In the earliest days of the Church, the question of who Christ’s disciples should preach to was debated quite a bit. Some were open to bringing anyone into the Church through Baptism, some thought this was limited to the Jewish people. Some, such as St. Peter himself, were concerned about keeping the Law of the Lord, which meant that these new Christians would need to observe the customs and traditions which the Jews kept. This may seem strange to us, even trivial, but two issues play into it which have implications for our lives.
First, not everyone knew all of what Christ had taught. Most weren’t with Him at every moment of His life, and the Gospels hadn’t been compiled yet. Many could only go on what they heard Him say, which could have been anything from “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:11) to “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Christ’s disciples needed to grow together into the Church, which would take time, patience, and humility.
Second, for many who desired to be Baptized, would these things be stumbling blocks for them? If the Church would bring in non-Jewish members, how would they react to things like eating different foods, sacrifice at the Temple, circumcision, etc.? Would this be too much for them to take on all at once? Should Jewish-born Christians still observe these laws if converts do not? Much of what this boiled down to was that the people of the early Church really wanted to get it right, and God helped them to see the importance of something new.
We see in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles that God had something in mind which hadn’t quite sunken in yet. When Peter went to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, the Holy Spirit came to everyone present, which Peter understood to be a sign that all are called to Baptism, and so everyone there was Baptized that day.
What we must remember is that no one deserves the gifts God gives; they are given freely. We are to be instruments of these grace-filled moments, helping everyone to come to the Lord who calls out to them. What Peter realized on that day was that God’s Love certainly does extend to everyone, especially those who seek Him but do not know the way. And for those He is calling from every walk of life, every circumstance, He gave us the gift of Baptism to bring them home.
Does God want us to carry out the Jewish customs? Of course not, because God has fulfilled what they were preparing us for. To be seen as “clean,” we must be washed by Christ in Baptism. We also die with Christ there, to be raised up by Him to a new life. And we are thus made a part of Christ’s life, even in His sacrifice for us, which we celebrate together to this day. Christ did indeed fulfill the Law, which we live out in the Sacraments.