Sixth Sunday of Easter
During these Sundays after Easter, the readings at Mass often describe the early days of Christianity. We hear how those first disciples of Jesus struggled to understand what it meant that he had been raised from the dead.
As one reads the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, one gets a picture of people who are uncertain about what they should do. They are confused. They are frightened.
We need to keep in mind that all of the immediate disciples of Jesus were Jewish. They belonged to the Chosen People. They thought that God had chosen the Jewish people and entered into an exclusive covenant with them. They believed that they alone would be saved.
Before long, however, other people began to enter into the picture. And some of these people were not Jewish. They were foreigners. They were immigrants in the Holy Land. Some of them were soldiers in occupying armies.
Today’s reading is a clear example of this. Here is this man by the name of Cornelius. He is a Roman; he is a soldier; he is clearly not a member of the Chosen People. But he is a religious man. He and his family tried to live an honest life. They gave alms to the poor. They treated others with respect. They even prayed several times a day.
All of a sudden, during one of these prayer sessions, an angel appears to Cornelius and his family. The angel says, “You have found favor with God.” Cornelius asked what this meant. The angel said, in effect, “God has some wonderful news for you. You will find out that wonderful news if you invite a man by the name of Peter. He is visiting a neighboring town.
When Cornelius’ people find Peter, they invite him to come and tell them the good news. Peter is hesitant. Good Jews did not mix with foreigners. They considered them to be “impure,” not holy, not chosen by God.
But an angel had also appeared to Peter, urging him to go to Cornelius’ household. When he got there, he began to tell them the Good News. And what is the Good News? It is the Gospel about Jesus. He told them how Jesus had taught them, how he had cured the sick, how he had fed the hungry. He also told them that Jesus had been arrested, had undergone the passion, and had been crucified. And of course he told them about the resurrection. Jesus had risen from the dead on Easter Sunday and had appeared to the disciples several times.
Cornelius and his family were awe struck. They were pleased. Why had they been honored to receive this wonderful story? Why had Peter decided to break away from the restrictions of the Jewish religion to visit with them, to speak to them, and to invite them to believe in this Jesus?
Before they could do anything more, something wonderful happened. “The Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word” (Acts 10:34).
What a shocking development. God had given these foreigners the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are not even baptized.
This great miracle moved Peter to an important decision that changed the nature of the early Church. St. Peter had been hesitant before. But now the Holy Spirit had come upon these foreigners. God had trumped Peter’s prejudices. And Peter was a man of faith. He accepted what God decided. He would no longer put limits on the actions of God.
That is why he declared to all who were there: “We must baptize these foreigners.” We must welcome them, because God has welcomed them. We must treat them as our brothers and sisters because God has declared them to be his sons and daughters, and the brothers and sisters of Christ.
What a wonderful story. A powerful lesson for all of us: God loves everyone. If every believer is acceptable to God, every believer must be acceptable to us. That is why Jesus commands us to love God above all things, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are able to do that, because we have received the Holy Spirit. Let us thank God for sharing the gift of the Holy Spirit so generously and without making distinctions.
Reflection by Archbishop Jerome Hanus, OSB