Acts 10: 34-43
34Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation, anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him. 36You know the message He sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — He is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how 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. 39We are witnesses to all that He did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree; 40but God raised Him on the third day and allowed Him to appear, 41not 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. 42He 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. 43All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.’
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.
It horrifies me to think of all the times I’ve heard people say, or imply, that someone isn’t a Christian because that person doesn’t belong to a particular denomination. Peter, talking to a Gentile group after being summoned by Cornelius, a Roman soldier, is very specific here in declaring that God shows no partiality. Unfortunately for native English speakers, “fear” now has the connotation of “dread” as if something nasty will happen. Though “fear” is derived from the Greek word used here, a better translation of phoboumenos would be “hold in awe” because that is the sense implied in the Greek. To his audience Peter would have been quite clear: just because you are of Roman origin, and have had no contact or relationship with the God whom the Jews have been worshipping for centuries, does not preclude you from God’s love and grace. Peter was, of course, speaking out of his experience with the risen Christ, and encouraging his audience to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Note the challenge, though. If we are to emulate God in this world then we must show no partiality at all. When I was asked how a priest should respond if an openly homosexual person should enquire about being part of the parish I responded: ‘we can consider the person to be sick, and we are called to minister; we can consider the person a sinner, and we are called to minister; or we can consider the person normal, and we are called to minister; so the only choice available is to minister, and not to judge.’ I wish I could claim I always respond in the same way when faced with other situations which might disturb my well-being, but that is the challenge. Our partiality, of course, isn’t limited to how we relate to other Christians; it is deeply ingrained in the way our society works, so it is hard to set it aside. Do we shudder when asked to help someone who has no food, no home and no money? Do we run the other way when an openly homosexual couple walks into church? Do we expunge from our lives all the good memories of people whose encounter with Satan has led them astray, or do we celebrate the good and pray for forgiveness for the bad? We should ask ourselves how God would respond, and do the same.
Peter’s summary of Christ’s ministry is very succinct. Though physical and time restrictions meant that Jesus spent His entire ministry in a small area there is no indication in what Peter says that the message is limited only to that geographic area. Indeed, his comments to the people gathered by Cornelius show that there is no limit. Jesus went about doing good. He also went about “healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Are we following in Christ’s footsteps, healing those who have been oppressed by the devil? At least one priest I knew was told to stop casting demons out of the lives of those who sought him, even though we are all commissioned to do so by Christ himself.
One question I have asked myself many times is did Christ rise from the dead or was He raised from the dead. “What’s the difference?” do I hear you ask? It all boils down to who did the raising, was it Christ (as second person in the Trinity), or was it God (as first person)?
Christ may not have appeared to a large number of people, after his resurrection, but to those who had lived with Him through His ministry He was as bodily intact as they were. Peter tells us that He ate and drank with them. This was no figment of someone’s imagination: there were too many who had the experience, and all of them were transformed into people who had the confidence to preach the Good News, irrespective of the consequences. Is that how our churches work today? Are our priests expected to be the only ones jumping up and down with joy at the Good News, or are we going to share in that ministry? How often do priests not do what they feel called by God to do because of some perceived possible consequence? When a priest’s licence can be withdrawn at any time and without explanation because someone else shows partiality, God’s work can be threatened by humans.
The last verse of this reading is a first century Christian slant on how the prophets, well known to the Jewish people but not to the Gentiles, tried to bring people back to worshipping God, and having their sins forgiven as a result of the new righteousness. That message rings loud and clear for us today, too. If we, like sheep, have gone astray, but return to the flock then, just like any doting parent of a child who has wandered off, God will forgive our sins – forgive, not forget. God doesn’t keep a count of our sins, but might just remind us if we are about to stray down the same path again. Whether we are listening or not is another matter.