Acts 10:34-43? Not many probably! Which is a shame, because the story of Peter and Cornelius is important for our faith. To understand why, I’m going to focus on that story today.
Now the lectionary reading, as so often, is only a small fragment of the larger story, so I’m going to try to summarise it for you. But I do urge you, when you have a moment, to take down your Bible at home and read the whole thing, from the beginning of Acts Ch10 to the middle of Ch11.

The story begins with Cornelius.
Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman army, stationed in Caesarea, the Roman administrative capital of Palestine. He was in charge of a company-sized unit of around 100 men, equivalent to a Captain, or perhaps a Major or Commandant in today’s army - a man of substance and authority.

He was a ‘God-fearer’, we are told. These were people who were not Jews, but believed in one God, admired the ethic of the Jewish religion and sometimes attended synagogue – many thoughtful gentiles at the time were feeling their way to a monotheistic faith and no longer believed in the old pagan pantheon of Gods.

One afternoon Cornelius had a vision. In the vision an angel told him to send messengers to fetch Peter from Joppa where he was staying - a day’s journey away on foot. Perhaps he had heard tell of Peter’s preaching, and realised he should hear what Peter had to say. Anyhow, he did as the angel asked him.

The next day Peter also had a vision, just as Cornelius’s messengers were approaching Joppa. He fell into a trance as he waited hungrily for his mid-day meal. He saw a bag-full of unclean animals in front of him and a voice told him to kill and eat them. He protested that the Jewish law forbade him to eat unclean meat, but the voice said, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. While Peter was still puzzling over what this meant, the messengers arrived to ask him to go with them to Cornelius.

The next day Peter set out for Caesarea with the messengers and some disciples from Joppa. Cornelius had called his family and friends together and was waiting for them. When Peter arrived he said to them, ‘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 call anyone profane or unclean’. His words would have been shocking to a pious Jew – he has begun to question whether the strict Jewish law is really what God wants.

It is at this point that Peter gives the address we heard in today’s reading.
First he reassures Cornelius, his family and friends that God does not reject them because they are not Jews - ‘I truly understand’, he says, ‘that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’.

Peter goes on to speak simply and powerfully of what he knows from his own experience. He tells them about Jesus’s special relationship with God: his baptism by John, his healing ministry to the people of Galilee and Judah, his death and resurrection, his command to the disciples to continue his teaching. And he interprets the words of the ancient prophets to show that ‘everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name’.

While Peter is still speaking, we are told, ‘the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word’. Peter’s words, shot through with personal conviction, so excited Cornelius, his family and friends that they became ecstatic, ‘speaking in tongues and extolling God’. Perhaps it was something like a charismatic prayer meeting today, with hand-waving, clapping, dancing and whoops of joy. Peter recognised that despite being Gentiles they had received the Holy Spirit, just as the disciples had at Pentecost, and ‘he ordered them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ’.

The story continues with Peter’s return to Jerusalem.
Word has got back to the apostles and believers there about what had happened at Joppa, and they take Peter to task for consorting with Gentiles.

So Peter tells them the story from the beginning, finishing by justifying his actions in these words, ‘“If then God gave them the same gift (of the Holy Spirit) that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” …  And (the believers in Jerusalem)  praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”’

Those who wished to maintain a Jewish exclusiveness were silenced, at least for the time being - though as we know the issue continued to bedevil the Christian community for many years to come.

The story of Cornelius and Peter is a story of many epiphanies.
It’s worth reminding ourselves what an epiphany is. The English word comes from a Greek root meaning ‘showing forth’. It is used in two senses. First, in everyday speech, it means a sudden insight experienced by someone – a ‘Eureka!’ moment. Second, in a religious context, it means an event in which God reveals himself to human beings. An example of an Epiphany in this 2nd sense is the Coming of the Wise Men which we celebrated last Sunday, a day early, in which God reveals his Son to the Magi in the shape of the baby Jesus. Another is the Baptism of Christ which we celebrate today, in which God through a voice from heaven, accompanied by the Spirit in the form of a dove, marks Jesus as his Son.

The story begins with Cornelius’s vision, a little epiphany in the everyday sense – a ‘Eureka’ moment in which he suddenly realises that the preacher Peter might have something important to tell him.

Then we have Peter’s vision, another little epiphany in the everyday sense, which causes Peter to question the rigidity of the Jewish dietary laws in which he had been brought up, which had become such a barrier between Jews and gentiles.

How marvellous it is that these little epiphanies are brought together to make possible the greater Epiphany, in the religious sense, in which the power of God as Holy Spirit was revealed to Cornelius, his family and friends - just as the apostles and disciples experienced it at Pentecost, and indeed as Jesus did at his baptism. They were the first gentiles we know of to experience it.

But the whole story, taken together is an even greater Epiphany – this is why I believe it is so important!
It shows us God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, revealing his nature to be inclusive – God seeks to include in his kingdom all people who turn to him and do what is right. This is revealed first to Peter and then through him to the first Christians in Jerusalem in the context of race: ‘God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’.

But the Holy Spirit didn’t stop there. St Paul later received the insight that God’s inclusive nature extends beyond race, to social status and gender too. As he wrote in Galatians 3:28, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. Some found this difficult to accept - Paul like Peter had to contend with those who preferred an exclusive God – but as time moved on eventually Paul’s teaching was accepted by all.

In our own days I am convinced that the Holy Spirit continues to work for inclusion. More and more Christians are being led to understand that those attracted to the same sex are one in Christ with the rest of us. There is resistance of course – some of it frankly quite shocking - but that would not surprise Peter or Paul.

I hope and pray for, and look forward to, the time when the Holy Spirit has brought us all to accept one another as fellow disciples of Christ no matter what our sexual orientation, race, social status or gender may be.