Words on the Word


Acts 8.5-17: Cornelius went out to meet Peter.
1 John 4.7-10: One who fails to love has never known God.
John 15.9-17: Giving one’s life for one’s friends.

Dear candidates for confirmation,

Our first reading speaks of an encounter between two men in a Palestinian coastal town in the 30s AD, almost 2000 years ago. One is a native, the other is a foreigner. The two of them meet to speak about the meaning of ‘belonging’.

The scene can seem so remote that we quietly yawn and put our hand into our pocket to fiddle with our mobile phone. This is a story, though, that merits attention. If we read it carefully we’ll see that it is about things that concern us. That way it can help us to live.

And that, after all, is why you are here today: because you wish to live truly, deeply, in the light of criteria that do not change with each season, that form a foundation upon which we can responsibly build an existence.

The men are Peter and Cornelius. Peter was from Bethsaida, inland and upcountry in Palestine (John 1.44). He originally had his own business as a fisherman; now he is board chairman of what today’s officialdom would call a charitable foundation. Peter’s religious faith is that of the country as a whole; he lives within a cultural setting that is his by inheritance. Not so Cornelius. He is ‘a centurion of the Italian cohort’ (Acts 10.1), so among the officers maintaining the Roman Empire’s stranglehold occupation of Palestine.

Rome is a global superpower. Palestine, which geographically corresponds to today’s Israel, is a tiny state without military resources apart from a guerilla of which we see traces, now and again, in the Gospels. When Peter and Cornelius meet, the occupation has lasted for three generations. People are thoroughly fed up with it.

If we consider the conflicts that today more than any make the world unsafe and us afraid, the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, we see examples of the tensions produced by occupation. Norwegian society remains to this day marked by Nazi occupation during World War II, and that was an experience that lasted only five years.

A land living under occupation finds itself in a state of continuous humiliation. In such a situation, no one wants to appear a collaborator, fraternising with the enemy. One holds jealously onto national character, national privileges. Strategic force may occupy a territory; but under no circumstances will it be allowed access to the people’s soul.

It is not banal, then, when Peter, as a result of a vision, picks up his staff and goes to visit Cornelius at home, inviting him into a fellowship that so far had been kept within a family. Israel’s faith had an ethnic and therefore an exclusive character. It stood for something the occupying power could not conquer. But here we see a Roman officer integrated into the people of God by grace. The encounter of Peter and Cornelius forms the explicit beginning of a development that defines the New Testament. The Church, which Peter represents, is called to manifest the task explicit in God’s first call to Abram in Haran: ‘In you all the peoples of the earth will be blessed’ (Genesis 12.3).

Christian faith transcends boundaries. It proclaims that enemies can be reconciled, that there is a fraternal communion beyond chauvinism; it invites us to work together for a new world built on justice; and it testifies that such a project, which exceeds what idealism can accomplish on its own, is possible because God himself, the Almighty, supports it through his transforming love poured out upon the earth through the incarnation, teaching, sacrifice, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When Peter visits Cornelius and confers baptism on him, it is not by way of drawing a line over Rome’s violence. Injustice remains injustice. The record of it cannot be sanctimoniously brushed under a rug. Peter himself would be executed by imperial authority.

Christianity isn’t magic. Becoming a Christian doesn’t provide the automatic solution to any problem. But Christian faith, the grace of belonging to Christ through the Church, is the fount of a strength that may resolve even intransigently locked crises from within. By the perseverance of Christians, Rome, the Apostles’ persecutor, gradually became a transmitter of faith.

Remain in my love’, says the Lord. If we do — if we coherently choose to serve instead of exercising dominion, to be reconciled rather than embittered, to build bridges, not walls — the impossible can become possible. We shall then build community on other terms than those of mere self-affirmation. Love will find expression in our enterprise. Love is more than a warm feeling in the chest. Love is a will to live and give of oneself in such a way that others may live.

This is the example Jesus gives us, saying ‘Do likewise’ (John 13.15).

I would like to end with a few lines from a poem I often think of these days. It is written by a Ukrainian, Artur Droń, born in 2002, a man not all that much older than you. For love, love of justice and love of his friends, he has gone to war. His poem describes his experience of the trenches at the front:

Love is patient. Love is kind.
It is not jealous, is not pompous.
Love is terrified like a beast
but it perseveres.
Love could give up and abandon it all
but it perseveres
Sometimes, love has gunshot wounds to
its legs or bullet fragments lodged in them.
Tourniquets squeeze love’s legs,
or it has no legs anymore.
Then love’s friends carry love.

By asking to be confirmed, you confess that you want to live by Love. Let Love provide orientation for your lives. If you live by Love, you will find that it carries. No boundary is final, then; no darkness, no hatred is final. Then light, encounter, and joy will always be within reach.

In the name of Christ! Amen


View from the palace of Herod in Caesarea.