The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb,
Eugène Burnand, 1898, Musée d’Orsay
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
April 17, 2022
Acts 10:34A, 37-43
During the Easter Season, the first reading will change from selections from the Old Testament to passages from the “Acts of the Apostles.” This is an inspired decision which will become clearer as the season progresses. The Acts of the Apostles was written by St. Luke whose Gospel we have been reading this year and who we have also been examining in Bible Study.
The section we read today is critical. A “God Fearing” Roman Centurion Cornelius has had a vision of an angel telling him to summon Peter from the seaport of Joppa. Meanwhile near noon Peter too has a vision translated here as trance. He sees
He saw heaven opened
and something resembling a large sheet coming down,
lowered to the ground by its four corners.
In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals
and reptiles and the birds of the sky.
A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.”
But Peter said, “Certainly not, sir.
For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.”
The voice spoke to him again, a second time,
“What God has made clean,
you are not to call profane.”
He is originally uncertain what this might mean but when he meets with the representatives of Cornelius, he understands that “God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean.” Acts 10:28
Thus our passage begins with
Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him
and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.
An echo of this may be found in Deuteronomy:
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods,
the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome,
who has no favorites, accepts no bribes”
And there is a clear forerunner in Isaiah:
And foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him,
To love the name of the LORD,
to become his servants—
All who keep the sabbath without profaning it
and hold fast to my covenant,
Them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples
Remember as well that Isaiah reminds the Jews that they are to be a “light to the nations.”
Although the message and grace of Jesus is open to all, how will it be spread and received? This is Luke’s deepest question and where he is most perceptive. At the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells them:
But you will receive power
when the holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
The good news will be spread by human messengers but who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Note the order, first the Jews, then the Samaritans, then the rest of the world. Each group will need a different strategy to hear the same word.
Peter is the first to preach the good news on Pentecost. He gives a long sermon (Acts 2 14–36) which places Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection in a very Jewish context. It ends with
Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made him both Lord and Messiah,
this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Peter speaks again to the Jewish leaders. Here he makes the bold claim of Christianity in its clearest form:
There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”
It was thought in the Roman world that the Emperor could heal and indeed he offered salvation. Peter’s words cut both ways, both Jew and Gentile are told to only look to Jesus to find either. Remember that Jesus’ name in Hebrew Yeshua is a shortened form of Yehoshua is “Yahweh saves.”
Now we have reached the Gentiles. Arguments which were very appropriate and successful with the Jews would be ineffective.
They know that if Cornelius and other “God fearing” Gentiles have heard anything about Jesus it is that he was crucified: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39) They may have been very sympathetic to the Jews but did respond immediately to the imagery and thoughts he would have used with his own people. Therefore, he emphasized the sheer power of God’s intervention:
This man God raised (on) the third day
And the two-fold consequences
He commissioned us to preach to the people
and testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
He will judge all people and the way of knowing him is through the Apostles—-those he commissioned. They bear witness to the simple power of Jesus and his acceptance by the Father.
Paul upon encountering the rather more refined Greeks in Athens will tell them
because he has established a day on which
he will ‘judge the world with justice’
through a man he has appointed,
and he has provided confirmation for all
by raising him from the dead.”
Peter knows that his hearers do not have a firm grounding in the Old Testament but look at what he says next:
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Let us remember that Luke was a Gentile and would have to have spent much time and effort learning the Jewish Scripture to write his Gospel and Acts. He assumes that those who wish to follow Jesus will do the same.
To receive the full picture, we need to read a few more verses:
While Peter was still speaking these things,
the holy Spirit fell upon all
who were listening to the words.
The Holy Spirit approved the words of Peter and thus the incorporation of the Gentiles in to the Church. Therefore
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?”
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
As we will see in reading the Acts of the Apostles this Easter Season, it is the one book of the Bible still being written. The Gospel must still be proclaimed to the world. The message is still the same: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” But as Luke will show us, how it is spoken and received will need to adapt to the time and place.
This is the year of parish participation in the synod. We have had our meetings with our fellow members and reported to the Deanery. The Bishop has listened to our concerns, and they will be included in the report to the Bishops of the entire country. We have previously published this report. We will next have parish meetings to see if we have not only spoken to the Church but listened to the Spirit and what we will do about it. Do we know we are being sent? Will we be Apostles?