Telling the Story
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears Him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to Him. You know the word which He sent to Israel,
preaching good things of Christ (He is Lord of all).
While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Acts 10: 34–36, 44
The visit of the Apostle Peter to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius was remembered by Luke as a great occasion in the spread of the good news of Christ because among other things it was there that God revealed to the great apostle the universal character of God’s invitation to humans. Pentecost, rightly called the birthday of the Church, had taken place in Jerusalem the capital of Judea, on the Jewish festival celebrating the Feast of Weeks that fell on the fiftieth day after Passover. The impressive census of those present from across the empire who had come to celebrate the feast presumably consisted entirely of Jews and gentile converts (Acts 2:8–11). It was a Jewish celebration, Peter’s inspired proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies was addressed to the “men of Israel.” The apostles had seen their mission as directed toward their Jewish brothers, a strategy that persisted until it became clear to Paul and other apostles that they were not welcomed in the synagogues (Acts 8:5–16).
In Acts we find the Apostle Peter convinced that salvation is not only of and for the Jews but for the gentile as well when the same spirit of Pentecost sends Paul to the household of a ranking officer in the Roman forces of occupation in Caesarea and at the same time prepares Cornelius’ heart to receive Paul’s words. It is on this occasion that Peter understood: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but that in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”
This was not a proclamation that there are many ways to God but an inspired recognition that the call of Christ into communion with the Father was and is addressed to all mankind. What happened in Cornelius’ house might be seen as a kind of gentile Pentecost. Cornelius had been prepared for Peter’s visit by a vison he had been given during his morning prayers commanding him to send for the apostles. His household stood in the presence of God, prepared to listen. Cornelius had been given the gift of prevenient grace, the grace of the Holy Spirit that goes before conversion, the grace that inspires listening, without which belief and repentance are impossible.
Peter then told the greatest story, the story of Jesus of Nazareth whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, who was put to death by hanging Him on a tree, but whom God raised on the third day and made manifest, not to all but to His chosen witnesses, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. He is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead, but one who believes in Him received forgiveness through His name.
This same story was told by Paul in short concise sentences and formalized in the great creeds of the Church. It is a not uncommon experience that persons may be told this greatest of stories with no effect, the words that brought Cornelius and his household to baptism falling in deaf ears. Our Lord repeatedly said that there would be those who hearing would not hear and seeing would not see (Matthew 13:5, Luke 8:10). The story Peter told the household of Cornelius was foolishness to the Greeks and blasphemy to the Jews in the reign of Tiberius; to the ‘world’ harassed by Satan it is foolishness now (I John 2:15–17).
For the conversion of any soul two things at least are necessary. That person must be open to hearing the story and the words of Jesus, and the story must be told to him as Peter told the story to Cornelius, with the weight of a witness given over in life and death to Christ. Peter’s witness was effective for Cornelius, but it need not have been so. If he had not in fact known Jesus, if he had not eaten and drunk with Him, if he had told a second-hand story, Peter’s witness, and the witness of the twelve would have been ineffective. The story-teller must have seen and believed. And beyond that, the story-teller must have a sense of the importance of the divine commission. If Peter had proposed the story of Jesus to Cornelius as an enrichment of the otherwise satisfying life of a Roman soldier, Cornelius could not have believed. In fact, Peter explained that this Jesus was the fulfillment of the purpose of the immortal, omnipotent Majesty, who would come to judge the living and the dead. The witness will not be compelling if it is told by those who do not know the Lord or if Christ is presented not as the fulfillment of the will of God, but as the project of man.
Always it is God who prepares souls to hear. It has never been held by the Church that belief in the story of Jesus is the work of man, a story whose truth can be made effective in human life by reference to the facts of history or proved with simple empirical methods or one that appeals on its face to sinful ears or to human rationality, for it is the result of the call of God, and its effectiveness is a mystery surpassing human knowing, a mystery borne of that love of God for mankind that will not let us go. Telling the story, the work of those Jesus sent, those commissioned and those who cooperate, is often a work of frustration. There is the person who has been told the story but in whose life it has not taken root. And there is the child baptized and brought up in faith who has great difficulty in making the story his or her own. And there is the weakness of the story-teller. The devil like a roaring lion is always seeking, seeking, seeking to snatch away the seed of the word.
The attempt to snatch away the seed is, unfortunately, a contemporary cultural project the end of which is the suppression of the greatest story. Throughout most of two thousand years the story through which Peter introduced Cornelius to Jesus has been read from a text that stabilizes the Christian narrative, an opportunity made almost universally available by printing. Recent research has reinforced the intuition that from the beginning Christians were a reading people. This reverence for the sacred text continued until, in the age of printing, Christian people, with the Bible in hand, either the King James or the Douay-Rheims, texts redolent of the language of Shakespeare, both read the story of Jesus and heard it told from the lectern and pulpit each Sunday, with the importance of this common text reinforced each morning by the reading of the Bible to begin the school day. In 1962 the custom of reading the Bible in public schools was declared illegal, a judgement which, while it may have perfected the secular character of the nation according to the Enlightenment principles half hidden in the founding documents, at the same time did much to remove from the culture the common literary tradition on which it had been founded.
This is only the most obvious example of the suppression of the story. Opposing this effort to inhibit the Gospel in the world are the same powers that brought Peter to Cornelius’ house and caused Cornelius to welcome Peter, the power of God the Holy Spirit to call His elect in every age and authority and power of the Church to tell the story, with these surrounded by the prayers of the saints and the holy Church, who in their just love for the world share the cry of Jesus on the Cross, ‘I thirst’ (John 19: 28), expressing the depth of God’s longing for man. Pope John Paul II wrote that it was these words that penetrated Mother Teresa’s soul and found fertile soil in her heart, and these words are ever the prayer of the Church as age after age she tells the story.