Many of us were able to attend Easter Sunday mass in person this year, in contrast to last spring when most Catholic churches around the country were closed due to the early days of the COVID epidemic. As a result, we may have witnessed the baptism of new members of our parish congregations, a critical part of the celebration of Easter from the earliest days of the Church.
Baptism is featured in the first reading at mass today, when we hear how Saint Peter himself traveled from Joppa (part of modern-day Tel Aviv) to Caesarea to bring the Word of God to the Roman centurion Cornelius. Cornelius and Peter both experienced unusual visions, recounted before today’s reading, which prepared them to encounter each other and opened them to Cornelius’ baptism—Cornelius himself to humbly receive the gift of baptism, and Peter to confer it on Cornelius, who was a Gentile and as such not someone with whom Peter would have been expected to associate, much less to baptize (see Acts 10:28).
Peter then realizes that the Gentiles are called to faith in Christ as well as the Jewish people, and he exclaims: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” When the Holy Spirit descends upon all present at this scene, Jews and Gentiles alike, Peter goes further, saying: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” (Acts 10:34-35, 47).
The same lesson is forecast in the responsorial Psalm, when we sing together: “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power” (Ps 98:2). All people, whether their origins are of the house of Israel or the many Gentile nations, are called to belief and fellowship in Christ. This was a difficult realization for early Christians to make and we see evidence that it brought about dissension numerous times in the New Testament.
Aside from the opposition Peter encounters prior to baptizing Cornelius, we can read Acts 15:1-29 where a council is held in Jerusalem to resolve questions about Jews and Gentiles living as Christians which were so pressing as to threaten the unity of the young Church. Similarly, the Letter to the Galatians delves into the issue of Christians being confused about whether it was necessary to observe the Jewish Law in order to be a true Christian (Gal 1:6-24; 2:1-10).
In today’s second reading from the First Letter of John we see the same point expressed in new language: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). We are thus summoned to love all others—Jews and Gentiles, people of all races, backgrounds, professions, and cultures—or we fall short in our effort to live as authentic disciples of Jesus.
Those final words of Saint John’s quote above are tough: “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” We should not despair of fulfilling this lofty challenge, however, for as we hear in the following verses: “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
Joined to our sisters and brothers in the Lord through the waters of baptism, let us treat each other with authentic Christian love, bringing to completion the vision Peter and Cornelius saw and answering the call of Jesus himself to: “Love one another as I love you.” (John 15:12).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.