Our readings today look forward to Pentecost, which we will celebrate in two weeks, on Sunday, May 23.
One thing to remember about the Israelites and Jews is that they were brought up to follow strictly the Law of Moses. Even today, devout Jews are careful to observe circumcision and dietary laws. In every generation, the Jews were to avoid table fellowship with Gentiles, pagans and non-believers. These mosaic laws were powerful dividing lines between Jews and Gentiles, the pagans who worshipped and sacrificed to false gods.
If a Jew associated with Gentiles, they were taught that they would become unclean before God.
We know that Jesus appeared to St. Paul, “Saul” in Hebrew. After his conversion and baptism, Paul was sent by Jesus and the Church to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. It was always God’s intent that the People of God would carry the Word of God to non-Jews, pagans, Gentiles. However, the Jews almost never engaged in evangelization.
The only Old Testament Prophet sent by God to the Gentiles was Jonah. God sent Jonah to preach repentance to the Assyrians in Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to do it; he refused to do it. Jonah went to Joppa, a Jewish city on the Mediterranean coast and bought a passenger ticket to take him on a boat as far away from Israel and Nineveh as he could go. God got Jonah back on track with a storm at sea. Jonah was swallowed by the whale. Three days later he was spit up on the beach again. When Jonah did finally agree to go preach to the Gentiles, it was very effective. The entire city of Nineveh repented.
With that background, let us take another look at Joppa. This time, St. Peter is preaching in Joppa, and healing and raising the dead back to life, like Jesus did. In Joppa, many centuries after Jonah, here was another Jew and observer of Mosaic Law, St. Peter, also called upon by God to preach to Gentiles. The church was growing, but it was still not “Catholic”. The Church in Israel and Jerusalem was still very much under the influence of Mosaic law. Joppa becomes the place where the Lord calls Peter to recognize his faith and his Church that Jesus founded to be universal, “Catholic”. It started in Joppa.
The angel of God appeared to Peter, preparing him for an encounter with Gentiles, with Cornelius and his Roman household.
Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, a Gentile, is undergoing conversion through his enthusiasm for the Jewish religion and readings. Cornelius was a man who prayed to God and gave alms to the synagogue. The angel of God appeared to Cornelius, asking him to send for Peter.
In today’s reading, Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, falls at Peter’s, the fisherman, feet.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
“Get up. I myself am also a human being.”
Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.”
This is Peter’s “Catholic” moment. This is when Peter, the leader of the young Church, begins to understand that he cannot follow the example of Jonah. He must embrace these Gentile believers, contrary to Mosaic traditions.
And Peter witnesses another “Pentecost”.
While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Since Cornelius and his household had received the Holy Spirit, Peter and his companions recognized immediately that The Holy Spirit was leading them, and he had to be obedient to the Spirit. Peter asked,
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
From the very beginning, the Church recognized that Baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit went together. The Holy Spirit had indicated that these Gentiles were also among God’s people and had to be Baptized.
This event would become a major turning point for the development of the Church. At this point, in Joppa and Caesarea, Peter led the Church of Jerusalem to become Catholic. Peter was severely criticized by other Jewish Christians. St. Paul and Barnabas would go out with Peter’s blessing to preach to the Gentiles. The Jewish Christian community struggled with this, often insisting the Gentiles should be circumcised and follow Mosaic dietary laws before they could be saved, or before the Jews could have table fellowship with Gentile Christians. Later, the great Council of Jerusalem would listen to all sides and even send a letter of fellowship to all Gentile Christians welcoming them to the Church.
That is when the Church became “Catholic” and opened the Sacramental life of the Church to all nations, in fellowship.
The Psalm says,
The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
St. John wrote,
Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God
Jesus taught us,
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
Both Peter and Paul would find themselves in Rome at the end of their lives. Rome was the Pagan, Gentile capital of the known world. Both men, Apostles, brought the Gospel of Jesus and the Church to Rome, and gave birth to the “Catholic” Church. They would both die in Rome, persecuted by pagans for their faith and obedience to God; but the Church could never again be simply a regional, Jewish, Mosaic religion. Since Peter’s visit to Cornelius, our Church has been Catholic, outlasting every government and pagan society on earth as the Roman Catholic Church. Jesus is in the Church.