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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν (1 John 4:8, part 1) B6E

Peter's vision, by Doug Jacques.
One of my absolutely favorite stories in the entire Christian scripture, including the parables of Jesus themselves, is the account of the sojourn of Peter in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius, and the story of his vision of the divine picnic. This vision, by any account, opens Peter’s mind permanently to the possibility that the apostolic mission to proclaim the love of God and the covenant in Christ was not to be just a mission to the Jews, but a mission to the entire world. James Alison calls it the institution of "universal Judaism," the catholic Church! While Peter does backslide occasionally as he seems to be wont to do, the vision sets up a reconciliation (for Luke, anyway) between the two great moving forces of the early church, the charismatically anointed authority of Paul’s preaching, and the dominically “ordained” authority of Peter. Here, in the infancy of the Christian movement already, there is both conflict and reconciliation between charism and office, and the reconciliation is achieved through truth-speaking, prayer, and dialogue, albeit sometimes apparently begrudging and suspicious.

Cornelius, it is very important to note, is a Roman citizen and an officer in the occupying army. He would be required to have been part of the cult of the emperor. But Acts identifies him as a God-fearer, that is, a Jewish sympathizer, one who listens to the Torah, sympathizes with Jewish belief, and actually contributes to the upkeep of the Temple and the priesthood. Unfortunately, all of this information, as well as the story of Peter’s dream during an afternoon nap, happens in the 25 or so verses of chapter 10 of Acts before the reading we hear Sunday. It’s just one of those things: the lectionary imagines that we already know the whole story, and only need to be reminded of it by a little reading. Needless to say, some remedial reading needs to be done by a lot of us, and it would certainly help if homilists took the time to frame their comments with some brief allusion to “the rest of the story.” Cornelius, as one born a pagan and yet attracted to Jewish monotheism and ethical life, is thus a symbol of both that great arena of first century proselytization, the God-fearers of the entire Mediterranean diaspora in Greece, Asia Minor, Rome, Spain, and Africa, but of the wider net yet to be cast among the pagans of those lands.

I say that Cornelius’s identity is important to note because of the unlikelihood of his coming to faith, and the same can be said of his whole family. The man is in the literal employ of another god, Caesar. And yet, as Luke tells it, he is a God-fearer, and is blessed with the vision that tells him to summon Peter to his house. Peter’s vision, in turn, of the divine smorgasbord, allows him to speak those Easter words that have rung down through the ages: “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” This new awareness does not require explicit incorporation into Christ to validate it: Peter’s awareness is about God’s very nature, that God shows no partiality to any nation or people or type of person. His experience in the house of Cornelius, however, of a household which knows Christ and which is alive with the presence of the Holy Spirit leads him to invite these non-Jews to the waters of baptism. He is so overwhelmed by the experience, in fact, that he can barely restrain his language. It is as though the baptismal waters themselves were bursting their boundaries to swallow up these Gentiles.

The love of God, limitless, life-giving, non-judgmental, is poured out on the household of a man whose nation took the life of the innocent Jesus, and many other lives as well. It might be said, I think, that in this story, God is “loving enemies,” as Jesus taught in his life and work, if God can be said to have enemies. But the issue here isn’t even God’s enemies, it’s whom we consider or pre-judge to be God’s enemies upon whom God’s love is poured. The essence here is that love surprises even the insider, the beloved, with its fierce loyalty. Peter, the beloved right-hand man of Jesus, is himself overwhelmed to come to this new insight about God’s love. Barnabas and the community around Antioch and Tarsus are overwhelmed by the unthinkable turnaround that divine love has wrought in Saul/Paul, who is changed from a fire-breathing jihadist against the Way to its most persuasive and peaceful apologist and witness. The best that the “insider” can do inside the storm-center of divine agape is to keep the heart open, because there seems to be no limit to the way God’s love can surprise us.

I will say more on this later in the week, especially in the light of the 2nd reading (quoted in the title of this post) and the gospel. As we approach the feast of Pentecost and the end of the Great Fifty Days, we are immersed ever more deeply in the meaning of the resurrection and the paschal mystery of God, the awesome and creative anti-power that is agape. Week by week, the richness of the Church’s meditation on the Savior, Abba, and their Holy Spirit floods us with hope, and encourages us to follow the Way ever more resolutely and with open, beloved hearts, expecting and savoring the strange interruptions of God’s troublesome, impartial love.

These are the songs we will sing at Mass Sunday, for those of you keeping score.

Gathering: We Have Been Told, by David Haas

Psalm 98: The Lord Has Revealed to the Nations His Saving Power, setting by Rory Cooney (octavo, OCP)

Gifts: God Is Love, by Rory Cooney
Communion: No Greater Love, by Michael Joncas
Recessional: All Shall Be Well, by John Foley

(Read Part two of this Sunday's reflection here.)

I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34, first reading from Easter 6)