Today we celebrate the feast of Cornelius the Centurion, lauded as the first Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian of the newly-minted church in Acts. His story is recounted in Acts 10, but I want to imagine this afternoon what might have happened if he hadn’t been converted. In the Gospels and in Acts itself, there is some disagreement about how non-Jews are supposed to figure in to God’s plan for redemption. Looking backwards, as we in the 21st century do, through the New and Old Testaments, we can see with our clear hindsight God’s love for all people (Naaman in 2 Kings 5, Isaiah 56:6-8, etc); in the moment, it seems like it wasn’t always quite so clear–even the Apostle Peter struggles with the answer (Acts 11). Often this struggle is interpreted as exclusivity, the Hebrews are made out to be an uppity people.
But what if it wasn’t that the Jews thought of themselves as a prestigious club, but they instead desired to be “tolerant” and “accepting” of other religions? What if, having married a Norwegian, I was expected to start worshiping Thor because that was just the culture of my husband’s people? To start carrying on about this Jesus character would just be rather Mediterranean of me… Or to put it more accessibly, how many times do I change my outfit before going out to dinner with someone new? How long do I spend fretting over what to bring to a party? I spend my time trying to impress others, trying to control what others think (of me), trying to make myself defensible against any imaginable criticism. These are all idols–attempts to create security in the wrong place, to control our environment. We know well that we’re not safe from any possible danger, or ever in total possession of the world around us. Us humans are actually all the same.
And this message that Cornelius heard is not just for Jews, or Romans, or Americans, but for all people. There is one God, and anyone (no matter how they identify themselves), who loves God and loves those who serve God, who remembers that she is not in charge of the world–that person belongs to God, she knows and follows God (Isaiah 56:6-8).
The Gospel passage assigned to the feast of Cornelius is a challenging one (Luke 13:22-29)–if we purport to know God, we are to “strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (v. 24). Though a deep connection with the living God made known and close in Jesus Christ is the only true security humans can enjoy, it is not an easy relationship to forge. It is the relationship that completely changes you, you become someone new and different because of God. This is not just a cultural opinion, or a Jewish way of understanding the world and humanity; this is the root of our existence.
Let God put a new song in your mouth–words of praise for the way you are being remade, that many may hear and see what is happening to you, they may recognize the work of the living God, and they may put their trust, too, in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Cornelius (rephrase of Ps. 40:3).