homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Feast of Cornelius the Centurion, February 4, 2015
What a confusing pairing of readings we have today! On the one hand, we are celebrating the feast day of Cornelius the Centurion, the first uncircumcised man to become a Christian, and the first one not to follow the Jewish dietary laws. We are reveling in the understanding that salvation is not just for the insiders, but for the entire world.
On the other hand, we have Jesus of all people telling us that there will be many who are shut out of the Kingdom—those to whom God says, “Go away from me, all you evildoers!” And these will be the very people who thought they were God’s favored ones.
|Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius|
Francesco Trevisani, 1709
In one story, we have Peter going to the home of Cornelius. A Jew enters the narrow door of a Gentile, in the process opening his own narrow heart much wider to welcome Gentiles into a Jewish faith. In the other story, we have a door that is shut to keep the insiders out. The insiders try to go in the door, but they are not able. They try to come in only to be thrown out.
Whom is this door shutting out? “Many,” says Jesus. Yes, but which many? Well, these many seem to come from among those who ate and drank with Jesus, and whose streets Jesus taught in. They are the ones who feel most strongly that Jesus is one of them. Now, it would be far too easy—and lazy!—to say that Jesus is shutting out “the Jews.” Obviously he’s not, because the church will be built, initially, by Jews. No, because this is the way Scripture is, it addresses the immediate situation of Jesus’ time and place, and it also speaks to us in our own time and place.
So who are the ones in our world who feel most strongly that Jesus is one of them? Yikes: I think he means us. We are the ones who are in danger of being shut out, even as we see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets going in. And it’s not just the heroes of our faith assembled here, either—people from every corner of the earth will go in. But it may well be that we won’t.
Now, I don’t set out to frighten a congregation. I’m supposed to stand here and speak good news. But I always try to meet the text where it is, gloss over none of it, and then look for the good news in it. It seems to me that if it’s not good news for everyone, then it’s not good news at all. We know from other parts of Scripture that God wants wholeness and healing for everybody—no exceptions. So why are there exceptions here? And why does it seem that “church people” may well be among them?
When I look for commonalities between these two stories, the first thing I notice is that the question of “who’s in” and “who’s out” has nothing to do with one’s religious affiliation. You thought Jesus was just for Jews? Well, guess what, church: God has just changed the rules to let everybody in. Can you accept that? And if we then thought that Jesus was just for Christians, then we, like those in the story who thought they had the right credentials, may be in for a rude awakening. God loves outsiders and outcasts! Jesus demonstrated it time and time again.
But what of the insiders? What might cause those of us who consider ourselves insiders to be thrown out? Here and in other places in Scripture, there seems to be a theme of whether God knows us. I remember a passage from one of the Chronicles of Narnia in which someone asks one of the children, “Do you know Aslan?” And he responds carefully, “Well … Aslan knows me.” And that’s what counts. It is more important for God to know us than for us to know God. No matter how much we say, “I know you, Lord!,” that counts for nothing.
What might cause God not to know us? Well, instead of asking whether God’s door is open to us, maybe we need to ask whether our door is open to God. And where is God to be found in our world? In each other. In the people we encounter every day. Most of all, we’re likely to find God in those who are inconvenient or bothersome to us, and even in our enemies. Is our door open to them?
Peter was faced with a decision: either to open his door to a new understanding of God’s expansive grace, or to shut it in God’s face. Likewise, Cornelius had to decide whether to open his own door to welcome Peter in. When they both decided the door should be open, amazing things began to happen. But it didn’t happen all at once. It took another few years for Peter to convince the church in Jerusalem that this was OK—that this new understanding of the universal extent of God’s favor wasn’t a total betrayal of the faith of their ancestors. Discerning God’s will is not easy, and it’s not to be taken lightly. But in this story, we see that God’s will is to include, not to exclude.
So what about those many whom Jesus says will be shut out? What if the narrow door is actually their own? God’s door is very wide; our door, by comparison, is narrow. It may be that in looking diligently for God’s door to be open, they refused to open their own door. And God can’t possibly know us if we never open our own narrow door. And so the outsiders become the insiders in Jesus’ topsy-turvy description of the kingdom, upending all our assumptions and never allowing us to rest on our laurels. We have no credentials, save our openness to God’s invitation to love. We can consent to be loved, or we can shut God out. And when it comes down to it, aren’t we all, every one of us, outsiders and outcasts? Now that’s some good news. Amen.