Today we celebrate Cornelius the Centurion. If you remember from our reading of Acts last year, this story of Peter and Cornelius gets retold multiple times. Peter has this bizarre dream about a sheet that descends with four-footed animals. God tells Peter to eat, and Peter resists because it is against his custom to eat animals deemed to be unclean. But God insists that Peter eat. After the dream, three men from Caesarea send for him, and Peter meets Cornelius. Meanwhile, Cornelius had been praying; he was a devout man who feared God, gave to the poor and prayed constantly. Cornelius was also given a vision to send for Peter. Through their encounter, Cornelius becomes the first Gentile to be converted to Christianity – a big deal for the spreading of Christianity.
What I like about this feast day is that these lessons are not honoring the feast of St. Peter. These lessons are not meant to honor the one who allowed the Gentiles “in.” These lessons honor the Gentile who equally responded to God. This emphasis dramatically shifts the power dynamic between Peter and Cornelius. We do not celebrate the act of Jews converting Gentiles, but instead celebrate the movement of the Spirit among the Gentiles.
This distinction is important for us because it impacts so much of our ministry. Cornelius invites us to redefine our definitions or boundaries around “us” and “them.” When we do this with service work, the work becomes about us helping others, not about how we mutually grow in the encounter. When we do this with evangelism, the work becomes about bringing them to us, not about how our “us” is incomplete.
What Cornelius does today is remind us of the experience of mutuality in ministry. We are invited to be always open to the unexpected ways and in the unexpected people God will work through. Cornelius invites us to learn the stories of those people we help with our food collections. Cornelius reminds us that in speaking the Good News, we receive abundantly. Cornelius reminds us, as he became the Second Bishop of Caesarea, that our lives are enriched by those who we deem as “other.” Cornelius invites us to, like those in Jerusalem, proclaim: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Amen.