St. Peter declares, “God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34) My homily today will focus on this verse because I am convinced that a misunderstanding of God's impartiality has crippled our evangelization efforts.
God’s impartiality cannot mean that all religions are equal.* St. Peter knows that God singled out the Jews and made them a unique channel of his revelation. Among them he formed a certain Jewish maiden to bear Truth Incarnate. Then Jesus, after choosing the Twelve, identified only one as the rock (petros) on which he would construct his Church.
I doubt that the same rock is now telling us not to worry about doctrine and the sacraments, that Buddhist enlightenment will work just as well! Wouldn't you love to hear Peter's reaction to the current slogan about many roads leading up the single mountain to God? I suspect he would react about the same as when a fishing partner drops his end of the net and lets go a beautiful catch. After all, he heard Jesus say, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) And in the face of persecution, Peter asserted, “There is no other name given to men by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
God can hardly be indifferent to the truth or to the means of salvation - but at the same time he is perfectly fair (impartial) toward all his creatures. Reading Peter's speech carefully, we can see that impartiality in two ways. First he has placed in every man’s heart certain clues to his existence and nature. Peter speaks about people like Cornelius who “fear” God and “act uprightly.” (Acts 10:35) Children feel a sense of awe before the mysterious, the supernatural. As we grow older, we often anesthetize those feelings.** Nevertheless, we cannot help appreciate the orator, poet, musician or even the movie producer who stirs up that awe, that reverent fear. Similarly, in spite of our attempts to blur right and wrong, we admire heroism. Those feelings (which are deep, powerful urges or longings) show we have an orientation to God and that we sense some of his qualities: holiness, justice, goodness.
Once a person has even the slightest glimmer of who God is, he could never say, “Well, I guess I’m doing pretty good, especially in comparison to all the people around me.” No, he would recognize his total inadequacy before such a Being. The Roman centurion fell at Peter’s feet. (Acts 10:25) How much more before the One who offers forgiveness of sins! (v. 43)
Here we see the second way of God’s impartiality. Peter spoke in Jesus’ name and when he finished, the Holy Spirit came upon his listeners. The apostle then realized that even though they were non-Jews, nothing could stop them from receiving the great sacrament of baptism. (v. 47)
Thus was the first Gentile baptized. Today we take Gentile baptism for granted. What has become remarkable is to baptize a Jewish person. Still, we need to recognize our debt to a military man who feared God and acted rightly. And to Christ’s vicar who saw the implications of God’s impartiality.
*Chesterton noted that for scholars of comparative religion, “Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” In other words, when most people say religions are essentially the same what they really mean is that all religions are essentially Buddhism! See Comparative Religions: The Uniqueness of Christianity by Peter Kreeft.
**Drugs, alcohol, pornography have that effect because they take one to a liminal world which the user can apparently turn on at will. But they do not bring joy - transcendence - as does fine poetry or music. Rather they deaden and enslave. Even things which are good (learning, family, work) can have that effect if pursued in a disordered way. Jesus reserves his severest words for those who pervert what should be the highest human activity. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you frauds! You shut the doors of the kingdom of God in men's faces, neither entering yourselves nor admitting those who are trying to enter." (Mt 23:13)
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