Commentary on Acts 11:1-18
We have now entered a momentous part of the Acts which describes the inauguration of the mission to the Gentiles. It may not seem a big deal to us but it involved a radical change in thinking for the first Christians who were all Jews and still felt like Jews and maintained many of the religious customs of Jews. It changed the whole complexion of the Christian ‘movement’ inaugurated by Jesus.
It opens with the conversion and baptism of Cornelius, a Gentile centurion in the Roman army. But it also involves a conversion on the part of Peter who becomes aware that God’s calling in Jesus is extended to people of all races and religions. All of this is contained in chapter 10 which we will not be reading. (The story of Cornelius is dealt with on the 6th Sunday of Easter, in the Year B.)
What we see in today’s reading is the reaction of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem to the news of a Gentile’s baptism. It involves a major breakthrough in the development of the Church’s awareness of its identity.
The apostles and their fellow Christians in Jerusalem had heard that the pagans were accepting the word of God. We will see here and elsewhere in the Acts that in matters of importance, the apostles did not act alone. Guidance came from the Spirit, the apostles interpreted and exhorted, but the consent of the whole church was then sought (“the whole group”, 6:5; “apostles and the brothers”, 11:1; “the church”, 11:22; “the church and the apostles and elders”, 15:4; cf. 15:22).
The Christians in Jerusalem seem to have received this news with mixed feelings because when Peter went up to Jerusalem the “circumcised believers”, that is, the Jewish Christians, criticised him for visiting the homes of the “uncircumcised” and even eating with them. (We remember how Jesus too was criticised for consorting with the ‘unclean’ and eating with them, which led to his speaking the three beautiful parables in Luke 15 about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son).
The “uncircumcised” were those Gentiles who did not observe the laws of clean and unclean food and hence were in violation of Jewish regulations concerning food preparation. At this stage it is clear that the Jewish Christians saw themselves, even in a religious sense, as Jews. We know that they continued to go to the Temple to pray and here they have not yet changed their attitude to non-Jews and see them as a source of contamination.
Peter then shares with them a dream which he had. In this dream there appeared every kind of living thing that could “walk, crawl or fly”. He was told to kill and eat. He recoiled in horror. As a devout Jew he had never touched food that was regarded as ‘unclean’. He was made to realise in no uncertain terms that “what God had made clean, he had no right to call unclean”. In case he did not get the message, this vision was repeated three times.
Just then he also got an invitation to join three men in going to a house in Caesarea. This house, as we were told in the previous chapter, belonged to Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. It seems that he was an out and out Gentile, with no connections whatever to Judaism. Peter went, together with six companions, under the guidance and the approval of the Spirit.
When they got there Cornelius said he had been told by an angel to summon Peter to his house. Peter had a special message for him to hear. Peter had barely begun to explain the message of Jesus when the Holy Spirit came down on all of the household just as the apostles themselves had experienced it (at Pentecost). The “household” (familia in Latin) included not only those related by blood (parents, children, other relatives) but also slaves and all who were under Cornelius’ authority.
It was perfectly clear to Peter that there was no way he could deny baptism and membership of the community to this Gentile, who up to this he had regarded as unclean and a person not to be mixed with. “If then God gave 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?”, he told the Christians in Jerusalem.
Peter could not deny the Gentiles the invitation to be baptised and to enjoy full fellowship in Christ with all believers. The Jewish believers were compelled to recognise that God was going to save Gentiles on equal terms with Jews. By divine action rather than by human choice, the door was being opened to Gentiles.
Peter explains why he allowed a pagan to be baptised. However, he does not answer the objection that he had lodged with the uncircumcised. According to Luke, Peter was considered to have been the first to receive pagans into the Church, in spite of the episode of the Ethiopian eunuch, which we read on Thursday of last week, and the date of the evangelisation of Antioch to which Luke does not refer till later (in fact, immediately after this incident). Against this background the council of Jerusalem (which we will see in the middle of next week) appears as a kind of sequel to, or repetition of, the discussion in today’s passage. It is clear that Peter’s leadership is being emphasised.
The people in Jerusalem accepted what Peter told them and gave thanks to God that even the Gentiles could experience “the repentance [metanoia, metanoia, i.e. radical conversion] that leads to life”. Not just repenting the past but undertaking a complete turn-around in their life involving a total commitment to the Way of Christ.
This story is just one example to be repeated again and again in the life of the Church of how change does not come from the centre, which in fact is often resistant to change, but from the outer limits.
The same is true of our Church today. There is always this tension between the central institution and the more charismatic and prophetic elements which are often more in touch with the grass roots and with the changes which are taking place in society which call for changes too in the thinking and behaviour of the Church. This tension is a good thing and is necessary both for progress and continuity.
The Second Vatican Council is an excellent example of this process.