From the Book of Acts:
[Peter asked Cornelius,] “Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 10:29-33 – August 30, 2012)
Judaism is not a missionary religion. It is, however, a proselytic religion. This means that Jews don’t go looking for converts, but those who come to them interested in becoming Jews are instructed and initiated; these initiates are called proselytes. Cornelius might have become a proselyte, but we know that he was not because if he had been, Peter would have had no issues with seeing him, meeting him, eating with him. Peter did have those issues initially, but then was shown the vision of unclean animals which he was told to eat. Peter interpreted that vision to mean that he should not treat non-Jews as unclean; it was the beginning of the Jewish Christian church welcoming non-Jews (“Gentiles”) as members.
Christianity is a missionary religion. Christians go looking for converts – or at least we’re supposed to and in the beginning we did. Someone may have told Cornelius about Jesus and about the followers of Jesus or, more likely, someone simply lived a Christian life. Cornelius had already been attracted to the Jewish religion and was following some of its practices, but the only way he could have become interested in hearing “all that the Lord had commanded Peter to say” was if someone had primed the pump, so to speak.
Once in a long while someone who is not a Christian will call me or will stop in the office and inquire about baptism (in fact, it happened quite recently, but that was the first time in several years). It always turns out that they have witnessed something in the life of a friend or family member that they find attractive – a way of handling misfortune, of dealing with the death of a loved one, of helping someone less fortunate than themselves. Having seen this, the inquirer has talked to the person and somehow in conversation they have learned that their friend or family member is a church member. Further conversation leads to further inquiry which leads eventually to me, to a conversation not unlike this conversation between Peter and Cornelius. When I’ve asked my version of “Why have you sent for me?” I’ve never been told about a vision of an angel in dazzling clothes, but I have been told about Christians testifying to their faith.
Christianity is a missionary religion, and occasionally Christians act like missionaries. When they do, Corneliuses show up.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.