Sunday, 5 June 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 18

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Case of Cornelius
by G.R. Balleine

Dorcas was so well known in the city that her recovery made a sensation. `It became known all over Joppa, and many believed on the Lord.' Peter decided to remain for a time to instruct these new disciples. He found a lodging by the seashore in the house of Simon, a tanner, where he stayed `many days'.

Unconsciously he was shedding some of his Jewish prejudices, for to a Pharisee contact with hides made every tanner `unclean'. `The world cannot do without tanners,' says the Talmud, `but woe to those who choose this trade.'

Joppa overlooked a little bay where ships of all nations anchored. The streets were full of foreign sailors: Greeks, Carthaginians, Spaniards. Peter was brought face to face with the fact that the world was much larger than Palestine. Timidly an audacious thought began to stir in his mind. Must the religion of Jesus remain a Jewish monopoly, or should it strive to grow into a world-wide faith? Had the Good News no message for the lands to which those ships were sailing? Samaria had proved God's plans to be wider than those of the Twelve. If Samaritans could become Christians, why not Cretans, Macedonians, and Gauls?

At first he repressed the thought. Between Jew and Gentile there was a barrier that was not easy to cross. Ezra had erected a hedge round Israel to protect God's People as far as possible from contact with unbelievers. Moreover Peter's task was to win his own nation. Nothing would handicap him in this more fatally than hobnobbing with the heathen. Had not Solomon said, `The eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth'?

But Peter sometimes saw visions; and visions have strange results. Many have been forced by inexorable visions to take unlikely steps. Some visions are simple. A man of Macedonia beckoning `Come over and help us' brought Paul to Europe.

But many are more complex. A cauldron in the sky slowly tilting to pour scalding broth on Palestine drove Jeremiah to undertake the thankless task of prophet. Ezekiel took courage from a vision of dry bones springing to life. Such visions are often the climax of debates that have long been rumbling in the unconscious.

Such a vision now came to Peter. Intercourse between Jew and Gentile was halted by the obstacle of the diet rules. The Mosaic Law retained certain ancient tribal taboos, the origin of which was forgotten, forbidding Jews to taste certain foods which Gentiles ate freely. Rabbit was allowed, but hare was forbidden. Pork was strictly prohibited.

Food bans are strangely persistent. The Bantu will not touch fish; the Hindu will not eat beef. The Indian Mutiny flared up, when native troops were ordered to bite cartridges greased with mutton-fat.

Bible-readers often fail to realize what a tricky problem this is. A man like Peter probably inherited from generations of ancestors a physical feeling of nausea at the mere idea of tasting forbidden food. And this was to him an integral part of his religion. It was no tradition of the Elders, but one of the Mosaic laws, to break which would be to renounce Judaism. Jesus had been a law-observant Jew, and His disciples at Jerusalem followed His example, and by their respect for the Law had won the esteem of their neighbours. Peter would not easily be persuaded to break his life-long rule.

But a vision did it. One day, while waiting for his midday meal, he went up to the roof to pray. His hunger unconsciously turned his thoughts to food. In a trance he saw an enormous mainsail let down from heaven. Inside was a strange huddle of birds, beasts and reptiles, sheep and swine, quails and peacocks, snakes and scorpions, and, since nothing is improbable in visions, perhaps camels and crocodiles and dragons of the deep.

And a Voice said, `Rise, Peter, kill and eat.' He answered, `I have never eaten anything common or unclean.' But three times the Voice repeated, `What God has cleansed, you must not call common.' Then the vision vanished.

Its very incoherence suggests that the story is true. Visions invented by literary men are more neatly constructed. What, we may ask, was Peter's difficulty? Why not do the obvious thing, and pick out a 'clean' beast? And what did the animals symbolize?

Did they represent food, and was Peter to learn not to let food regulations hinder his work? Or did they represent people, and imply that he must never call any race unclean? Peter 'was greatly puzzled what the vision could mean'.

Meanwhile something had been happening in Caesarea thirty miles away. Joppa was the oldest town in Palestine; Caesarea was one of the newest, very Roman, with broad, straight streets, a Temple to Rome, a theatre, an amphitheatre, and a superb harbour. Pilate was still Procurator, and here he spent most of the year with his troops.

Among his staff-sergeants was Cornelius, Centurion of the Italian Cohort, a volunteer corps of archers, recruited in Italy. Men who live much abroad, and have lost their ancestral faith, are sometimes drawn towards the religion of the peo ple among whom they dwell. More than one British officer in the East has become a Buddhist; and to some Romans the Jewish creed, with its scorn of idols, its lofty morals, and its one, invisible God, made a strong appeal. A few submitted to circumcision and became full proselytes. Others remained in an outer circle, known as the 'God-fearers', who renounced idolatry, observed the Sabbath, attended the synagogue services, but refused circumcision, the essential sign of conversion, and made no attempt to keep all the Mosaic laws.

Cornelius was one of these. He is described as 'a devout man, who feared God with all his household. He gave alms liberally to the Jews and prayed to God constantly'. A time came when the synagogue he attended heard about Jesus. Philip settled in Caesarea, and, wherever Philip was, Jesus was vigorously preached. Cornelius grew interested. When he heard what Peter had done for Dorcas, he became eager to meet him.

The next step was what any psychologist could have foretold. As he prayed, he thought he saw an Angel saying, 'Send and fetch Peter.' So he told his orderly to take two slaves and invite Peter to visit him. He was evidently well-to-do. Centurions sometimes were. The Capernaum centurion, another 'God-fearer', had built the synagogue there.'

Cornelius could spare a couple of slaves for four days without disorganizing his household; and his almsgiving had been lavish enough to make him think the Angel's visit a reward for his gifts. The invitation was not to preach and depart, but to stay in Caesarea as a rich man's guest. If this had come before the vision,

Peter would certainly have refused. Shylock's words, `I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, but I will not eat with you', were true of the dealings of Jew with Gentile in New Testament times. To accept this invitation was as hard for Peter as it is for a Brahmin to renounce caste.

And behind this lay a deeper question. He would never tell the story of Jesus merely as a moving tale. When he preached, it was to convert. Did he wish to convert a Gentile? The message reached him as he was puzzling over his vision.

Were the two connected? If God accepted Cornelius' alms, could Peter treat him as unclean? An inner voice said, `Go', and Peter felt bound to obey. But he realized the risk he was running. With quite un-Peterlike prudence he took six Joppa disciples, all Jews, with him as witnesses.

When they reached Caesarea, they found that Cornelius had gathered his friends and relations together. `We are here,' he said, `to listen to what the Lord commands you to say.' So Peter spoke about Jesus; how He was baptized, went about doing good, was crucified, rose from the dead, and would one day judge the world. This would not be new to these `God-fearers'. Philip had told the same story more than once in their synagogue. And Philip had probably told, too, of the tongue-speaking at Pentecost.

Perhaps they had gained the impression that `tongues' were the hall-mark of this new religion. As their hearts were stirred by Peter's words, suddenly they burst into strange, incoherent noises.

Before Peter's astonished eyes Pentecost was repeated. To him this was decisive. He turned to his Jewish companions: `Can anyone refuse baptism to these people, who have received the Spirit in the same way that we did?' And `he gave orders that they should be baptized'.

He remained with Cornelius `certain days', instructing them, and, ignoring the food rules, he took his meals with them. But when he returned to Jerusalem he had to face a storm. His friends there had not seen the vision nor heard the Gentiles speak in `tongues'. To them it seemed that he had compromised the Jewish orthodoxy of the Sect. They `contended with him', saying, `You stayed as a guest with uncircumcised men and did feed with them.'

Peter, however, told his story and produced his six witnesses. His argument simply was: `Would you have me oppose God? I felt as doubtful as you whether this could be right. But God told Cornelius to send for me. God taught me by a vision not to call anyone unclean. God gave His Spirit, before I allowed baptism. Who am I that I should resist God?' His critics were silenced. `They held their peace.'

But Peter never quite regained his old authority in Jerusalem. Some began to look more and more to James, the Lord's brother, as their leader. The question of the admission of the Gentiles was not yet finally settled. In years to come the case of Cornelius would be a useful precedent; but for the moment not even Peter sought any more Gentile converts. Later the problem would flare up again in furious controversy.

For the moment the conservative wing-'the Circumcision Party' Luke calls them-were apparently pacified by three thoughts; that this was quite an exceptional case, in which God had shown His Will by a special miracle; that Cornelius might accept circumcision later to show his unity with his Brethren; and at any rate the newcomers were not undiluted Gentiles. They had been synagogue worshippers. If the synagogue had tolerated them, could not the Church do the same?

Bit by bit, however, barriers were breaking. First, Samaritans had been admitted, men of dubious Israelite blood, who, though circumcised and keeping the Mosaic Law, were outside the pale of Jewish orthodoxy. Now `God-fearers' had been received, men who worshipped Jehovah, though they were uncircumcised and not of Jewish descent. Some day a pagan would ask for baptism. Then problems would arise that only time could solve.

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