The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Notes on the First Mass Reading (Monday April 30)

Posted by Dim Bulb on April 29, 2007

The first reading comes from Acts of Apostles 11:1-18.

BACKGROUND.

A Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius was stationed in the port city of Caesarea. He is described as a God-fearer, a word which seems to designate a non-Jew who, while not circumcised or following all the observances of the Mosaic law nonetheless attended the synagogue and lived as best he could according to the Mosaic dictates. He may have been toying with the idea of becoming a full proselytes and eventually a convert but something was hindering him. Perhaps his status a a Roman soldier made fully embracing Judaism at that time of his life impossible.

Anyway, this man received a vision and was told to send messengers to Joppa and summon Simon Peter, the Apostle to come to him. As they were on their way to see Peter, the apostle began to pray and had a vision. St. Luke describes the events like this:

Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier of those who waited on him continually. Having explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. Now on the next day as they were on their journey, and got close to the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray at about noon. He became hungry and desired to eat, but while they were preparing, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and a certain container descending to him, like a great sheet let down by four corners on the earth, in which were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and birds of the sky. A voice came to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!But Peter said, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”

A voice came to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean.” This was done three times, and immediately the vessel was received up into heaven. Now while Peter was very perplexed in himself what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate, and called and asked whether Simon, who was surnamed Peter, was lodging there. While Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men seek you. But arise, get down, and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”

Peter accompanied the men back to house of Cornelius where Peter preached to all those present. As a result of this preaching they received the Holy Spirit. At this point it might do you well to read the account of this in ACTS 10 and then read TODAYS PASSAGE.

NOTES ON ACTS 11:1-18

Vss 1-4 Word of what had taken place at Caesarea preceded Peter to Jerusalem and did not sit well with the “circumcised believers” (i.e. Jewish Christians, also possibly Samaritan Christians and Gentile converts who had been circumcised). They “confronted” (Greek: diakrinomai) Peter and leveled the charge that he had eaten with the uncircumcised (recall that the theme of eating was a major theme in Ch 10). The narrative of ch 10 doesn’t explicitly say that Peter ate with them however, his stay of a few days with Cornelius, and the general tone of these chapters strongly suggests that he did. Eating with the uncircumcised was considered equivalent to idolatry in first century Judaism, probably because the meat from some sacrifices were sold in the market. In response to their charge, Luke tells us that Peter “Explained to them in order” (NAB step by step) what had taken place. Luke’s choice of words here is not accidental. “Explain” (Greek: ektithemi) is a word often employed by Luke to designate the preaching of the Gospel (see 18:26 and 28:23). “In order” (NAB step by step) reflects the Greek word kathexes which is used in Luke 1:3 and describes the orderly narrative of his Gospel. In other words, Luke is hinting that what Peter is about to tell his accusers is the Gospel.

Vss 5-15 Basically relates what was narrated in chapter 10, however, notice Peter’s insistence on the intimacy of his experience: The large sheet, he said, “came right up to me” (Greek text). He looked at it “intently.” He “observed,” and “saw.” He is making it clear that his experience was not unreal. Of special note is what Peter says in verse 12: “And the Spirit bid me to go with them, making no debate” (NAB discrimination; other possible translations include “distinction” and “judging”). Some Greek texts has the word diakrinonta, others have the word diakrinomenos. Both words, along with diakrinomai, which was used in verse 2 are derived from the word diakrino, which means to doubt, discriminate, make distinctions, judge; they are key words in chapters 10-15 (see below) Notice also that Peter mentions the fact that six “brothers” (i.e. circumcised Jewish Christians) were with him (vs 12). They witnessed the facts that unfolded. Notice the words of verse 14 which describes Cornelius’ account of his vision, they make it clear that this is not just about eating and table fellowship, rather, it is about salvation. This is not unimportant, because the question “can Gentiles be saved without circumcision and Mosaic legal practices?” will become a hotly debated question in chapter 15 (see 15:1, 11). Peter’s experience will be the major factor in answering that question (see below). Notice that in verse 15 Peter draws a close comparison between the Gentiles reception of the Holy Spirit and that of the Apostles and others “at the beginning” (i.e. on Pentecost. See Acts 2). The Greek text is emphatic, something hard to convey in English. The idea seems to be that the uncircumcised Gentiles are not to considered second class citizens (see Eph 2:11-22). Since they have received the Holy Spirit Peter says “who am I to prevent God?” Upon hearing all of this the people stop “objecting” and “glorify God.”

A NOTE ON DIAKRINO AND ITS COGNATES

As Peter ponders the vision he received in Acts 10 he is clearly reluctant to act upon it; however, the Holy Spirit tells him to go with Cornelius’ men diakrinomenos– “without debate” (NAB hindering see 10:20). This he does, only to find that certain circumcised brothers in Jerusalem diakrinomai him (NAB confront him. I.e. A confrontation for the purpose of debate see 11:2). In this confrontation we the readers recognize something Peter’s accusers do not; they are in reality not arguing with Peter, but with the Holy Spirit. Against this background Peter’s statement in 11:15-17 takes on its full meaning: The Holy Spirit desired the conversion of Cornelius and those with him through the action of Peter and this without their being circumcised; so who is Peter to “hinder” the Spirit? (11:17). Hearing all of this, those who originally diakrinomai (confronted) Peter in 11:2 now stop objecting. Clearly we are to see hinder and object as being synonymous with the diakrino words. All of this is important for understanding a much abused text in Acts 15:19 where James says: “It is my judgment (or decision) that we trouble the Gentiles no more (i.e. concerning the law of Moses) when they turn to God.” Some people have used this text to argue that somehow James exercised more authority than Peter. Not only does this argument fly in the face of a wealth of Biblical evidence to the contrary, it misunderstands the meaning of the word krino used by James. Krino is the root of the various diakrinos words used in the texts mentioned above. Seen in this light we get the true meaning and significance of James’ words. He is not going to go against what the Spirit has revealed through Peter. This would be to debate with the Holy Spirit (acts 10:20), and to confront, argue, or debate with Peter (acts 11:2); the same Peter whose testimony is described by Luke as part of the Gospel message (see my notes above on vss 1-4). The same Peter whose testimony actually forms the basis for James’ “decision”. They would pit James against Peter when in fact this is about James recognizing what has taken place through him and not “objecting” to or “hindering” it.

It’s getting late so my post on tomorrows Gospel reading will have to wait until early tomorrow evening.

 

 

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