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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=137


 

5 Easter Year C (April 24, 2016)                                     St James', Peace River

Over the last few weeks, we've been hearing stories of the Easter people – the very first followers of Jesus, his immediate disciples and also the next circle of people who began to follow Jesus' way in the aftermath of the first Easter. So we've heard about Thomas, about Peter and Paul, about Tabitha and her church at Joppa.Today that continues with Cornelius, the centurion (a Roman military officer). His name wasn't in the reading we heard from Acts 11, but that's because the actual events are described in the chapter before, where Cornelius welcomes Peter to his house after both of them have an experience of God's guidance in prayer. Cornelius is introduced to Peter as “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, and was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” [Acts 10:22]

The label “God-fearing” was one the Jewish people of the time applied to visitors from other lands who took Jewish religion seriously. Like many who came into contact with Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple, Cornelius must have found something speaking to him from the Jewish story contained in what we now describe as the Old Testament. He would have studied the scriptures, learned what he could from Jewish teachers, maybe visited the Court of the Gentiles in front of the temple, and developed a relationship of prayer with this God who was so different from the other gods Roman culture talked about. It's harder to say what exactly it was that attracted people like Cornelius to the God of Israel, but reading between the lines, we might guess that he was drawn to worship a God who was good, holy and admirable, rather than merely powerful; and who treated human beings not merely as playthings or instruments but as his chosen and beloved people.

Still, there was one obstacle the God-fearers like Cornelius could not overcome, and that was that they were not Jewish. The Jews of the time welcomed the interest, protection and patronage of powerful foreigners, but conversion was a much more difficult business. And from the Roman side, the exclusiveness of Jewish religion was a problem, especially for a soldier who had to accept the polytheism of his culture and the divinity which the emperor claimed. So Cornelius was a God-fearing man, but still a Gentile, a non-Jew. That's what got Peter into trouble for accepting Cornelius as a follower of Jesus, and compelled Peter to justify himself to the rest of the church, back in Judea, where Christianity was still seen as a version of Jewish religion and therefore something that was only open to Jews.

Before this incident, there were only hints that God was looking for something bigger. Jesus himself dealt with a couple of Gentiles in the course of his ministry, in a very positive way that indicated they might be part of God's purpose. And just a little earlier in the book of Acts, Philip had a very interesting private encounter with an African court official who was reading Isaiah in his chariot, and ended up asking Philip to tell him about Jesus and then to baptize him. But Cornelius represents something different – a massive, public, explosion of opportunity for the Easter people to see themselves as not bound to any one place or limited to a particular culture and ethnicity.

And although the question of how Gentiles could become Christians continued to be a thorny issue in the first generation of the church, ultimately it was not about an “issue” but about people like Cornelius – Easter people, who knew and experienced the power of Jesus' resurrection to open new life up to them too. That's what stunned Peter when he went to Cornelius' home, and it's what shocked the people back in Jerusalem who hadn't witnessed it first-hand. But when it came down to deciding what to do about it, they recognized that God was doing the same thing “out there” as he had done “right here” when Jesus' new life first made the church alive.

I think there's another layer to this story, though, which comes to light when we place it next to the gospel reading: the New Commandment which Jesus gave the disciples at the Last Supper, “That you love one another, just as I have loved you.” You can spill a lot of ink and do a lot of talking about what it means when Jesus and his followers talk about love, and never really get to the point, which is that love is about someone else. That seems obvious, in a sense, but so much of both secular and religious ideas about love never quite gets to that obvious place. In the culture we inhabit, love means primarily romantic feeling. And although that presupposes that there is “someone else”, that person rarely seems to be the actual focus – instead, the feeling is the focus. So many of the questions posed by romantic literature, music and films seem to be about what love feels like – how do I know if I love him or her; what do I feel when they are around or when they're absent; how does having that feeling change me, and what would happen if I didn't have it any more?

Even in Christian writing and teaching, we sometimes end up getting stuck on what love is like on the inside. We may understand that we don't have to feel warm fuzzies in order to do the loving thing, and that love is certainly not about what we get out of it; but then we end up all the more puzzled by what motivates people to love. What is it about a Mother Teresa that drives her to a different country to care for people in desperate circumstances that she would never otherwise have even heard of? Where do people get the courage and the faith to risk their health, or to give up their futures, in order to dedicate themselves to loving others? And so we're still missing the essential ingredient, that love is not about the person who loves, but about the person who is being loved.

How does this relate back to Cornelius and Peter? Well, you just need to look at what happens there. Peter does not go into this encounter with the intention of being the hero who does the great and loving thing for these total strangers. His motivation seems to be obedience, not courage – he just goes where God sends him, and watches to see what is happening. And rather than trying to figure out how to make Cornelius' experience of God fit into his own faith, Peter puts Cornelius at the centre of things, and reworks his perspective around the way God has spoken to the Roman soldier. That doesn't take heroism, or a great spirit, or a high opinion of your own capacities – in fact, maybe the reverse – it takes the humility to allow yourself to learn and be stretched, and to be quite sure that you don't have everything you need. But most of all it takes the faith that if you step outside yourself, you will not sink like a stone. Peter already tried that once, getting out of the boat when Jesus was walking towards him on the water, and I wonder if he had a hunch that the same kind of thing was happening again.

Maybe more important than the walking-on-water incident, was Peter's memory of what happened at the last supper. When Jesus gave that new commandment, it came right after he had washed his disciples' feet, reversing the roles and acting as though he was the servant and they were the masters. But in that moment, he also embodied the whole story of what God was doing in Jesus' life – stepping out of his role as the all-powerful, eternal, holy heavenly one, and coming to love us human beings not on his turf but on ours. By the time we get to Acts 11, I think Peter grasped both the symbolism and the reality of what Jesus had tried to show him. He knew that the love he needed to show Cornelius and his people wasn't something he had to dig deep inside himself to find, rather it was God's love already there, already centred on those people, and already making them a focus for the new life of Jesus which God's love always creates.

It turned out to be not that hard for Peter to do the loving thing, because he recognized that Jesus, who loved him so much, was already there. The biggest hurdle came before that – it was, how to get Peter there with Cornelius in the first place, despite all the customs and restrictions of his Jewish background. And yet everything that Peter knew through his experience of Jesus pointed him in that direction. He knew that Jesus went to an unexpected place to find him in the first place, and call him away from the nets. He knew Jesus lived his messiahship out on the edges of society. He knew Jesus always went to where people needed him to be. He knew Jesus was not afraid to die amongst the criminals. And he knew it even more deeply for himself, after the risen Jesus came back to him and showed him the love and trust that brought him back from his denial and running away.

I don't think it's that different for us. We know there is no shortage of people for us to love. Some are very close, others are very far away. Some need us in obvious ways, others we still need to get to know. Some will be easy to care about, others not so much. But the main thing we can do to resist Jesus' direction to us to love like he loved, is to wonder how we're going to manage it. All we really have to do is show up, like Peter showed up at Cornelius' house. Show up and pay attention. When you really see that other person, the one God is sending you to, see them where they are and where God is with them, you can't help but love like God loves. Not because it isn't difficult, or complicated, or demanding – but because all of those things pale into insignificance when you are on the holy ground which is the life of another person, for whom Christ died and rose, to give them his new life.

So, give it a shot. Ask yourself how you are going to carry out Jesus' commandment to you, to love someone like he loves you. But remember that the “how” question isn't, will I know the right things to do or say, will I have the guts, will I have the strength to give what he wants me to give, or anything like that. It really is just, how will I get there. How will I open my door and walk out, to where that other person is waiting. Whether they're in the kitchen at home or in the office or in the coffee shop or on the other side of the tracks, it doesn't matter. Just go there and see that they are Easter people too, that God is alive with them and in them, and then discover how easy it is to live God's love together.