Seeking the Things that Are Above, Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Church, Fall River, MA
Easter Sunday, 2003
April 20, 2003
Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Christ has risen! Alleluia! Christ has truly risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!

1) Today we celebrate the most important event in the history of the world. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the exclamation point on all that he said and did. He himself said that it would be. When those who had made themselves to be Jesus’ enemy — the ones who conspired to get Jesus killed, the Scribes and the Pharisees — asked Jesus for a sign to show that his words were true, that he was sent from God, Jesus responded: “No sign will be given to this generation except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jesus had already cured countless sick people — who were lame, blind, bleeding internally, malformed — from their illnesses immediately, but even still they didn’t believe. Jesus had cast out legions of demons, but that didn’t convince them. He had fed 5000 families miraculously by multiplying five loaves and two fish, but it wasn’t enough. He had walked on water. He had calmed several storms. He had raised at least three people from the dead — the little girl Tabitha, the only son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus — and not even that convinced them. They all made excuses. Perhaps it was by the devil’s power that he was casting out demons and curing the sick, they said; after all, he was working many of these miracles on the Sabbath day. Perhaps he had just gotten people to share their food. Probably the three people weren’t really dead at all. No matter what they did, he still didn’t believe. So they asked him for another sign, a sign that would prove that his words were true. And Jesus said no sign would be given them except the sign of Jonah.

2) You remember the sign of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet sent by the Lord who was a passenger in a boat on the stormy seas. The other members of the boat thought that he was the reason for the storm and so cast him overboard to calm the storm. He was swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he stayed for three days until he was cast onto the shore. Jesus said this sign would be given. The modern sailors had cast him overboard, led by Caiphas, the High Priest, who said that it was better for one man to die than for all of them to die. And he spent three days in the belly of the earth before the Father raised him from the dead on this day. Essentially the sign Jesus gave to disbelievers that all his words and deeds were true was the sign of Jonah. He would allow them to mistreat him, to have him scourged, spat upon, mocked, hammered to a tree in front of their eyes and then allow them to watch him die… BUT then he would rise from the dead. He would allow them to kill him but then the Father would raise him back to new life, which would be the response to all their challenges, and the ultimate ground of everything we believe. The resurrection is Jesus’ greatest sign of all, a sign that everything that he said and did was true — even what seems to be too good to be true is true; even what seems possibly to be too difficult to be true is true too.

3) So the Resurrection is a call for us to take Jesus seriously! As Jesus said on a few occasions to the scribes and pharisees, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.… If you do not [believe me because of my words], then believe me because of the works themselves.” The works of the Father — most especially his greatest, most miraculous work of all, raising Jesus from the dead — confirmed everything Jesus had said. And the first Christians knew that it meant that their lives should therefore change to conform entirely with this way, truth and life, this Good News incarnate, who was Jesus, the Risen Lord, the Son of God. To believe every word. To follow him all the way. His resurrection is the unmistakable sign that God really did love us so much that he allowed his only Son to be killed so that we would be set free from sin and what sin leads to, our death. His resurrection is the greatest testimony that God exists and that Jesus is the Son of God and his words are the words of eternal life. That if we really want to be happy, we will want to imitate the Lord in being poor in spirit, a peacemaker, pure in heart, merciful, hungry and thirsty for holiness, and willing to suffer any and all things for the kingdom of God. That if we really want to invest our life, to be great in this world and in the next, we will seek to be humble, to serve all the others as Jesus did, to love as he loved us. That if we want to be his disciple, we must deny ourselves, pick up our Cross every day and follow him. His resurrection tells us that his words are true and that this truth sets us free. Therefore, the commandments free us, rather than constrain us. Therefore, we seek to put into action his command for our good to pray always, to love God with ALL our heart, mind, soul and strength. We also trust in his words about the Father, who loves us more than any human parent could love a child and will take care of us at all times. Just as no father will give a stone to a child who asks for bread, so the heavenly Father will give good things to his children who ask him. All of this is true.

4) Our reaction to this greatest event we see in the second reading. If you were raised with Christ — and we all were, because through baptism we are members of his risen body — “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” Seek the things that are above. The event of the Resurrection changed all of history, proved the truth of everything Jesus said and did, and gave us the path to happiness in this life and in the next. St. Paul tells us the way to live this resurrection. Seek the things that are above. So often are lives are spent worrying about the things here below: money, possessions, getting ahead, our looks or bodies, petty grievances, relational difficulties, distractions. We can spend more time worrying about Pedro Martinez’s arm than whether Pedro will get to heaven, or about whether are children will get a good job, than whether our child will become a saint. To seek the things that are above means to seek God and the “things” of God. To seek the Father in prayer. To seek eternal life, heaven. To seek holiness. To seek God in Sacred Scripture, to seek him in the sacraments, especially here at the Mass when we have the chance to receive Jesus’ risen body and blood. The Mass is the greatest gift we have to seek the things that are above, because it brings us there, but we have to be conscious of this. In the preface to the Eucharistic prayer, we put St. Paul’s very own words, although the translation makes it seem different. Right after we pray together than the Lord will be with each of us, we say, “Sursum Corda!,” “Lift up your hearts!”. We’re called to not just seek the things that are above, but put our hearts there, put our treasure there.

5) Then we’re called to witness to it. Mary Magdalene. The Apostles.

1) When we look at the witnesses in the Gospels and in the letters, we cannot help being overwhelmed by the evidence in favor of their believability.

2) If they had made up the tale, they never would have attributed the discovery of an empty tomb to women, who were not considered reliable witnesses in first century Palestine. Very likely they never would have mentioned competing stories, like the Jews’ of the alleged theft of Jesus’ body. They would never have mentioned the slowness and lack of faith of the Apostles. Each of these details adds to the credibility of an account because they are things that would have weakened the credibility of a made up tale. Their inclusion buttresses the claim of historical truth.

3) The men who were testifying to Jesus’ being risen from the dead were people who had abandoned the Lord in the Garden when he was alive but merely seized. Why would they speak boldly after his death? If Jesus hadn’t risen, they would be testifying to a liar, someone who deceived them for three years, had gotten them to leave their families, their businesses, and their livelihoods in what would have turned out to have been a grand hoax. They would have more likely HATED Jesus rather than posthumously praised him, and given their own lives in spreading the faith in his resurrection.

4) If they had stolen Jesus’ body and knew that he had died the death of a deluded fanatic, what motive would they have had for imposing upon the world a new religion which they knew to be false?

5) The apostles would have had nothing to gain financially from propagating such a falsehood. They traveled, by Jesus’ instructions, with no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, and no extra tunic.

6) They had no real persuasive abilities, all coming from obscure Galilean villages with little education — and, let’s be honest, proclaiming a crucified man as risen from the dead would not have been an easy sell even for famous Roman orators. How would these fishermen and tax collectors have gone to the ends of the earth to plant a made-up story of the resurrection? On what basis would anyone have believed them? St. Thomas Aquinas says that all types of people were converted to Christ: “wise, noble, rich, powerful and great men at the preaching of simple men, who were both poor and few. This was either done miraculously or not. If it was done miraculously my point is proved. If it was not, I say that there could not be a greater miracle than that all the world should have been converted without miracles’” (De Symbolo Apostolico).

7) In proclaiming the Gospel, moreover, they were ostracized from their religion, repeatedly beaten and ultimately killed. Why would they have gone through all of this unless they had truly seen the Lord rise from the dead, just as they testified? Origen used to say that a spotaneous falsehood never could have strengthened the disciples to announce with unflinching courage to the death such a doctrine. Why would anyone, not to mention all the apostles, countless disciples, never have come clean that it was false, even at the point of torture and death, unless it were true? Pascal, the great mathematician and apologist, said “I readily believe those witnesses who get their throats cut.”

3) The second is that God didn’t call necessarily the smartest, bravest, most capable people to give witness to his resurrection. Just look at the first apostles. Jesus didn’t raid the universities for his first apostles, or the Jewish rabbis, or the Roman army. He chose a bunch of simple ordinary people who knew their limitations and allowed the Lord to work within them to overcome those limitations. We, too, might not be the most brilliant or talented proponents of the faith, but he calls us to give witness just as he called them, and just as he called countless others throughout the centuries down to our own day. We do have a role in the new Acts of the Apostles that is being written for the third millennium.

a) But someone can object: To be a credible witness to an event, don’t you have to have experienced it? Because we were not present 1973 years ago when Jesus rose from the dead, how can we be a witness?

b) For us, we are not principally a witness to the physical event of Jesus’ resurrection, but to the reality that the Lord is risen, he is truly risen. But in order to be a witness to this, we have to experience the Lord personally, to encounter him directly. We do this through the sacraments, we do this in prayer. But we have to approach prayer and the sacraments in this way, to know that he is alive and to be able to give witness to his presence within us to others.

a) We encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, which was basically the last thing Jesus gave us on the night before he died. It really is his body and blood. He “earnestly desires” to eat the passover with us. He wants to nourish us. He’s there. But are we? To be a witness to Christ involves being a participant and a witness to receiving the Risen Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Mass.

b) We encounter Jesus in the Sacrament of Confession, which was about the first thing he gave us after he rose from the dead. He burst through the closed and locked doors of the Upper Room, said “peace be with you!” twice to his stunned apostles. Then he said, “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you!.” The Father had sent him from heaven to save us from our sins and from what our sins lead to — death — by his own death on the Cross and resurrection. Jesus was then sending them to forgive sins. “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you.” Because only God can forgive sins, he breathed the Holy Spirit into them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and instructed them to go forgive sins. “Those who sins you forgive, they’re forgiven them; those whose sins you retain, they’re retained.” The only way they would know which sins to forgive and which to retain is if someone tells them his or her sins. They didn’t receive the gift of reading others’ minds. Just as Jesus uses the priest in the sacrament of the Mass as his instrument, so that Jesus himself says, “this is my body, this is my blood,” and we receive the Lord’s body and blood and not the priest’s; so Jesus uses the same priest in the sacrament of confession to say, “I absolve you from your sins.” To be a witness to Christ involves receiving this gift of forgiveness from the Lord himself in this sacrament and being a witness and an apostle of Jesus in this sacrament to others.

c) We encounter Jesus as well in prayer. To pray means more than to say a few words or prayers, but to listen to and talk with the Lord in an intimate dialogue of love in which we seek to know the Lord’s will, apply it to our lives and live according to it. To be a witness to Christ means to know him intimately, and we do get to know him through prayer. He is there as he promised, “I am with you until the end of the world.” The more we pray, the more we become like him, and witness to him not just by our words, but by our actions, our body language.

4) The third thing we can grasp is that the persuasiveness of the testimony of the resurrection is on the basis of the credibility of one’s lived faith, on the credibility of the Gospel we preach by our actions.

a) The apostles were credible because they could not possibly have had “mixed motives” in proclaiming the Gospel. Either it was true, or they were deceived, but what was excluded was their proclaiming a falsehood for personal benefit.

b) This is still the case of Christian credibility today. Why was Mother Teresa’s lived Gospel so persuasive to so many people, Christians and non-Christians alike? Her example was so powerful because it was all love. She had nothing to gain financially from spending her nearly 50 years lovingly caring for the maggot-infested dying people in Calcutta. Her vocation, and those of the sisters in her community she founded, could not possibly be understood as a “good career move!” And yet she joyfully proclaimed that they were doing it out of nothing but love for Jesus, which left those who observed her with one of two possible responses: either she was benevolently deluded or she really was inspired by a living relationship with Jesus Christ, just as she said.

c) It’s the same thing with us. We’re called to live the Christian life with such joyful, self-giving heroism that proclaims to everyone that we REALLY BELIEVE the Great News that Jesus lives, that he loves us, and that we love him — and leave them with the choice that either we’re crazy or we’re right!

d) We’re ultimately called to give witness to the world that Jesus is someone worth LIVING for completely and, if need be, worth DYING for.

Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

Acts 5:32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

b) He certainly was for the first apostles. He certainly was as well for Mother Teresa and countless others through the centuries.

c) May we follow their example and be witnesses of this Greatest News Ever Told to others!

e) Jesus has truly risen! And this fact changes everything! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!