It was as a result of a vision that Peter agreed to go to the house of the centurion Cornelius. In the vision he had seen a huge sheet lowered from heaven, filled with all sorts of animals and birds, and he’d heard a voice telling him to kill and eat them. He’d answered: Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean. But the voice replied: What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane. Shortly after this, messengers arrived from Cornelius inviting Peter to come to their master’s house. Again the Holy Spirit had to prompt Peter: Some men have come to see you. Hurry down and do not hesitate about going back with them; it was I who told them to come.
Normally Peter, as a good Jew, would never have entered a pagan’s house, but he was being pushed or guided by the Holy Spirit. That is what helped him to understand what we read just now: 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. This understanding was to be immensely significant for the spread of the gospel and it was important that Peter, as the leader of the Apostles, should be the first to grasp it. The matter was clinched for Peter and his companions when the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his household while Peter was still speaking so that he asked: Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people, now they have received the Holy Spirit just as much as we have? Of course nobody could, so they baptized them right away.
How many times have you heard the words God is love? Probably so many that you get a nice warm feeling every time, but without thinking much what those words mean. Notice they don’t say “God is a loving person”; they say God is love. The very nature of God is love. Remember, too, that love is more than an emotional activity: it is a rational activity. The purest kind of love for another person is to wish that person well, to desire what is good for the other. With that distinction in mind, let us look again at what God has done for us.
We do not know if there are other planets somewhere in the universe inhabited by rational sentient beings. What we do know is that planet earth is the perfect place for creatures like ourselves. Not only are the conditions just right for us, but it is also a very beautiful place. True, some parts have been spoiled by human stupidity, but most of it is a joy to behold. So God created the ideal environment for the human race. Not content with doing that, God has entered into a relationship with us, instructing us on how to live together in society, and indeed, in revealing something of his own nature to us. The reading from the first letter of St John which we heard just now spells out the next step in the revelation of God’s loving concern for us: God’s love for us was revealed when God sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him. A little further on he makes it still clearer: he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.
At this point we cannot avoid recalling Abraham’s response to the test. At God’s command, however reluctantly, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Once Abraham’s obedience was clear, God stopped the test. Abraham had told his son that God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice … Indeed: his Son, the Lamb of God, was to be sacrificed to save us all. What’s more, the Son consented willingly to the sacrifice. Jesus himself explained to his friends at the Last Supper: A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. Then, to remove any trace of doubt, he told them: You are my friends, if you do what I command you. As we heard just now, he had already promised: If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.
There is a purpose in this instruction: I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete. I guess we all know what joy is. The Macquarie Dictionary describes it as “a state of happiness or felicity”. Karl Rahner’s Concise Theological Dictionary offers a theological definition: Joy is “That frame of mind which results from the experience of the ordered harmony of the plurality of human existence.” I understand that to mean that we come to see that there is a plan, that we are part of the plan, and that ‘all manner of things shall be well’ – as Julian of Norwich puts it.
Several times in St John’s gospeljoy is associated with Jesus’ saving work. For instance, John the Baptist compares himself with the best man at a wedding, who feels joy at the bridegroom’s happiness. In another place Jesus tells the sceptical Jews that their father Abraham rejoiced to think that he would see [Jesus’] Day; he saw it and was glad. Later, after hearing of the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus tells his disciples: Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. In an earlier part of his Last Supper discourse, Jesus declares: I am going away, and shall return. If you loved me you would have been glad to know that I am going to the Father. So it is in today’s passage, if joy flows from the disciples’ union with Jesus, their friend, it comes to fulfilment in their continuing his mission and bearing fruit. They now see that there is a plan, that they are part of the plan, and that all will eventually be for the best.
It is no flattery for Jesus to say: You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last. All this has been part of the plan!
And what of ourselves? Not every Australian is Catholic; not every Catholic Australian comes to Mass. But here we are today and I expect most of us were here last week and the week before as well. This is no accident. This is part of God’s plan for us and we have responded. Jesus’ words are addressed to us too: You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last. We have received God’s gifts. It is up to us to put them to good use. In particular, I suggest, we should live out in our own lives the lesson that God does not have favourites. So let us keep in mind the mission statement of this cathedral which you find on the bulletin: “As a visible sign of the Church in Bendigo, we aim to be welcoming and hospitable. By using our gifts to build a prayerful well-informed community, we celebrate liturgy and strive to serve each other – and those beyond our parish – with missionary spirit”. That is not this week’s suggestion; it is a long-term commitment. (Q.Howard)