I had no idea that future generations of believers would invent jokes about St. Peter standing at the pearly gates of heaven, asking why should God let you into heaven? For me, it was no joke. My name is Cornelius, and I literally sent my servants to Peter’s doorstep where they knocked on behalf. From miles away, my heart was thumping as if I was standing at the gates myself, one single question thudding in my heart: Will God accept me? It felt like Peter held my life, my fate, my destiny in his hands. I felt so indebted to him, in fact, that I bowed to him upon first meeting him, though I was a centurion and he a common man.
I had been close to God all my life—I was a praying man, and I hope, a generous one. I tried my best to live a moral life. But there grew within my soul a rumbling discontent . . . I sent for Peter, and though he was a stranger to me at the time, I was eager to see if he could help.
But do you know one of the first things Peter said to me upon entering my home? “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him.” Every muscle in my body tightened at those words. I had invited my whole family, plus some close friends, every single one of us non-Jewish, and we bristled immediately at Peter’s sense of superiority. You could feel the tension in the room mounting.
“But,” Peter continued talking, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
And there we all stood, Peter smiling broadly, naively, proudly, like he’d said something clever and profound, my family and friends standing there un-flattered and uncomfortable, and me, stuck in the middle, feeling responsible for orchestrating this social disaster but somehow still wanting to hear what he was going to say next . . .
Today’s text from the book of Acts about the baptism of Cornelius and his family is the ending of a much lengthier story, the famous encounter between Peter, the Jew, and Cornelius, the Gentile. It is the story where Peter receives a vision from the Lord—the one where a sheet drops from heaven and God tells Peter he can now eat non-kosher animals, and Peter’s idea of the love of God is radically expanded to include even the Gentiles. Cornelius the centurion becomes the very first case-in-point.
When we read the book of Acts, I find our tendency is to read ourselves into the story as Peter, or as one of the Christian Jews. We are the church, the disciple, the insider with a choice to extend hospitality or not. Like Peter, we’ve been given the keys to heaven.
But since you and I are in fact, not Jewish, what if we read the story the other way? We are not Peter in this story. We are Cornelius. We are the outsider who doesn’t belong. We are the one desperate to know, “Will God accept me?” Can you relate to his angst? You’ve dabbled at being a praying man, perhaps, but it feels like your verdict is pending, the jury is still out, you can’t quite shake this fear that maybe you don’t belong.
How might it feel if Peter showed up at your house and promptly told you he is not allowed to associate with someone like you? Fortunately for you God just now told him in a vision involving unclean animals that he could be friends with you anyway, so here he is, ready to be let inside your home. I imagine it would be awkward, even offensive, to find that Peter had to be told in a vision that God would actually accept the likes of you. But when we bristle at being slighted, I doubt we are confident we belong and thus indignant at being refused. I think we bristle because we are afraid. Afraid that they might be right, that we aren’t really lovable. Recently I found myself trying to impress an old friend—someone who had rejected me in the past and now we were in the same room, and I caught myself trying to impress her. All these years later, and I still wanted her approval. At our core, we all want to know that we are loved, that we are lovable.
Which is why I assume that after the initial shock of Peter’s bad manners rubbed off, maybe you’d be able to hear the rest of what Peter had to say, which is that you are, in fact, somebody that God likes. The question thudding in your heart all those years, “Does God accept me?” is finally answered by none other than the socially-clumsy Peter. It comes as a surprise to him that God actually loves you, but you are able to forgive Peter for his short-sightedness, because you were short-sighted too. Despite your outward bravado, you had inwardly doubted all along that God’s love could extend as far as you.
No one starts life as a Peter, that is to say, an insider. We start as Corneliuses hovering around the edges of faith, trying to peek in, desperate for someone to extend hospitality, to tell us, Yes, God likes you. You are not unclean or un-presentable or unacceptable. You are deeply loved.
Cornelius is a story about the radical inclusiveness of the Christian family. Anyone and everyone can “get in” if they choose. And that’s disgruntling if you think about your grimy neighbor with the loud dogs or your greedy boss with the rude comments. But the real truth, of course, is that we desperately want in ourselves. We need acceptance, love, belonging. We are Cornelius.
Even after being drenched in the waters of baptism and blasted by the winds of the Holy Ghost, we can carry a bit of that Cornelius insecurity in our hearts. I believe it is this residue of fear and anxiety that turns us against our neighbor. Every Cornelius is in danger of becoming a vision-less version of Peter. What if Peter had not accepted the vision from God? Peter would have ended up like those of us who, once we’re “in,” set up boundaries—like a tall backyard fence to remind us daily, “You are home! You are safe! You belong.” But we did not consult God’s surveyor before we built the fence, and we built it way too far inside the property line. There is a whole world out there, full of people whom God loves but we have forgotten. Our yard is safe and small and comforting, and we like it that way. We do not have to face the dangers of the park, we do not have to look our neighbor in the face. This is my yard, and I get to decide to who comes in. But such exclusiveness means I no longer have a home; I have created a prison. God is in the business of setting captives free, but since I am so stubbornly camped behind the bars I built myself, God simply moves out and sets up camp elsewhere, somewhere spacious, with lots of room to roam and lots of people to play and eat with. Focused on my own insatiable need for security, I don’t realize that my backyard is now located outside the camp, that God has moved and I’ve stayed put. That His love was too big to be contained, so he had to move on, past my wimpy constraints.
Peter’s vision was just as crucial to Peter’s continuing conversion as it was to Cornelius. It would have been easier for Peter to reject the vision because a small container for faith is more comforting than an ever-expanding one. But to reject the vision would have been to force God to move elsewhere, would have been to deny the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, would have been to remove himself from the power of God’s love.
We can easily convince ourselves we love God in the privacy of our own yard, or surrounded by friends who are lot like us. But if we are not open to new visions of just how wide God’s mercy reaches, then our love of God is a delusion. If our love for others isn’t expanding, then our love of God is shriveling.
1 John puts it this way: Love God by loving His children; love God’s children by loving God. It’s rather circular, if you didn’t notice, but I think that’s point. You can’t have one without the other. John adds this to the mix: keep God’s commands. And what are God’s commands, pray tell? If we flip back to the Gospels, all God’s commands can be summed up as follows: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. In summary? 1. Love God by loving your neighbor. 2. Love your neighbor by loving God. 3. Obey God’s commands, which are to love God and love your neighbor.
Cynthia Bourgeault explains it this way: that you cannot love God as an object. “God is always and only the subject of love. God is that which makes love possible . . . God is the place from which love emerges.” In other words, the love of God means you’ve been set free and empowered to love other people. There is no love of God apart from a love for others. There is no private love for God, no exclusive relationship of love with God—there is only that love which causes you to embrace your neighbor. The love of God is that which fills you with love for others.
John also says such commands are not burdensome which makes you wonder where on earth he found people who were easy to love. But of course, he doesn’t really mean easy. By “not burdensome,” I think John means possible; I think he means we have divine help. I think he means Jesus went on ahead of us, and though Jesus’ love involved suffering and even death, Jesus proved to us that love conquers death.
We too will conquer if we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. To believe that God himself became human and entered our suffering is to believe that love is strong enough and big enough to break through every dividing wall. It was big enough to tear down the wall that isolating humanity from God; that means love is also big enough to tear down the wall separating humanity from humanity. Faith in the incarnation means we will overcome this world of hostility, as the love of God infuses our hearts and enables us to embrace our neighbor.
We are Corneliuses, you and I, desperate for God’s love and acceptance. We are Peters, too, stingy, perhaps, with the love that we do have, but open to new understanding that the love of God is bigger than we could have imagined. May the love of God convert our hostile hearts, again and again and again, and perhaps this icy hostile world will melt just a little because we loved it.