Like most people, I’m probably not always completely self-aware, but I did realize fairly early on that I am very much a product of where I’m from. As my wife would confirm, I’m about as Jersey as Jersey gets, good and bad. I’m what you get when you take Springsteen, pork roll, and apple cider donuts and bake at 350 for 43 years. My Jersey-ness was especially evident at seminary, where the grand majority of seminarians were from the South. Apparently I lacked the necessary Jersey to South translator: they didn’t think I was very nice at all, even when I thought I was being perfectly nice. Niceness is a good thing, of course, if not absolutely necessary to the Christian faith. As Fr. Rob Droste says, the point of the Church is not to make nice people nicer.
Case in point: the Apostles were not the nicest gang of people ever thrown together. In next week’s Gospel lesson we’ll hear Nathaniel say, speaking of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The Jews and the Romans had trouble being nice to each other, as you might imagine, and there was certainly no Jewish to Roman translator. Peter, who was more than a little rough around the edges, not only disliked Gentiles in general but also thought God disliked Gentiles as well, or at least didn’t like them as much as He liked the Jews, which might actually be the case. But then Peter met Cornelius the Centurion.
“All that we know of Cornelius is contained in the Book of Acts. A centurion was a Roman army officer, theoretically in charge of a hundred men. Cornelius the Centurion is called a God-fearer–that is to say, he was a monotheist, a Gentile who worshipped the One God. The Jews traditionally recognized that such Gentiles had a place in the Family of God… In New Testament times, an estimated ten per cent of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of God-fearers, Gentiles who recognized that the pagan belief in many gods and goddesses, who according to the myths about them were given to adultery, treachery, intrigue, and the like, was not a religion for a thoughtful and moral worshipper, and who had accordingly embraced an ethical monotheism–belief in One God, who had created the world, and who was the upholder of the Moral Law.
Although only a few of them took the step of formal conversion to Judaism…most of them attended synagogue services regularly.
“Cornelius, then, was a Roman centurion, and a God-fearing man. One day, as he was praying, an angel appeared to him and told him to send a messenger to Joppa and ask Peter to come and preach to him. Peter, meanwhile, was given a vision that disposed him to go with the messenger. When Peter had preached to Cornelius and his family and friends, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on the first Christians at Pentecost, and they began to speak in other tongues. Thus, there was ample evidence to convince Jewish Christians who hesitated to believe that it was the will of God that Gentiles should be brought into the Church.”
This would not have been immediately pleasing to Peter. But Peter was no idiot, and he could clearly see that God was at work in Cornelius, and Peter’s heart grew three sizes that day. “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter had finally received his Jewish to Gentile translator; the chasm of suspicion and hatred and misunderstanding was filled by the tireless working of the Holy Spirit. Peter baptizes Cornelius and more than one soul was converted that day. Peter baptized Cornelius and his whole household, and the world is quite literally changed.
I’ve never really solved my Jersey to the World translation problem, and I suspect that I really could be a bit nicer, all things considered. But what I really need, and I suspect many need, is for our hearts to grow, for our souls to be further converted; we need to beg the Holy Spirit to be here with us as He was there with, of all people, Cornelius the Centurion. Then perhaps the chasms that separate the peoples of the earth may indeed be filled, the love of God in Christ Jesus the great translator. If it worked for Peter and Cornelius….