Cambridge, MA. It is no easy thing to change the Church. In part this is because we who are the Church do not change easily, and in part because the institution as institution thrives on settled ideas and fixed ways of acting, is loathe to change in new circumstances, and fights off possibilities of change. Yes, caution is often the wisest course, but sometimes things need to change: but still we find that we cannot change, not because we are bad or the Church wicked, but because our good habits and strong beliefs give us no way to imagine things differently.
So on this sixth Sunday of Easter, it was good to hear a section of Acts 10 for the first reading. It is a story about how Peter, a key leader of the new Christian community, changed some basic values, all at once, in a day’s time. It is a parable, of sorts, for a changing relationship to other religions, and for change in the Church. For those of you would didn’t look up Chapter 10 of Acts — the fragment read at Mass is not enough — or hear my homily (!) here is the gist of it:
This is the story of the encounter of Cornelius, a Roman soldier in Caesarea and “a centurion of the Italian Cohort” with Peter. It is a story of their coming to a remarkable understanding, that Cornelius and his family were welcome in the church, as full members — and without becoming Jews first. We learn from the chapter (though not from the part read at Mass) that Cornelius is “a devout man who feared God with all his household,” and who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” This is no severe conversion story; he is already a good man. The problem is that being good seems not enough. Neither the Romans nor the early Jewish Christians thought that Romans and other pagans could become Christians: too many differences, not simply in belief, but in customs, practices, food and drink, etc. So at the chapter’s start, it seems likely that Cornelius will remain a good pagan, and Peter a good Jewish Christian who keeps his distance from the Romans: a history of opportunities lost because of a sincere lack of imagination.
Things work out differently because both Cornelius and Peter have visions. Cornelius, terrified by the night visit of an “angel of God,” is instructed to send his men to find Peter, about whom Cornelius knew nothing, and urge him to visit Cornelius. Peter, hungry after prayer and fasting, has the famous vision of a sheet lowered from heaven, containing all kinds of animals, pure and impure, and a voice that instructs him to eat whatever he wishes, without worrying about the rules. Peter, unable to imagine breaking such rules regarding food, says that he is not permitted to do this; this had not been done before. But the voice tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Deeply engrained instincts suddenly no longer matter.
It is important that both Cornelius and Peter need new revelations, as it were, voices from outside the normal channels of their ordinary cultural and ethical ways of behaving. The effect is immediately beneficial. When Cornelius obediently sends his men on their mission, Peter not only receives them, and agrees to go with them to the pagan’s house, but also remarkably “invited them in and gave them lodging.” What he would not have found possible just hours before, suddenly he can do: the Roman, with different culture and religion, can now be a guest in his house, at his table, prior to any talk of conversion.
When Peter arrives, Cornelius asks Peter to give a teaching, and insightfully though rather boldly adds, “All of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” Peter makes a broad claim with no strings attached, a statement about God that is still true, one that we do well to hear today: “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.” Peter then gives a brief teaching about Jesus, nicely accommodated to Cornelius’ sensitivities: this Jesus came “preaching peace,” and “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” It is not that this teaching is soft — this Jesus is to be the judge of all, and belief in him offers a way to the forgiveness of sins — but Peter imposes no warnings about the deficiencies of pagans or the many virtues of the church or the rules for membership. He just gives basic good news, perhaps hoping in this way to begin to win Cornelius over.
Yet there is no indication that Peter intends to baptize Cornelius — the matter of Gentile baptism is to be debated in the next chapters of Acts — but in any case we never learn what Peter was going to do, since suddenly the Spirit leaps ahead of Peter — and the Church — in a remarkable way: “The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word,” and they “spoke in tongues and praised God” — just as the first Christians had on Pentecost. This amazes all the “circumcised believers present,” for this profligate gift of Spirit is not what they expected. Peter, who perhaps had assumed that baptism is supposed to come first, yields to the will of God: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Cornelius and his family are baptized immediately. The final nice touch in the chapter is a reinforcement of the new situation in which old and settled presuppositions about insiders and outsiders, the need to keep one’s distance, etc., are no longer relevant: “Then they invited him to stay for several days,” and presumably he does.
I hope that readers who have stayed with me through the preceding paragraphs will agree that Acts 10 has applications in today’s Church, as we imagine overcoming divides among ourselves in the Church, and devising ways of relating more generously to those outside the Church. In a way, the Church is this sheet filled with all kinds of beasts that consider one another unclean. It is still a matter of getting Peter to visit Cornelius. Like Peter, we may need a voice from heaven to get us to stop dividing the world into the clean and the unclean, the bad and the good, insiders and outsiders. Like Peter, we have to be reminded that everything God has made is clean, even if we thought it profane. Like Peter, we may have to learn, or learn again, that the Spirit has not agreed to work only by the rules, in due order. Like Peter, we need to realize that the Spirit of Christ can work before or after sacraments, inside or outside the Church, on schedule or in untimely ways.
None of this is radical, of course; it is just that we tend to forget how hard — and easy — it can be to change the Church. You can think of the cases where change is needed, as well as I can. Each of us has her or his own list, right? So perhaps the most practical point is to pray that we - and particularly our leaders, and particularly Peter's successor - use our imaginations for a holy purpose: learn, as Peter did, to be open to the voice of God saying something unfamiliar, and then to be open to doing something new when such revelations wake us up in the night. What you say can't happen, can happen.