One of my fondest memories from my college days was gathering around the television in our dorm living room, watching old reruns of Star Trek, and offering running commentary on the more incongruous or over-acted portions of the show. If you have any recollection of Star Trek (the TV show, that is), you probably remember the "prime directive." According to Wikipedia, this was "the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets prohibiting the protagonists from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations." The captain and crew of the Enterprise claimed to adhere to this ethical principle, but in fact usually violated it in spectacular fashion by the end of every show. The Prime Directive represents for me the laudable human desire to be tolerant...to strive not to influence another person or assume that one's own beliefs can or should be adopted by someone else. But the truth is: we can't help but influence each other. Pretending otherwise can seem as comical as claiming allegiance to the Prime Directive while falling in love with an alien woman and saving her planet from imminent destruction by an asteroid (see "The Paradise Syndrome"). And if only our more memorable interactions were always this well-intentioned! We know only too well that they are not.
St. Peter once had a prime directive to change (and be changed by) a foreigner, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius in the town of Caesarea (Maritima). The culture clash of the two men is explicit in the text. Jews and non-Jews were not to associate. Peter wasn't supposed to eat the pork sausage and other unclean foods of folks like Cornelius. We can only imagine the suspicions, fears, and prejudices that would have kept Romans and the local folks of the country they occupied apart. But the Gospel of Christ changed both men...for the better. First, through Peter, drawn by God to bring a message of life to Cornelius, this foreigner receives the Life-giving Spirit of God and is washed in the water of new birth. But the risen Jesus, Lord of the nations, changes Peter too. Before the encounter is complete, Peter himself sees the bond between all people that the Gospel of life makes possible: "I understand now that God shows no partiality" he confesses (10:34). All people are to be changed by the One who was crucified, but now lives! All are to know and to live in His love...and be changed for the better in the process.
When the love of God in Christ pushes us out of our comfort zone into a world where we are serving and befriending someone who looks, thinks, or lives differently than we do, we find that not only does God use us to impact others...we ourselves are changed. Whether an overseas missionary, a person who helps out with Christmas in April, someone who befriends a difficult person in need of a sympathetic ear, or a child/grandchild who assists an elderly family member out of sacrificial love...makes no difference. No one can answer the call to serve and remain the same. We learn new things about the world and experience the wideness of God's mercy in a way we never imagined before. There may no longer be any eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ around today, but the gift of God's Spirit, mysteriously bestowed through the Word of God and the water of Holy Baptism means that we are here to be used by God to bring God's love to a world in need. We are here to change (and be changed!) for the better. Though there is no telling how that change will occur or what God has in store for you this week...may you be blessed as you rely on God's abundant grace to serve those around you with the sacrificial love of Christ.