Posted by: jevcat | January 9, 2011

Peter, Cornelius, and Arizona

At church this morning, I was called on to pinch-hit for someone who didn’t make it to Mass and do the second reading.  From Acts 10, it was Peter’s speech after his encounter with Cornelius the centurion, when God has just broken open his preconceived ideas about Jews and Gentiles, about what was clean and what was unclean.

Peter thought he knew what was required to be loved by God – and among those things were you had to be Jewish, and you had to be ritually clean; it belonged to “us” and most definitely not “them.”  It was neat, clean, well-defined, required little thought, and it excluded most of humanity.  He had God in a tidy box.  And then God came along and shook the box, let him know that as J. B. Phillips titled a book, “Your God is Too Small.”  God would not be confined – or confine salvation – to any human definition.

Coming just after this weekend’s shootings in Arizona, it seems to me a very relevant reading.  We’ve become so polarized in this country (and in the Anglican Communion), with various “us”es against various “them”s.  “We” (whoever “we” is at any given moment) are right, God is on our side and we know – exactly – what he wants.  And if we’re on God’s side, then anyone who disagrees with us must be on the devil’s (the sort of attitude gently satirized this fall by Jon Stewart’s proposed rally sign, “I disagree with you but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler”).

Whether or not the violence of rhetoric and images in recent years contributed to what happened this weekend, the fact that it can even be considered a real possibility speaks sad volumes on what we have allowed to happen.  Many of us have reached a point where it is impossible to acknowledge the other side might have a point, or even that they might be operating in good faith.   Inconvenient facts are denied or discarded, and any compromise is seen as a defeat, a betrayal, or both – attitudes that justified the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and the bloody aftermath of the Russian revolution; I do not like seeing them in my own country.

Which brings me back to the reading.  The infant church was a bit bewildered when gentiles began converting – and worse, when God actually seemed to approve – what was God thinking?! What about our rules?  What about what we were taught, what the Bible (in their case, the Torah) says?  We don’t want them here – and if they insist on coming, well, they had better learn to be exactly like us.  Except then God sends Peter this vision that all animals (and by extension, all people) are clean.  Peter speaks to Cornelius and the centurion and his group all receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit – and they haven’t even been baptized yet!  Scandalous!  And Saul – good Jewish name, he’s really one of us – not only becomes a Christian but changes his name to the Roman “Paul” and goes out and starts sharing the Good News with gentiles, indiscriminately!  And he doesn’t expect them to live like Jews!  Shocking!  That can’t be right, can it?

So what did they do?  Well, they listened.  They prayed.  They made the hard decision to believe the facts and act on them – which meant the even harder decision to compromise.  After much arguing, a considerable amount of hemming and hawing, probably a fair degree of name-calling, harsh words, and hard feelings (most of which the writer of Acts leaves out but one can read between the lines), they forged an agreement that few were probably really happy with:  accept the Gentiles as they were (as God seemed to be accepting them) but with a few constraints:  no food that had been offered to idols or consuming blood (or meat with blood), no fornication.  And they were asked to help out the needier churches in Jerusalem.

I’m willing to wager that if it had been up to Paul, there would have been no conditions, with the possible exception of the alms-giving, and I rather suspect that James never felt entirely easy that there weren’t more.  I’d stake my life that some folks on both sides stomped out of the church, never to return, when the decision of the Council of Jerusalem was made known.

But we don’t know about them, because their sureness they were right, their exclusivity, doomed their movements.  The rest – the ones who, however uneasily, compromised to preserve the common good (and pace, those on the right, that is not a dirty phrase, any more than that “sacred” text, the Constitution, is socialist or communist when it uses it approvingly or, in the Preamble, states one of that document’s purposes is to “promote the general welfare”) – they built a foundation strong enough to last.

My prayer for this country is that we re-learn to do the same.


  1. AMEN!!!

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