The story of Peter and Cornelius reflects the generally upbeat
tone of the post-Easter readings, and thus helps us continue the
Easter celebration. But, while interesting in its own right, it’s
not included in Acts just for our instruction. The event itself
was crucially important to the early Church, as shown by the fact
that Luke tells it twice – first in Chapter 10 as the events
happen, and then in today’s reading from Chapter 11, when
Peter is called to account by the Church in Jerusalem for breaking
the Jewish laws about clean/unclean and interaction with Gentiles.
We might be tempted to say “Well, sure . . ., but Jesus started
a new religion; the Jewish rules no longer applied.” But that
would be historically inaccurate and would, as well, miss the pertinence
of this story’s message for us. Jesus didn’t come to
start a religion. His mission was first to the people of Israel,
calling them back to their true vocation, which was to manifest
God’s love for humankind by how they lived and interacted
– Isaiah’s city on a hill (Is 60:1–4) drawing
all peoples to its radiance and beauty. The original Christians
were, of course, all Jews, and considered themselves Jews. Nor did
they abandon Judaism after Pentecost. (Recall the story three weeks
ago of Peter and John going up to the temple to pray.) They knew
Isaiah and knew that their following of Jesus had to include the
Gentiles – but they hadn’t worked out how that was to
happen. They seem to have presumed that the Gentiles would all have
to become Jews in order to be Christian.
Clearly God saw things differently. Luke’s use of angelic
visions, both to Peter and to Cornelius, underscores the divine
origins of bringing the Gentiles into the people of God without
their first becoming Jews. Jesus had said you can’t put new
wine into old wine skins (Luke 5:37). Here, surely, is an instance
of what that meant.
Is this just an interesting historical vignette from the first century?
Hardly. Religious people always and everywhere settle on a set of
practices that express their devotion and fidelity. There is a temptation
to say that our way of being religious is ordained by God –
that it is the right way – the only way. Attachment to a particular
set of practices can easily become a form of idolatry. It is a special
danger for those of us who are most religious. We – and our
ecclesial leaders – need to be open to the promptings of the
spirit as we – like Peter – confront equally wine skin-bursting
challenges in our own century.
I can think of a few such challenges. Can you as well?