Thank you to Br. Richard Green for sharing this reflection with us. Brother Richard is a Carmelite friar, currently living in the CISA community, in Rome.
Over the last few weeks, we've been hearing about the very early church in the first readings, which have been from the Acts of the Apostles. One of the things that has struck me very deeply is how hard they worked to avoid having divisions within the community of people who followed Christ.
This was difficult to do, because they were trying to bring together Jewish people, and those from non-Jewish backgrounds into the same community. The Jewish law tried to keep Israel seperate from the other nations: a Jewish person staying in a non-Jewish house, or eating at the same table as non-Jews would be made "unclean".
This meant that when the first non-Jews joined the group of Jesus's followers, it was very difficult for them to do anything together. In fact, there were even questions as to whether it was possible for non-Jews to join the movement at all.
At the time, there were some non-Jews who were sympathetic to Jewish religious ideas. They thought that there was only one God, and spent time praying to God. They were generous to their Jewish neighbours and some of them supported their local synagogue. We hear about one of these on the book of Acts. He was a Roman centurion called Cornelius, who sent messengers to Peter, to ask Peter to visit him, so that he could hear more about Jesus.
If Peter was going to follow the strictest Jewish law, he would have to turn these messengers away - he couldn't be a guest of Cornelius without becoming "unclean". However, just before these messengers arrived, he had a vision. He saw a collection of all sorts of animals and birds, both types of animal that the Jews were allowed to eat and the forbidden types, and he heard a voice telling him to eat. He saw this, and heard the same voice three times (Peter seems to have needed to be told everything three times!). Peter took this as a sign that he shouldn't call anyone profane or unclean. He went with the messengers, and spoke to a large group of people at Cornelius's house, telling them about the things that Jesus had done, and about Jesus's death and resurrection. He said:
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10. 34-38)
Peter was the most important of the apostles, and when he acted like this, a lot of those who had been sceptical about allowing non-Jews to become followers of Jesus changed their minds. His example meant that both Jews and non-Jews could gather together to worship God, and especially that they could share the meal of the Eucharist together. And it's still a message for us today.
We can act towards some people as though they were "unclean", but we should always remember that they were made in God's image, and that God has made them clean.
SAINT JUDE, PRAY FOR US.