Can this week’s readings from the Acts of the Apostles about the church’s mission to the Gentiles help us see the challenge the church today faces in its mission to the world?
Peter’s encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Maritime has a prominent place in Luke’s account. Peter goes to Joppa, the seaport where Jonah began his mission to Nineveh. Like Jonah, he’s reluctant to undertake the mission he’s given. I think Jonah and Peter are very much alike.
Only after God’s strong prodding in a vision does Peter accept the invitation from Cornelius to come and speak about Jesus. When he finally goes to Caesarea Maritime Peter sees nothing less than a Gentile Pentecost .
Not all see it that way, however. Others in Jerusalem question the apostle for entering a Roman city, baptizing a Roman soldier and his friends and eating at their table. “God has given life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too,” Peter responds. The Spirit has come once more.
It was not his doing, but the work of the Spirit, Peter adds. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning… God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, so who was I to be able to hinder God?”
The apostle makes no claim his eloquence, wisdom or planning did it. He wasn’t expecting what happened and he doesn’t know where it will lead. It’s the work of God. It didn’t happen in Jerusalem, where the Spirit appeared at first, but in a Roman city Jews avoided as an enemy’s stronghold.
I think Pope Francis is following this story of Peter in calling recently for a Synod of Synodality and reforming the Roman Curia. He’s calling the church to recognize the Spirit but, as we see in the story of Peter, it’s not easy to see the Spirit’s activity beyond the world we know.
He’s asking the church to journey, like Peter, to a world beyond Jerusalem and its temple, its revered history and ordered piety and look for the other Pentecosts the Spirit is preparing everywhere. They’ll be there.
“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”zz