Today’s first scripture is an excerpt from a New Testament book called Acts of the Apostles. The Church proclaims texts from the Acts of the Apostles through the season of Easter. The purpose of this book is to give testimony to the extraordinary ways Christ acts in the lives of his disciples and in the real world through his Church. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles goes so far as to insist that while at one time in history, God in Christ acted through the body of the Lord Jesus’ human nature, so now the same God in Christ acts through the Church. This means that in the Church we meet the same Lord Jesus who revealed himself to the world centuries ago. The means of his self-presentation (his revelation) is different, but in the Church, it is the same Christ who was incarnate in the womb of his mother, born into this world, lived a real, human life, suffered, died and rose from the dead.
Specifically, today’s scripture describes an extraordinary encounter between the apostle Peter and a Roman soldier by the name of Cornelius. This encounter is described in detail in the 10th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and it really is remarkable.
Cornelius, is a Roman centurion, a soldier, who knows of and reveres the God of the Israelites, and he has a vision of an angel, who tells him to seek out a man by the name of Peter. Cornelius finds out where Peter is and tells the apostle about his vision and then Peter delivers a speech or sermon about the revelation of God in Christ. At that moment, as the excerpt from Acts of the Apostles described today, the Holy Spirit overtakes those gathered and manifests his presence in signs and wonders. Peter instructs that Cornelius and his household are to be baptized. Cornelius and his household are the first of the Gentiles to be baptized and received into the Church.
The companions of Peter are astonished because Cornelius and his household are Gentiles, not Israelites, and yet they receive gifts from God in Christ (who is the God of the Israelites).
What’s this all about?
This particular scripture is about a controversy that beset the early Church. This controversy was about the apostles conviction that God in Christ had transformed Israel and in this transformation revealed that the new Israel would include people who were not physical descendents of Abraham. As such, being an Israelite was no longer a matter of blood, being born into an Israelite family, but of a relationship with Jesus Christ, which brought one into communion with his Church through Baptism.
The Church is a new kind of Israel or Israel transformed and this new, transformed Israel is going to open up the possibility of being an Israelite to the whole world.
Not everyone was happy about this. For many Israelites and Gentiles this new kind of Israel called the Church would confuse important cultural, political, economic distinctions and upset customary ways that had been established to maintain the status quo. This new Israel, this Church, threatened that status quo, and to this accusation the apostles and early Christians said- “absolutely right”. The revelation of God in Christ was not about affirming people as they are, but opening up new possibilities. The revelation of God in Christ was not about accommodating the world as it is, but bringing about a new world.
These new possibilities and new world would happen through a strange reality the apostles called the Holy Spirit. What this strange reality called the Holy Spirit does is unleash the love of God in Christ into people’s lives and through those people, out into the world. The Holy Spirit is not magic. The Holy Spirit is the love of Jesus, that changes peoples lives- it is through this love, manifest in the words and deeds of those who have the love of Jesus in their lives, that is the power God intends to use to change the world.
The Acts of the Apostles testifies that the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus, brought together a lot of people who never should have known one another or given one another the time of day. Cornelius, a Roman soldier, an agent of Caesar, who is the enemy of both Israelites and Christians, becomes a friend of Christ and the Church (and a member of the new Israel). An Israelite like Peter, shares table with a Gentile like Cornelius. The Holy Spirit chooses Gentiles to be share communion with God in Christ in the Church, and makes these Gentiles equal in identity and mission to the children of Abraham.
In all this, the world as the Israelites and the Gentiles knew it was being turned upside down.
What does this mean for us?
The challenge in all this for us is that for many Christians the Church has become little more than a quaint ethnic identity, a useful non for profit corporation, a diversion for a settled middle class Americans. (And, if anything is going to change in regards to the Church, it’s not us, but the Church, that should be transformed to better serve my particular needs). But none of this is really true. What the Church really is- is a revolution.
The Church is the means that God in Christ intends to use to change us and change the world.
This revolution is not like the revolutions of the world that use terror and violence and force of will and law to compel people to change. This is how worldly power works, but God subverts all this through the witness of Christian love, which our second scripture, an excerpt from the First Letter of John speaks about so eloquently.
Christian love is not an ideal or a feeling, but it is something very strange that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. What we see in Christ is God showing us what real love, what true love is all about. As I said, real love, true love is not about an idea or a feeling, but about willing for another person what is really and truly good for them, even if that person doesn’t deserve or even want the good that we give.
We see this in Christ, who gives us his life and love, even though we don’t deserve those good gifts and despite the fact that those good gifts Christ gives are so often cruelly refused.
When St. John testifies today that “God is love” and “the way of the love of God was revealed to us when God sent his only Son into the world” and “in this is love, not that we have loved God, but God has loved us” this is precisely what he means- love looks like what God reveals in Christ. What God reveals in Christ is that love is willing for another person what is really and truly good, even if that person doesn’t deserve or even want the good that we give.
Unlike worldly love, the love of God in Christ does not calculate value through cost/benefit analysis or personal advantage. The love of Christ wills what is good for others even if that love is undeserved, refused, or is never reciprocated. When Christians love others with this kind of love we are participating in God’s strategy to change the world.
When you see the kind of love that Christ reveals, you are seeing the work of the Holy Spirit!
The revelation of true love, real love, in Christ, is further illuminated by the Lord Jesus himself in his Gospel for today.
In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus identifies one of the necessary characteristic of love which is relationship. Without relationship there cannot be love, at least not a love that will be deep and enduring. Without relationship all our love amounts to is ideas or feelings, and that doesn’t amount to much at all!
What kind of relationship does God in Christ want with us?
In terms of his relationship with us, Christ tells us what he wants that relationship to be- he wants us to be his friends.
What does it mean to be someone’s friend? To be someone’s friend means that you want to be with that person and that you have common interests that you share. A friend is not someone that you associate with for an ulterior motive, like advancing one’s career or supporting a cause. What kind of friendship do you have with the Lord Jesus? In what ways do you share your life with him? What interests do you have in common? Do you love what he loves? Do you serve what he serves?
Or are you simply using him to get something that you want for yourself? God in Christ wants to be your friend. Is that what you want from him?