Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ Acts 10: 34-44.
Today, the Episcopal Church marks the confession of St. Peter the Apostle. I have always found Peter one of the most approachable saints within the Church and a great source of hope. Scripture records that he was quick to speak, even when he was deeply confused. Like me, Peter generally opened his mouth only to change feet. But in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Peter gets it right: deeply and thoroughly right.
This passage takes place as Peter visits the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion living in Caesarea. Scripture doesn’t reveal much about Cornelius, although we learn that he prayed regularly, and practiced charity. Cornelius, however, was also a Gentile, and no good Jew would have anything to do with him. Peter traveled to his home as a result of a vision in which he heard God’s voice telling him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Now, the disciples had already accepted that Jesus held the hope of salvation. The question remained, however: whose salvation? Peter began his sermon with a remarkable notion: in God’s economy, all of the distinctions we’ve drawn are erased. While we strive to create barriers to and enclosures around the well of sanctification, Peter preached God (through Christ) had knocked them down.
We may be initially tempted to read this passage as talking about our relations with our brothers and sisters. Clearly, no people enjoy a special claim to salvation, God’s love, or the redemptive work of Christ. I think a fair reading, however, would also permit an interpretation that looks to our relentless drive to keep Jesus contained in a single corner of our lives. We allow Jesus into our hearts from nine o’clock to eleven thirty on Sunday mornings, and maybe one evening a week, but will permit no trespassing beyond those boundaries. We have created a sort of spiritual ghetto, excluding God from all but a narrow section of our lives.
Peter’s confession, his sermon, announces God’s radical, promiscuous hospitality: all are welcome; Jesus is Lord over all; and his forgiveness is available to all. Despite our best efforts, God’s love will overcome all our attempts to contain it.
During this season of Epiphany, we are drawn into images of light breaking into the darkness. The star that came to rest over Bethlehem, the heavens torn open at Jesus’ baptism, and the transfiguration of Jesus: all of these icons center on the astonishing entry of the “light of the world.” I love physics and the study of light. If you’ve studied light much, you’ve noticed that when you’ve turned on a light switch, the light bathes every surface in a room. Some of those surfaces, however, reflect light better than others.
I think that’s the case with our spiritual lives as well. The light of Christ, having entered into the world has spread throughout all creation. In some folks, that light is reflected back again, piercing and holding back the darkness. Peter seems, despite his lesser angels, to have learned to reflect the light of Christ, and we properly remember him and his vision today.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis