Progressive Christianity’s Strange Bonhoeffer Compulsion (2)

bonhoeffer-hitlerWhy it Exists

In the previous post I discussed the strangeness of Progressive Christianity’s embrace of Bonhoeffer given the unbridgeable theological and political chasm between them and him.  The question remains as to why they are compelled to do so.

Although there are numerous aspects to the answer, the most consequential is this:

Many Christian Progressives have convinced themselves that the easiest and surest means of achieving moral superiority (with its associated political power) is to demonstrate disdain, even hatred, for their own country.

That is, by claiming moral convictions of such purity, such unassailable certitude, such uniqueness and so divorced from normal national connectedness, they are compelled to despise their own country because of its crimes against humanity.  Just like did that moral giant and Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Perhaps these moral paragons of perfection will listen to one of their own with regard to the error of their ways.  Here’s what Henry Sloane Coffin had to say about their mindset in a 1942 (note the same time period as Bonhoeffer) article titled “The Continuing Pacifist Menace: How Pacifists Do Harm.”

Their type of mind is Utopian. They will have the kingdom of Heaven or nothing. That kingdom cannot be established by human effort alone nor will it be achieved in any historic situation. We can only expect and work for some approximation to the divine ideal—the best we can contrive under the circumstances. But absolutists abhor these relative goods, with their admixture of evil. And when men refuse to work with the best they can get under given conditions they force something far worse on mankind.

Living as they actually do in a liberal democratic republic, this moral pose actually costs them almost nothing while reaping unearned moral credit.  This attitude is different than the “cheap grace” opposed by Bonhoeffer in his life.  No, this is a far step beyond, into what I have come to think of as “cheap Bonhoeffer-ism.”  They do indeed “force something far worse on mankind” by their thought and action.

Statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer above the west entrance of WestminAs we saw in the previous post, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was what would be today called a theological and political conservative.  He thus had not the slightest intention or desire to hate his own country, Germany.  However, this gentle, brilliant Christian man yet found himself enmeshed within the vile evil associated with Nazism’s rise to power during the 1930s, and its genocidal use of that power in the 1940s.  Due only to these extraordinary circumstances, Bonhoeffer was forced by his Christian convictions to actively work against the Nazi state.

Had the Weimar Republic (the German state between 1919 and 1933) evolved in a non-totalitarian direction, it is virtually impossible to imagine that Bonhoeffer would have even approached traitorous resistance.  Yes, he would certainly have been an active and effective critic of the shortcomings of such a regime.  However, his motivations would have been patriotic and beneficent towards his native country.

Progressive Christianity has twisted this extraordinary man and situation into standard operating procedure for themselves and their politics.  That is, whereas Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forced into active disloyalty towards a totalitarian and genocidal regime, Progressive Christianity applies this situation to the normal political disagreements within the liberal democratic republic of the United States.

Thus, whenever a non-Progressive (usually a Republican) dares to oppose their policies, or worse yet, to win an election, some of them (repeatedly) convince themselves that it is the rise of yet another Hitler.  In their minds there is no legitimacy for or loyalty to a nation that again and again elects the equivalent of Hitler to power.  Thus they literally see themselves as in a similar situation to Dietrich Bonhoeffer!

Some readers may balk at accepting this claim.  However, I make it after having personally experienced this progressive “Hitler-mania” on far too many occasions.

bushitler1For example, recall the “Bushitler” craze during the George W. Bush presidency.  In a class supposedly about Dietrich Bonhoeffer I was forced to listen to Progressive Christians earnestly discussing if George W. Bush was the new Hitler.  After two wasted class periods I spoke up, explaining my disbelief that such a ridiculous fantasy had consumed so much time.  I also pointed out the absurdity of this comparison given the conditions existing in Nazi Germany as opposed to the United States (e.g., Barack Obama was likely to be elected the next President).

Their response shocked and appalled me.  That is, they were utterly silent.  Here were people who for two entire periods had presumed to lecture those of us evil and/or stupid enough to have voted for the next Hitler being reduced to shocked silence simply by the voicing of an opposing view.  What happened to their massive, unimpeachable evidence for this horror?  It simply evaporated.  And yet, there was not the slightest recognition that they had been both wrong and cruel.  In point of fact, when George W. Bush quietly retired as Barack Obama’s presidency began, not a single one of these people admitted their error or apologized for their cruelty.

I recognize in this situation a real-world example of the “Progressive bubble-dom” metaphor.  For here we have almost nothing besides air on the inside, reality on the outside, and only an easily demolished membrane separating these real and unreal worlds.

The point is that, by assuming political opponents to be the equivalent of Hitler, some Progressive Christians maintain the absurd fantasy that they are “little Bonhoeffers” who justly despise the nation of their birth.  Thus, in the face of such supposed reoccurring evil, they bear no loyalty to the nation, and, they are freed to conduct themselves using any means necessary to destroy that same supposed evil.  The consequences of this bizarre derangement are becoming clearer with each passing day.

Progressive Christianity’s Strange Bonhoeffer Compulsion (1)

Why it is Strange

I’m drawn back to the Wall Street Journal oped, “Why Not a Day of Rest From Politics?”.  For, one comment there by Libby Sternberg intersects exactly with a key attribute of the Progressive bubble within which some influential Mainline Christians live.  Here’s the quote:

Many of today’s clerical approaches to public policy seem inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor.

On first thought there’s nothing remarkable about this affinity.  For, who among us doesn’t find those who rose to the challenge of upholding goodness in particularly extreme, dangerous occasions to be figures of inspiration?  However, beyond this point we depart into what can only be described as a bizarre, emotionally unstable fantasy world that can be reasonably encompassed within the concept of extreme bubble-dom.

I must firstly make the obvious but too often ignored point that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not a natural hero for Progressive Christians.  In fact, even the most cursory study of this great man’s life and thought reveals that he was a vocal, and sometimes outraged opponent of Progressive Christianity.

In the years 1930-31, Bonhoeffer visited the United States to pursue postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, an independent, nondenominational, Christian seminary (founded in 1836 by members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.) located in New York City.  Union has long been a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship, which it certainly was in 1930.

Bonhoeffer was shocked and dismayed by what he found at Union.  Although there are numerous extended Bonhoeffer quotations in “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (by Eric Metals) from which to choose, the one that most clearly and succinctly captures his thought follows:

“[The Union students] talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria . . . They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level. In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

Can there be any doubt that, almost 90 years later, Bonhoeffer would find Progressive Christianity to be massively worse theologically and far more intellectually barren than it was then?  Were he to read the PCUSA Presbytery Rationale record on same-gender marriage, or, how the PCUSA has become a comfortable home for atheists and heretics, he certainly would be shaken to his very core.

Well, perhaps even though Bonhoeffer was a theological foe, he was a political friend?  That is, his politics were extremely left-wing, even overtly Marxist, and, he was deeply distrustful of both his nation (Germany) and it’s political status quo.  Sorry, but this is also utterly false.  Returning to the above biography, note the following quotes regarding Bonhoeffer’s political positioning during the Weimar Republic (the German state between 1919 and 1933).  The first quote concerns Bonhoeffer’s joining of the Igel fraternity in the 1920s.

“But they were generally patriotic, so the national pride that characterized the Igels was not unappealing. Karl Bonhoeffer always recalled his time there favorably, but disapproved of the peer pressure to drink. Most Igel members in his day had middle-of-the-road political convictions, being champions of the kaiser and of the policies of Bismarck.”

In fact, Bonhoeffer also willingly participated in military training (although some time later he considered himself for awhile to be a pacifist).

Such political turmoil called for a level of military readiness that the Allies were unwilling to grant, so the Germans invented ways around it to avoid the interference of the Allied Control Commission. One was for university students to receive covert training during the semesters. These troops were referred to as the Black Reichswehr. In November 1923 it was Dietrich’s turn. His training would take two weeks and would be overseen by the Ulm Rifles Troop in Ulm, not far from Tübingen. Many of his Igel brethren would join him, and all of the other fraternities participated. Bonhoeffer felt no great hesitation, seeing it as a part of his most basic patriotic duty.

So, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an opponent of Progressive Christianity’s theology and politics, then what strange compulsion motivates current members of this group to so powerfully identify themselves with him?  It is to that question we will turn next.

Christ and Cornelius (10)

800px-Jesús_y_el_centurión_(El_Veronés)Closing Thoughts (2)

The story of Cornelius’ salvation by Christ is of signal import because of its being the first Gentile conversion that was affirmed by the Church.  However, within the examination of Christian pacifism its meaning becomes all the more profound.  For, when God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, chose whom that first Gentile convert would be, it was a Roman soldier, a centurion.

Perhaps some could be persuaded to “pass by” this telling detail, were it an isolated case.  But, it most certainly is not.  In fact, this event is actually the third part of a Scriptural trilogy that leaves no reasonable doubt as to God’s teaching.

In “Part 1” we find John the Baptist proclaiming Christ’s coming and therefore calling all to repentance through baptism.  And, who should respond to his message but a group of soldiers.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Luke 3:14

Note that when the soldiers ask John what they must now do, he completely ignores their roles as war-fighters. This is a passing strange omission for the anointed Prophet who is preparing the way for Christ’s mission, particularly so if pacifism were to be a central principle of that mission.

In “Part 2,” Jesus Christ has arrived and is actively preaching the Gospel.  He is sought out by none other than a Roman centurion who’s servant is gravely ill.   As a consequence of this encounter Christ lifts up this man’s demonstration of faith, placing it far above that which He has seen in the nation of Israel.

When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  

Matthew 8:10,11

I simply point out that Jesus responds to the centurion’s faith without making so much as the smallest comment on his occupation.  Were Jesus intent on turning humankind away from any form of violence, it would be passing strange that Jesus did not add instruction about future conduct to His praise of the centurion’s faith.

Now in “Part 3,” the trilogies’ capstone, we find that God has also chosen a Roman centurion to be the vessel through whom His Church will welcome the Gentiles into Christianity!  And, within this world-shattering event, is this man’s occupation as a Roman soldier raised as a barrier to entry?  Not in the slightest!

No, the barrier to be overcome is that of the ceremonial Jewish law that demands separation from the Gentiles.  This issue, which applies to fellowship with any Gentile, be they soldier or not, is the only one raised and addressed!

We should have discovered an absolutely clear pattern by now. Soldiers were (and are) welcome in the Church without having to give up their profession. This is not to say that their Christian faith won’t have a powerful impact on their conduct. But, with all of these opportunities to send the message that their position as war-fighters was incompatible with the Christian faith passed up by John the Baptist, Christ Himself  and now the Apostle Peter, it is virtually impossible to conclude that this was their intention.

And finally note that this unmistakable trilogy is in addition to all the other clear Biblical evidence against pacifism.  Thus, I must conclude that the pacifist position cannot survive a complete, careful Scriptural study.

I understand that pacifism has a long and substantial place in Christian thought. However, clearly this is a consequence of powerful personal feelings being overlaid on Scripture’s teaching to create a false belief.  I am not here denouncing Christian pacifists.  For, who among us fallen, frail humans is uniformly immune from failure of this nature?  Certainly not me.  However, we should hope that all Christians, if provided compelling evidence of erroneous belief through Scripture’s  teaching would submit to Scripture.

Just because we can’t travel all the way with Christian pacifists doesn’t mean that we should ignore their counsel. Quite the opposite, their deeply held belief in peace compels the rest of us to more carefully test our own conclusions with regard to the use of force. However, in the extremity of danger, neither can their erroneous position force us to stand idly by while terrible evil is done (or is about to be done). Perhaps we can end this phase of the discussion with these words from Proverbs.

A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength; for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.  If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?

Proverbs 24:5,6; 11,12


Christ and Cornelius (9)

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout-Cornelius.Closing Thoughts (1)

Near the beginning of this series the hypothesis to be tested was defined as follows:

Therefore, were one a believer in Christian pacifism, then, beyond the primary issue of Gentile conversion, the secondary “scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome” must have been about the admission of a professional warrior into the pacifistic Christian community.

The means of testing this hypothesis was also defined, that being:

… by taking the radical step of submitting to what the Bible actually says as opposed to assuming what we would like it to say.

Of course, this hypothesis and means also describe the methodology of this blog.  That is, Christ’s saving act upon the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household is simply one event from the larger sweep of His purposes.  We are here considering how, if at all, God has chosen to deal with the issue of warfare and the humans who engage in it.  Be it David or Cornelius, a tribe, nation or empire, is God willing to incorporate human warriors within the bounds of His grace, and, are Christians prevented from engaging in warfare?  Therefore, I will expand the scope of these concluding remarks accordingly.

I have discussed the challenges associated with knowing who Jesus Christ is throughout numerous posts.  For example, how unexamined assumptions can blind us to what the Biblical text actually teaches.  I have also discussed how we can overcome this barrier.  The answer consists of being open to the entire Biblical record in combination with the application of orthodox Reformed doctrine and interpretative rules.

I then reviewed the Biblical record regarding the concept of pacifism at a high level.  Recall that while I fully embraced Christ’s teaching that we should always seek “peacefulness,” this was demonstrated to be distinctly differentiable from the ideology of “pacifism.”  This conclusion was reached by application of the general interpretative concepts discussed above to the specific issue of pacifism.

This foundation allowed us to examine the life of King David with minds un-befuddled by pacifistic cant.  This fresh study was necessary because our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is tied in the most intimate manner with King David, a warrior and poet after God’s own heart.  Thus, failure to understand the human king who’s life and reign foreshadows Christ’s eternal Kingship utterly undermines our ability to fully comprehend the person and purpose of our Savior.

All of this has led up to Christ and Cornelius, which is obviously the capstone to the series’ argument, and which will be discussed in the next post.


Christ and Cornelius (8)

st_peter_preaching_in_the_presence_of_st_mark_big.jpgControversy in the Church

Peter’s Report to the Church (Acts 11:1-18)

For Peter and the Jewish Christians who accompanied him the evidence of God’s direction was both immediate and unmistakable.  But, for those Jewish Christians who were not privy to this compelling information the news must have hit like an earthquake.  There must have been extreme agitation and confusion throughout this small, vulnerable community of believers.

11 Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Note first that there is already at this extremely early time (i.e., the 30s A.D., or less than a decade after Christ’s resurrection) an identifiable “circumcision party” within the Church.  It’s natural to therefore assume that there was also something on the order of a party that did not cling so tightly to their Jewish heritage in existence.

The specific point of controversy was that Peter had violated Jewish ceremonial law by eating with Gentiles.  In fact, this was the only point of controversy.

But Peter began and explained to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven.

Peter responds by first recounting his vision from God concerning once forbidden sources of food.

11 At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesare′a. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’

Next Peter recounts the amazing sequence of events that brought him and the six brethren together with Cornelius and his household.  Here we find Peter including Cornelius’ vision and obedience as integral parts of the common experience of God’s leading among Jews and Gentiles.

Peter’s explanation may answer a mystery discussed previously, that being why Cornelius “fell down at his feet and worshiped him” (i.e., worshiped Peter, in Acts 10:25b).  As Peter recounted in Jerusalem, the angel who met with Cornelius said of Peter that “he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”  Thus, it is reasonable to conjecture that Cornelius’ expectation for salvation originally but erroneously were attached to the person of Peter rather than to Jesus Christ.  However, this initial confusion in no way prevented God from achieving His providential purpose.

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

Peter reaches the climax, where God’s purpose in all of this becomes so unmistakably apparent that the only faithful response is immediate and joyful obedience.  Note that Acts’ author, Luke, has chosen to recount virtually the entire story from Chapter 10 here in Chapter 11.  The fact of this complete repetition is strong evidence for the tremendous importance of this event to Church history.

18 When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”

I wonder if there were two distinct groups being here described, those who “were silenced” and those who “glorified God.”  For, in Paul’s letters and later in Chapter 15 of Acts, the “circumcision party” didn’t simply melt away.  Certainly some from the “circumcision party” could have been (and likely were) so convinced by Peter’s testimony that they completely and permanently changed their position.  However others certainly did not.

However, we must not lose sight of the primary point, that being that the Church in Jerusalem had overwhelmingly accepted the principle that Christianity is intended for all, Jew and Gentile alike.  In this they chose obedience to Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” over their Jewish heritage.  And, God’s providential promise to make Abraham’s offspring a blessing to all nations had, in His good time, come to pass in this fallen world.

Christ and Cornelius (7)

Peter and Cornelius

clouds_from_GodGentiles Receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48)

Note that it is God who continues to drive this encounter to its predestined outcome.

44 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Peter and “the believers from among the circumcised” (i.e., the Jewish Christians) knew from direct, personal experience what were the true marks of “the gift of the Holy Spirit [being] poured out” upon the elect.  The ideas that Cornelius and his household could have demonstrated this gift by chance or that they were acting with dishonesty are beyond absurd.  No, God had acted with unmistakable clarity to ensure this outcome.

Baptism_of_corneliusThen Peter declared, 47 “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Peter responds with faithful acceptance and takes immediate action.  Everything that has occurred, from Peter’s and Cornelius’ visions, to the circumstances of their meeting, to the proclamation of the Gospel and, finally, to Cornelius’ and his household’s receiving of the Holy Spirit, has provided iron-clad evidence of God’s leading to this point.  And so, these Gentiles, this Roman Centurion and his household, these elect souls are “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is thus Peter, not Paul, who has welcomed Gentiles into the Christian Church.  Peter, as is his wont, will eventually vacillate on this certain decision from God.  It will be Paul who both acts to bring the full harvest of Gentile souls into knowledge of this saving grace and who demands that the Church consistently submit to God’s sovereign choice.

Nevertheless, Peter’s act of trust and faith here, against two-thousand years of Jewish religious and cultural separation, unmistakably confirms Christ’s statement:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)

Christ and Cornelius (6)

Peter and Cornelius

peter-corneliusPeter Delivers the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34-43)

Some would argue Peter has reached that moment of truth in which he must decide if all that has previously transpired is the legitimate leading of God or something else.  However, from an orthodox Reformed theological perspective this moment had been ordained by God’s providential acts, which left no doubt as to the final outcome.  And yet, it is undeniable that both Peter and Cornelius (among others) have been exercising their own wills throughout.  Perhaps only an allegory can begin to square this circle.

34 And Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Peter embraces all that has led to this moment as God’s sure purpose.  It remains unclear if Cornelius understood the meaning of Jesus Christ and His gospel prior to this encounter.  He certainly had embraced key aspects of the Jewish faith and culture that opened him to receiving the Gospel message.  There need not have been any pre-knowledge on Cornelius’ part, for “We love because He first loved us” (John 4:19).

36 You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Yes, Peter does here state that Cornelius knew of Jesus Christ and the things He had said and done.  However, it is one thing to know of something and sometimes quite another to understand the true meaning.  From the previous passage (see Acts 10:33, we are assembled “to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord”), it appears that Cornelius was certain Peter was the person ordained by God to deliver the message while the content remained unknown.

39 And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.

Here we encounter the foundational explanation of Christ’s mission.  Although all of His teaching and miracles are of great importance, Peter focuses on the Passion and resurrection as of the greatest importance.  That is, the primary focus is on what Christ has accomplished for us.

43 To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Here in these twenty-one words we find the core of the Gospel.  This is a statement of that which is essential, though its fullness encompasses everything.  We sometimes make the essentials of Christianity far more complicated than they should be.

Finally, note the similarity between Peter’s statement here of the essential Gospel message and Paul’s from Romans.

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 | NIV84

Christ and Cornelius (5)

peter-enters-the-home-of-the-gentile-large-608x406Peter and Cornelius

The Providential Encounter (Acts 10:23b-33)

Peter brings a delegation of Christian brothers along with him.  Cornelius had brought together family and friends to participate.  Surely each had their own reasons to include others in this momentous meeting.

The next day he rose and went off with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesare′a. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends.

What was going through the minds of these two men, one an occupying soldier from the centuries-old Roman Republic; the other a simple fisherman from the millennia-old Jewish nation?  Did they have any inkling of the stakes involved, of the implications and consequences of this meeting?  Certainly they understood that God was doing something monumental, but did the actually know what ahead of time?  These are unanswerable questions, though still worth pondering.

25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”

This first act by Cornelius seems to be inexplicable.  From a military and cultural perspective what could have been more demeaning than for a Roman officer to fall down in worship before one of the conquered nation’s peasants?  He certainly misunderstood Peter’s position in this encounter, somehow having assumed that he was more god than mere man.

Peter’s response indicates not the slightest reproach or disrespect, but rather is the simple truth plainly spoken.  However, Cornelius’ gesture could not but have made a powerful impression.  Perhaps the experience of utter humility by someone who wielded such power opened Peter’s heart to accept that what was soon to transpire was indeed God’s will.

27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Peter openly states the religious/cultural issue at play.  Yet, he also makes clear that God had opened a new door that he willingly walked through.  Peter is here placing his trust in God’s directing while setting aside centuries of Jewish law.  Surely this is one of Peter’s most faithful acts of obedience.

30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, 31 saying, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.’ 33 So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

And so, Cornelius, not yet knowing just what message Peter brings, also sets aside centuries of Roman power to walk through that same open door.  Praise be to God!es-vaxenum-em-mernel-u64347-1


Christ and Cornelius (4)

Peter and Cornelius

NGC2207+IC2163The Two Worlds Touch (Acts 10:17-23a)

God has providentially intervened in the Gentile and Jewish worlds, setting them on a collision course.  No human being could have possibly foreseen the implications of this act.  No human being was ready within context of their own experience to comprehend just what was occurring.  Only in hindsight can we prejudiced, faltering and foolish humans see a sliver of truth about what God has done.  However, without the revelation of Scripture even that tiny sliver would have been obliterated long ago.

17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

The wonder of this narrative is that it pulls back the curtain and allows us mortals to observe God’s providential engagement in human history.  What we see is both beautiful and disturbing.  It’s beauty arises from the Fatherly love that engages with both Cornelius and Peter at their points of human frailty, gently leading each towards their eventual world-changing encounter.  Its disturbance arises from the at first vague, but ultimately explicit, realization that both Peter’s and Cornelius’ destinies were being directly determined by God.  This intricate but ultimately mysterious interplay between our own wills and God’s providential purpose has been previously explored in “God’s Acts of Providence.”

That significance flowed from God to them, as opposed to being sourced within them.  This too is a reproach to our modern, self-centered mind-set. We too often view our end as beginning and ending with our own desires. The notion that our end is by design to be subordinate to anything else, even the L ORD God, flies into the teeth of the radical individualism that under girds so much of our culture’s life.

But lest we too strongly stress humanity’s subordinate status, the amazing extent to which God apparently bends to accommodate our wills must be accounted. Yes, God’s will is inexorable. But it’s as if it’s inexorable within the context of our free wills.

Isn’t this story precisely that of God’s inexorable providential will intersecting with our one free wills?  I say, yes, without doubt.

21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he called them in to be his guests.

Note how the people within this story exercise their own wills.  The men sent by Cornelius don’t say that Peter must engage with them because of God’s inexorable command.  No, they rather make the very human case that he who sent them is “an upright and God-fearing man,” that is, someone who Peter should consider to be trustworthy.  

Thus, on one level this is a story about human beings from two separate worlds working out the terms by which they might meet in true fellowship.  However, at the deepest level it is the story of God bringing to pass in time that which He had decreed from eternity.

“and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:18)

Once again, I return to “God’s Acts of Providence” for the commentary.

 In the end, we must understand along with Abraham that the human details are not the point. The point is that God in His infinite love, mercy and power has determined to bless all nations. He has also chosen to do so within the context of human will, with all of its frailty, foolishness and fickleness. But He chose to do so before the foundation of the world was laid, deep inside the mystery of His infinite mind. That is, though played out on the stage of history, this is the working out of a predestined plan. Though we may never fully understand we can, no, must worship such a wondrous God.