Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2009
St. Martin dePorres, Lincoln Heights, Cincinnati
(Based on Acts 10:25-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17)
“This is my commandment, that you love one another.”
The story of the conversion of St. Paul is surely one of the best known stories in the New Testament apart from the accounts of the works of Jesus in the Gospels. We know how Saul was persecuting the followers of Jesus and was on his way to Damascus when he was knocked off his horse and received the revelation of Jesus as the messiah. It’s been the subject of great masterpieces in Christian art down across the centuries.
That makes it all the more interesting that probably very few people are as familiar with the conversion of St. Peter. Oh, we know how Peter denied Jesus during his passion and how he repented of his failure. But what about the drama of his further conversion, as told in Acts?
In today’s first reading (as so often happens in the process of selecting passages for our prayer at liturgy) we hear only the conclusion of the story. In order to appreciate its full meaning we need to hear Peter tell the whole story in his own words, in Acts 11. Use your imagination to get inside the story:
“I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. "I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' "But I said, 'By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' "But a voice from heaven answered a second time, 'What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.' "This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky.
"And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man's house. [That’s the Cornelius we heard of in the passage we read.] "And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, 'Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.'
"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. "And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' "Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"
When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life."
The story of Peter’s conversion may be more thought-provoking – and more fruitful for us – than the more famous story about Paul. After all, none of us have gone about persecuting people like Paul did so his story is more external to us. But each of us will probably confront moments in our lives more like what Peter confronted.
We need to recall that Peter had been a follower of Jesus for a long time. He had been at the Last supper and heard the same words we heard from Jesus today in John’s gospel: this is my commandment, that you love one another. He had experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and he was the leader of the Jesus movement.
But. But. After all that, he was still an observant Jew. He had been formed within a whole tradition. And it involved a way of understanding about God and about holiness. It included norms of behavior. There are things that are clean and others that are unclean. You can eat this but not that. And, more importantly, those external norms were ways of defining the identity of God’s people: who’s in and who’s out, who you associate with and who you should avoid. And even more profoundly, that was all rooted in the conviction that there were people whom God approves of. People who are acceptable because they are acceptable in God’s eyes. And of course that leaves others unacceptable.
We have to try to get inside Peter’s spirit as he sees the sheet with all the animals that tradition has taught him were unclean – and he knows that it is the Lord telling him to eat them. For Peter this is a temptation. I can’t eat these things! I mustn’t! It goes against everything I ever learned about holiness and following God. And the message has to be repeated three times, it is so shocking to him.
And you know, he never does ‘resolve’ the issue on his own. We read that ‘while he was still in doubt’ there is a knock at the door downstairs. He has to go down and welcome the three fellows from Joppa, to give them hospitality. And they have instructions from the Holy Spirit that he is to follow them without hesitation. He lets himself be led by the Spirit to the household of Cornelius, whom we met in today’s account. And he comes to the realization that the dream really wasn’t about food at all. It was about God’s acceptance of people he had been taught to consider unclean! How did he arrive at that insight? “I remembered the word of the Lord. . . .” Besides all that tradition there was something else way down in the heart of Peter: the word of the Lord. His experience of listening to Jesus.
He comes to the realization that following his tradition was actually a hindrance to the work of the Lord: “If God had given them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?”
It’s a story that has been repeated over and over in the history of the church and in the lives of individual believers: we’re already ‘converted’ – but there is much more, and deeper, conversion required if we are to understand all that is implied in the Lord’s command that we love one another. We each place our own boundaries around the notion of ‘neighbor.’ The full implications of the call are too costly.
Let me share two stories. One is from church history and the other belongs to our present times.
In the third and fourth centuries there were many persecutions under different Roman emperors. The final one, under the emperor Decian, was the most brutal of all. Many Christians were martyred rather than deny their faith, and many more, even though they weren’t killed, were severely punished and driven from their homes and livelihoods. But there was a difference this time: for the first time in church history thousands of Christians succumbed. The suffering was too hard to bear. They renounced their faith and participated in emperor worship. Then after the persecution was over and Christianity could be practiced openly these apostates repented of what they had done. They did penance and asked to be re-admitted to Communion. Church leaders, following the call of the Gospel, were open to welcoming them back, when a sad spectacle unfolded. Those who had remained faithful in the face of fearsome suffering were outraged. “We paid that terrible price – and you’re going to let them return to Communion?” And when church leaders continued to allow the apostates to return, it was the ‘holy ones’ who broke with the church. They became schismatics, holier than the church. They became a sect, the Novatians. They had done the heroic deed but their later behavior showed their self-righteous inability to love those who were weaker than they.
The second story took place about 20 years ago, in Rio de Janeiro. There was a man there who was a flamboyant transvestite, outrageous even by the very open standards of that city. He called himself Sara Lee and was a public fixture. Extravagant make-up and wildly effeminate clothing and life-style. You get the picture.
I’ve often wondered how I would react if ‘Sara Lee’ showed up at our church door to join our worship. I fondly hope that I wouldn’t reject him outright, but I have to confess that his presence would make me quite uncomfortable. I leave it to you to imagine your reaction.
Then think of how we would react when we learn that when Sara Lee returns home after being out parading on the streets he comes home to a place where he gives nursing care to ten men who are slowly but surely dying of AIDS because at the time there was no medication for managing the disease. Love one another? Indeed. How do you do that?
We are all subject to an eternal temptation: to tell God what God or can’t do, who God must – or can’t – find acceptable. Peter did it during the life of Jesus when the Lord told him of his coming passion and death and Peter said,”No! That can’t be the way.” And even after the resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit he’s still doing it.
Our perennial temptation is that we find the Lord in a certain way of speaking or thinking or praying or in a certain place where we have been blessed – and then we turn that into God.
As we pray in these final weeks before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost let it be a prayer for the Spirit of Jesus. A Spirit of freedom and expansiveness and inclusiveness. A Spirit that will stretch us and teach us where we have been trying, unconsciously for sure, to hinder and limit the magnanimity of God’s all-embracing love.
Let’s pray for the gift to be who we were made to be. And the gift to let God be God.