Engaging Across Difference: Lessons From Peter & Cornelius

by Susan Russell, Canon for Engagement Across Difference [Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles]

So today is the Feast Day of Cornelius the Centurion — and since it was my turn to lead our staff Evening Prayer, I was digging into the archives to see what kind of meditation I could pull out to share and I came across this excerpt from “To Set Our Hope On Christ.”

For those of you with long memories for things Episcopal ecclesiastical, you might remember it as the report the Episcopal Church presented to the wider Anglican Communion back in 2005 as a “response to the Windsor Report” in the vortex of the battle over whether the LGBTQ baptized should be given full and equal claim as members of the Body of Christ. One of the seminal arguments in our response was the story in Acts of Peter and Cornelius … and as I read it today I felt like it still preaches to me sixteen years later. Perhaps it will to you as well.

In our thinking about how the early church came to the decision to admit Gentiles without requiring them to become Jewish and to appoint Gentile leaders to help pastor the people of God, we have been instructed by several features of the story as it is recounted in the Book of Acts.

On the one hand, Peter was rightly reluctant to cross traditional clean/unclean boundaries. In his vision of the sheet lowered from heaven in Acts 10, his refusal to eat of the unclean animals is in direct obedience to clear biblical prohibitions in Leviticus.

At the same time, there is an implied criticism of Peter’s certainty that he knows what is clean and unclean in the face of a vision and a voice from heaven inviting him to eat. It is this very certainty about biblical prohibitions in Leviticus that God leads Peter beyond, precisely to serve the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation.

In Acts, God took the initiative and it took the Church a while to catch up with what God was doing. The Holy Spirit’s meaning is not immediately self-evident; it took both Peter and Cornelius a while to figure out what this new thing was.

They came to understand each other by listening to the other tell his story of how God had led him to this encounter. They convinced others within their own groups by telling that same story. This was especially the case with Peter, who was, rightly, criticized for his actions by those who had not shared his experience.

Initially, Peter’s word was strange and seemed contrary to Church teaching based on the Holy Scriptures. The rest of the Church rightly called Peter and his companions to give an account of their experiences with the Gentiles and to describe the work of the Spirit among them. It was only after Peter told the story of how he had been led by the Spirit, how he had perceived God’s grace upon Cornelius and the others, how the Holy Spirit had clearly fallen upon them, and that this was why he went ahead with the Baptism, that the rest of the Church was ready to consider the matter in greater detail.

They did not automatically say Peter could do whatever he wanted. No one suggested it was a matter of adiaphora; it clearly had the potential to be church-dividing. The Church worked hard to avoid that outcome.

Peter and the others both trusted God and were willing to withstand criticism for their actions that were in clear opposition to the established customs of the Church at the time.
The story of Peter and Cornelius reminds us of the hard work of sorting out a complicated issue, and the patience required to respect and honor someone whose position differs from our own. In summary, these reflections on the Scriptural witness to early Christian life highlight two crucial features of our tradition. First, we have always believed that God opens hearts and minds to discover yet deeper dimensions of Christ’s saving power at work, far beyond our limited power to conceive it. Second, tradition tells us that by God’s grace we ought not to let discouragement at disagreements jeopardize our common work for God’s mission in the world.

If God the Holy Spirit can hold the early followers of Jesus Christ together, even when they disagreed over so central a question as who might come within the reach of the Savior’s embrace, then surely we must not let Satan turn our differences into divisions. May we hold them all the more humbly before Christ, that he may bless our proclamation of the Gospel in all the many and differing places and conditions of the whole human family.

To Set Our Hope On Christ, pgs. 13-17

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