Every spring, bar none, I spend a good amount of time pulling out lots of seedlings from my garden and flower beds. They sprout up from the thousands of maple seeds that fell last fall from the maple trees on the church property. They are everywhere, and they require so little to get started. They are under the leaf litter. They are found in the smallest cracks. They are against the rectory foundation. And they are growing against the greatest of odds. I think if I tried to grow them, I would not do nearly as well as nature itself does. They have become a kind of metaphor for me for what God is doing in the world. God gives us signs, all the time, of what God is about in the world. We are only aware it some of the times.
The scripture readings, this weekend, are saying to me what the seeds are sayings. In all three readings, God’s presence and influence is everywhere just like seeds popping up unannounced. Jesus says as much when he compares God’s Spirit to “the wind that blows wherever it pleases.” The Spirit of God is always at work; the wind is always blowing. Our job is not to create the wind; our job is to raise our sails in order to catch the wind. The initiative is never ours. God starts everything and patiently wait for our response. John, the writer of the second reading says something similar when he says, “It is not that we loved God; it is that God first loved us.” God has to love us first, if we are to have a hope of modeling that love for others.
Apart from wind, the word of God, as I mentioned, is often compared to a seed. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah it says, “Just as the rain and the snow fall from the sky and do not return before watering the earth and causing the seeds to grow, so it is with God’s word. God’s word will not return to God until it brings forth good growth in your life.” Now, the word of God may have come to us—a pearl of wisdom may have been dropped on our lap—when we were 17 years old and only started to germinate when we were 47. That’s OK. You’re a little slow (so am I). That word returned to God 30 years after the fact, but it did return, and it did bear fruit.
Let us see how this works in the reading we had from the Acts of the Apostles. Once again, we only get a partial story. Basically, this story is about the apostle Peter and a pagan soldier named Cornelius who live on a naval base 65 km north of where Peter is staying. They have never met–even just casually–and so, they do not know each other. Peter is in Jaffa, just outside of modern-day Tel Aviv. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is living on a naval base in Caesarea, some 65 km north of Jaffa. Peter, as you know, is Jesus’ right hand man, while Cornelius is working for the Romans who are pagans.
God’s word, like the seed that is scatter everywhere and like the wind that blows wherever it will, comes to Cornelius in a dream. In the dream, God praises Cornelius for his prayers and his charity. I guess this Roman soldier had a good and sincere heart that caught God’s attention. In the dream God asks Cornelius to send two soldiers to go and fetch a man named Peter, who is in Jaffa 65 km to the south and bring Peter back. Cornelius wakes from the dream and although he has no idea who Peter is, nevertheless, he sends two soldiers to Jaffa to fetch Peter.
Meanwhile, in Jaffa, that very same night, God appear to Peter in a dream that is just as bizarre as Cornelius’s dream. In his dream, Peter is shown a huge tablecloth that is coming down from heaven. On the tablecloth are all kinds of food that Peter is encouraged to eat. Peter, in the dream, argues against God that he cannot eat these foods, because they are foods that a good Jew, like Peter, would never eat. It is against Jewish law. In Peter’s mind, these foods are unholy; they are profane. God responds to Peter by saying, “What I have called holy, you have no right to call unholy.” And just before Peter awakes from this crazy dream, the Spirit of God tells Peter, “Oh, by the way, there are two men who will be at your front door looking for you. I directed them to you. Welcome them.” Peter awakes from this dream and finds two men at his door. They explain to Peter that they have come from a navy base and were sent by a soldier named Cornelius who needs to meet Peter right away.
Peter and the two soldiers head north to the naval base at Caesarea. This is where we pick up the story from today’s first reading. Cornelius, with his entire family, meet Peter and begin worshipping him, to which Peter says, “Stand up; up I’m only a man.” Cornelius and his whole family ask to be baptized. The Holy Spirit enlightens Peter’s mind in that moment, and he baptizes them. The were not Jews; they were Gentiles. Peter realized that the Spirit was at work. He says out loud, “Can anyone withhold the waters of baptism from these people who seemed to be full of the Holy Spirit?” Of course not!
In that moment, Peter understood the bizarre dream he had about the tablecloth full of food that he thought he should not eat. God’s Spirit told him to eat it anyways, because it is all holy. There are no holy foods and unholy foods. There are no people worthy of the waters of baptism and others who are not worthy. Those categories are in your mind, Peter. It was almost like God was saying to Peter, “You see this faith-filled soldier, Peter? He is holy just like all the food I showed you on that tablecloth, even though you would prefer to divide food and divide people into the categories of holy and unholy. Thank you for baptizing him, anyways, Peter. I know it was a stretch for you. I planted a seed in Cornelius’s heart and your heart, by way of dreams, and you both created a space for that seed to grow.”
This is a great awakening for Peter, a conversion experience not just for Cornelius and his family but, more importantly, for Peter. That is why he says, “I finally understand that God shows no partiality.” God has no favorites because we are all God’s favorites.
“I call you my friends, because I have made known to you everything.” Jesus doesn’t call us servants anymore even though he clearly is our Master. The master always holds something back from the servants, something that the servants need in order to grow. Jesus holds nothing back. Jesus considers everybody as friend, everybody as holy. Everything we need to grow as human beings is given to us. It is free as the seeds that fall from the maple tree and as liberating as the wind that blows where it will. Our job is to raise our sails and catch the wind.
Fr. Phil Mulligan