The Acts of the Apostles attached great importance to the baptism of Cornelius, the first Gentile to be received into the Church with no previous background in Jewish belief and tradition. We have much to learn from this step as the early Church reached beyond the comfort of a shared identity in Judaism.
Jesus himself had come as the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel. The Apostles and first Christians shared the same roots in Judaism. In human terms, it was only natural that the early Church would presume that those joining their ranks would take on this same identity.
Cornelius presented a challenge. He had no background in Judaism. His faith was in the name of Jesus rather than the traditions of Judaism. Was it possible that such a person might be baptised without first accepting the prerequisite of circumcision?
Through a vision Peter received the answer to this dilemma. “The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
The words of Peter were confirmed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his Gentile companions. It was
a scene reminiscent of the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit had first descended on the apostles at Jerusalem.
Peter immediately ordered the baptism of these first converts who came from a background entirely alien to the Jewish traditions. Once again, we see the work of the Holy Spirit leading the early Church beyond its own comfort and hidden prejudices. The Church that had accepted Paul, once the persecutor of the Church, now accepted the Gentiles who would become his special care.
In every generation we tend to protect ourselves behind hidden prejudices and cultural expectations. We should rejoice that the Holy Spirit never ceases to challenge our presumptions, constantly reforming the Church as she was renewed in the baptism of Cornelius, the first “stranger” to be baptised in the name of Jesus.
St John’s letter takes us to the heart of this renewal. Love does not place barriers in the way of those who seek baptism into the Church. Love embraces the stranger, not out of courtesy, but because such generous love is God himself. “My dear people, let us love one another since love comes from God, and everyone who loves is begotten by God. Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love.”
Through his love for us, the Father takes us beyond the self interest of human love.
The Gospel describes such love in the words of Jesus.
We, whose love is limited, can scarcely grasp the love revealed in Jesus. The Son was born into this world out of the Father’s love, a love that we could never claim as our own. Jesus embraced us with the same love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.”
The love revealed in the Son does not hold itself at a distance. It expresses itself in the intimacy of friendship. “I call you my friends because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.”
Ultimately, there is only one thing that we need to know for salvation: to know that in Christ we are both loved and enabled to love. It is in this sense that Jesus has revealed to us everything that he had learnt from the Father.