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God Shows No Partiality: Cornelius and the Gentiles

by Brant Pitre July 08, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Brant Pitre discusses Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself and how this is at the heart of the virtue of charity. This was taken from the Mass Readings Explained. Subscribers can find the full video here:


After Peter has that vision, this is the reading for today:

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man." And Peter opened his mouth and said: "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. While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Okay, now what I just read to you were really excerpts from a much longer account of the exchange between Peter and Cornelius in the book of Acts. I would strongly encourage you to go back and read all of Acts 10 if you want to get all the details. For our purposes here though I'd just like to highlight a few elements of why I think the church has chosen these particular verses to highlight. So number one, the first section that she focuses on is Peter's encounter, initial encounter, with Cornelius. When Cornelius first meets Peter, he falls down at Peter's feet and worships him. Now what's that all about? Well first of all, Cornelius has had a vision where an angel has spoken to him and sent him to Peter, right. And one of the things that you will see in pagan conversions to early Christianity, is that the pagans had a very open idea about the line between divinity and humanity. In other words, they would frequently mistake the apostles for being divine human beings. You see this actually in the account of Paul preaching the gospel in the city of Ephesus. When Paul and Barnabas are there and they began performing miracles and healings and preaching the gospel, some of the pagans in the city of Ephesus actually begin bringing out oxen and things to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas because they say the gods have come down among us as men, right. And so what we see here is that although Cornelius is a righteous man, although he is a fearer of God, although he gives alms and he's very friendly toward the Jewish people, he still has pagan errors in his mind. In other words, when he encounters Peter who is this miracle worker, a wonderworker, a preacher of the gospel, his initial response is to treat Peter as he would've treated him as a pagan, namely to fall down and worship him as a kind of divine man, as someone who has come down from heaven. So Peter obviously tells him don't worship me, stand up, I'm a man.

Now you might be thinking, as a Catholic here, well hold on, don't we Catholics venerate the Saints, you know, what’s Peter talking about. Well I just, as a side note, would highlight here that the word Peter uses, prosyneō, to worship him, is the same word that Jesus uses in the Gospel of Luke or in the Gospel of Matthew when the devil tries to get him to worship the devil. And Jesus says, you know, you shall worship the Lord your God alone, and the word is prosyneō there. So that word is reserved for the kind of worship that we give to God in a Jewish context, but in a pagan context you could not just worship Zeus but you could worship the Emperor, you could worship, you know, Herrmes if he came down in the form of a man, right. So we see that although this pagan man is a devout man who fears God, he still has some errors in his mind, right, he’s not completely free from error here. When Peter tells him stand up I'm a human being and then Peter begins to kind of preach and to teach here and notice what he says. The second thing the church focuses on here is the relationship between God and the pagans, between God and the nations, between God and those peoples of the world who don't have the divine revelation that was given to the Jews in the form of the Torah, the law, and the old covenant in the Scriptures. And so Peter says something amazing here he says,

“Truly now I perceive that God shows no partiality, but that in every nation anyone who fears him and does right is acceptable to him.” What does this mean? Well first there's a statement of universality. God does not show partiality, very important. Sometimes people will assume that when God chooses Israel in the Old Testament it means that he necessarily rejects all other human beings. In other words, you’ll sometimes encounter this caricature of the God of the Bible that in the Old Testament he chooses the Jews and rejects the Gentiles, and that in the New Testament he changes his mind and chooses the Gentiles and rejects the Jews. That is just a false, completely false caricature of the God of the Bible. What the God of the Bible does is in the Old Testament chooses Israel so that through Israel he might give light and life to the nations. It was always to save the world through Israel, not to choose Israel and then damn the world.

So what we're seeing here is that God doesn't show any partiality based on a person's nationality; in every nation anyone who fears him, so in other words recognizes him right, and who does what is right is acceptable to him. So what is Peter describing there? Well it's what Paul in his letters would call faith and works, right. To fear God, to believe in him, but also to do his will, to do his commandments, to keep the commandments of God. Although it’s Peter speaking here, Paul says something similar in the letter to the Romans 2. He says the Gentiles who don't have the law, if they keep the law they are a law unto themselves, right. In other words, they can do what the law requires insofar as the law is written on their hearts, right. It's a kind of mysterious act by which through grace they keep the law and they fear God and love their neighbor. Well in context, Peter here is talking about Cornelius, right. He sees in Cornelius the example of what would later be called a righteous Gentile or a righteous pagan, someone who through God's grace has come to recognize the truth of the one God and also come to love his neighbor and to be a man who keeps the commandments. So what Peter is saying here is that this Gentile Centurion Cornelius is not going to be rejected by God just because he's from the wrong part of the world, right, but that anyone who does what Cornelius does, whatever nation they're from, is acceptable to God.

Now the third aspect of this encounter that the church highlights is the result here, and I would call this result a kind of new Pentecost or a second Pentecost, right. So if you go back to the book of Acts at the beginning in chapter two, what happens? We have the 12 apostles and Mary and all those Jewish disciples of Jesus, they’re gathered in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven on Pentecost, fills them with his grace, and they begin to speak in tongues and share the gospel. That's the first Pentecost, it’s focused on believers in Christ, all of whom were Jewish. But now in Acts 10, Cornelius bring something new; we see that the Holy Spirit falls on pagan believers. Now after hearing Peter's words, they accept the gospel and the Holy Spirit falls upon them and it says believers from among the circumcised, in other words the Jewish Christians who came with Peter, were amazed because the Holy Spirit has been poured out even upon these pagans, even upon Cornelius the Centurion and his fellow Gentiles. And not only do they receive the Holy Spirit, but they begin to speak in tongues just like the apostles had done at Pentecost. So some scholars have called this like a second Pentecost. The first was for Jewish Christian believers, the second is for these Gentile believers. And notice how Peter responds, he says, can anyone here forbid taking water in order to baptize these Gentiles, right, and of course the answer is no. Because if they've already received the grace of Pentecost, right, then certainly you cannot withhold from them the grace of baptism. And so Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles are baptized and, in a sense, usher in the beginning of the conversion of the nations, the beginning of the conversion of the Gentiles. This is kind of like the first fruits of the conversion of the whole world.

So this is a major moment in the history of the church; this is a major episode in the history of the church. The baptism of Cornelius and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon these Gentiles is truly a kind of new Pentecost or a second Pentecost. Now why does that matter? Well there’s so many things we could talk about here. Let me just make a couple of quick points. First, I think it's important for us to remember here that this is a good example of how God has bound salvation to his sacraments but he himself is not bound by his sacraments, right, because what we have here is a situation where pagans, like Cornelius, are praying to God and he hears their prayers. We have a case here where unbaptized pagans receive the same grace of the Holy Spirit that the apostles received at Pentecost. Why? Because God wished to reveal to Peter and to the Jewish Christians that he had in fact opened the door of salvation to the nations and that the dividing wall between Israel and the Gentiles that was known in the Old Testament had now come crashing down. This was really important. They needed a kind of extraordinary sign to show that the Gentiles were welcome in the new covenant people of God. Jesus had already given us some clues, like the healing of the Syrophoenician woman, or the healing of the Centurion servant in the gospels, or even the casting out of the Gerasene demoniac, who was probably a pagan. So we see these little signs that the good news is going to come to the pagans, but it's really with the baptism and conversion of Cornelius that the Gentile mission so to speak begins. And that is important, it begins with Peter and that's really crucial. Sometimes people will present a caricature of the Gentile mission in the early church and sometimes people will even pit Paul against Peter and they will say, well Peter did not believe that the gospel should go to the Gentiles and Paul had to convince him of that fact because Paul calls himself the apostle to Gentiles and even talks about Peter, James, and John, as being sent to the circumcision. In other words, their primary mission was to Jews, right, whereas his primary mission was to Gentiles. But it’s crucial to note here that the first conversions of the Gentiles take place with Peter and the conversion of Cornelius.

So Peter and Paul have the same teaching on the salvation of the Gentiles, this is just the apostolic testimony; it goes all the way back to the great commission, right. Jesus tells the apostles go into all nations teaching them everything I’ve commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in Matthew 28. But it took this miracle of the falling of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius to really kickstart the Gentile mission proper, to show that it was time for the Gentiles to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of baptism, which leads to what I was saying about the sacraments. There’s a lot of debate these days about exactly what order should the sacraments go in. You know some people say it should be Baptism and then Eucharist and then Confirmation. Other people say it should be bBaptism, then Confirmation, then Eucharist. And I like to point out to my students, it's important to remember that God himself here flips the order because the Catechism teaches that in confirmation we receive the grace that the apostles received at Pentecost, right, that’s what we receive in the sacrament of confirmation. But in this case Cornelius and the Gentiles receive the grace of confirmation before they receive the sacrament of baptism. So it's important to just remember that in terms of the sacramental economy, God can do these extraordinary things and he can give certain graces to people in order to carry out a specific mission or specific task, in this case the revelation of the conversion of the Gentiles.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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