To listen to today’s homily select the audio below:
If any of you are watching the bible series “AD: The Gospel Continues” on television Sunday nights on NBC, you know that a Roman centurion named Cornelius has a big role in it so far. He’s the tough Roman soldier in charge of Roman troops in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified and afterwards. The television series shows how violent those times were; Cornelius is responsible for much of it.
The series is fictionalized and goes beyond historical sources and the New Testament narratives. For example, the New Testament and others sources don’t say that Cornelius was the centurion on Calvary when Jesus was crucified, as the series does, or that he and Pontius Pilate had a major role in the early brutal attempts to crush the new Christian movement. Yet the series does get the violence right –those were brutal times.
In our first reading today we have the New Testament account of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. It’s from St. Luke’s long account of the conversion of the Roman soldier by the Apostle Peter, in Chapters 10 and 11 of the Acts of the Apostles. Cornelius is not in Jerusalem, but 80 miles away in Caesarea Maritima, a Roman seaport where Pontius Pilate and his Roman legions were regularly based.
Luke’s account sees Cornelius as an important gentile convert to Christianity; he describes him as “ a centurion of the Cohort called the Italica, devout and God-fearing along with his whole household, who used to give alms generously* to the Jewish people and pray to God constantly.” Doesn’t seem at all like the tough Roman enforcer in “AD”, does he?
I think Luke describes him that way because he’s trying to show that God can change a tough Roman centurion into someone who’s devout and God-fearing and generous and prayerful. Peter’s afraid to go near him, let alone eat a meal with him, and so an angel has to tell him that God is working in Cornelius. Peter then goes to Caesarea, baptizes Cornelius and his family and welcomes them into the community of believers.
In the New Testament, disciples like Peter seem to continually underestimate the power of God, whether it’s God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead or God’s power to change a sinful world of tough people and unjust structures. It’s a temptation the disciples fall into. It’s a temptation we fall into. We can underestimate God’s power and God’s plans. We can make our vision, our life, our church too small.
God is working to build his kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we say. We need to accept the big dimensions of that prayer.