You are Witnesses of These Things, Third Sunday of Easter (B), April 22, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 22, 2012
Acts 2:42-47; 1Pet1:3-9; Jn 20:1-9

In today’s Gospel, we see how Jesus was putting the final touches in the preparation of his apostles to take his Gospel to the world. What we learn from his interaction with them is crucial for us in order to see how he wishes to strengthen us to continue the mission he sent them out to begin.

We know that by the time of the scene in the Gospel, Jesus had already spent three years with them, teaching them, sending them out to preach in his name, to cure the sick, to raise the dead. He had already shown them the example of service, washing their feet in the upper room and instructing them to go to do the same. He had already ordained them priests and given them the ability to bring down his body and blood to the altar on Holy Thursday. He had already given them the ability to forgive and retain sins on Easter Sunday evening. He had already shown them the model to follow: living for God and dying out of love for God and for others. In today’s Gospel, we see how he finishes his preparations. He did it in three steps:

  • First, he came to be with them — They were troubled and he came to give them his peace. This, we can say, points to the need for prayer, to come into the presence of the Lord, so that he may likewise give us his peace. In order to be able to carry out our task, we need Jesus to come into our midst and for us to remain with him and in his peace so that we can bring that peace to the world, so that he can answer the questions we have in our hearts.
  • Second, he showed them his body and invited them to touch him — He wanted them to see that he wasn’t a ghost, that he wasn’t imaginary, but  real. St. Luke tells us that they were amazed and incredulous for sheer joy. This points to the need for us to recognize that Jesus’ presence with us isn’t phantasmic, but real. He’s not a ghost; he’s got real flesh and blood. We can see him. We can touch him and not just on the “outside” but on the inside. All of this points to the importance of the Eucharist, which is meant to amaze us and make us “incredulous for sheer joy.” This truth that seems too good to be true actually is true, God is with us in his risen body and blood, and he comes to give himself to us. Any apostle needs to live a Eucharistic life, to be amazed at God’s gift of himself and bring that joy out to others.
  • Third, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” — Just like he had done hours before with the disciples on the road to Emmaus — whose hearts he had made burn as he interpreted for them the things about himself in the scriptures — so Jesus filled his apostles with a similar fire, showing them too how everything foretold had been accomplished. He was the fulfillment of Joseph’s being betrayed by his brothers; of the innocent Abel, killed by his brother Cain; of Isaac, who carried the wood of the sacrifice on his shoulders to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah (which later became Jerusalem); of the Suffering Servant, whom Isaiah prophesied would be “wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities”; of the Passover Lamb, who needed to be slain and eaten for the Jews to be set free; of all of the prophecies of the traits of the Messiah and more. As St. Luke’s Gospel today summarizes, Jesus helped them to see how “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms, must be fulfilled,” especially that the “Messiah was to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” Likewise for us, we need to allow Jesus to open our minds to understand the Scriptures, to see how every part of Scripture relates to him.
  • Fourth, Jesus showed them that the Scriptures pointed to him, how he would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, but also how they related to them and to us: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The apostles went out with that task of announcing to the world the possibility of salvation by repenting of our sins and coming to receive forgiveness. That’s what we see St. Peter doing in the first reading. A couple of months after Jesus’ instruction, St. Peter is preaching exactly what Jesus said: “You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. … But I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” If we’re going to fulfill not just Scripture, not just our mission, but the life God has given us, then we, too, need to bring to others the great news that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made salvation possible, that he is the Lamb of God who died to take away our sins, and that they will receive this grace of graces if only they turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.
  • Lastly, Jesus said they were witnesses of these things. Witnesses, first, of all that happened to Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. Witnesses, second, to repentance and forgiveness of sins — that they themselves have been reconciled through the mercy they were commissioned to proclaim. Witnesses ultimately of Christ, of his passion, death and resurrection. Likewise we need to be witnesses, through our first hand contact with the Lord in prayer, in the Eucharist, in Sacred Scripture, in his merciful love, in our picking up pf our Cross each day to follow him so that we may rise with them.

That’s what I’d like to speak about most today. We are called to be Jesus’ witnesses in our day, just as the first disciples and apostles were in their day. We’re called to bring the Lord to others by giving faithful testimony to him and to the miracle of resurrection he works in our lives. Doing so has never been easy. The Greek word for witness is “martyr,” and to be a faithful witness we need to be capable of being a martyr, of suffering for the faith. We see that in the early Church.

  • After Peter and John had cured a crippled man and were preaching to the throngs in the Temple area, they were arrested by the chief priests, the captains of the temple guard and the Sadducees, the very same people who two months earlier had arrested, tortured and crucified Jesus. It would have been an opportunity for them to plead the fifth in order to save their lives. But Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the truth directly saying, “If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed. He is ‘the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.’ There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” The Sanhedrin gave them a stern warning never to speak to anyone in this name,” but Peter and John said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges, but it is impossible for us not to speak about what we’ve seen and heard.”
  • Soon thereafter, they were arrested again after many other people were cured. They were put into the pubic jail but they were miraculously liberated and went back out to preach again. They arrested them again in the public area and the leaders of the people said to them, “We gave you strict orders to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men.” That led some to want to put them to death. The apostles left “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name and all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.”
  • In short, they were threatened, they were intimidated, they were flogged — St. Stephen was eventually killed — but they didn’t back down from preaching and living the faith. They were emboldened not only by the Holy Spirit but also by the knowledge that Jesus himself had been killed but raised from the dead three days later. That changed everything and made it possible for them to be courageous, even if the same executioners were making the same murderous threats.

To be witnesses of Jesus we, too, must be capable of being martyrs, of suffering for Christ at being witnesses to the truth, and, capable of rejoicing at suffering dishonor on account of the name. God the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of courage to sustain us in times that are difficult, when we’re forced to say to those who don’t want to hear it, “We must obey God rather than men.” We may be entering into a time when we may have to suffer on account of our fidelity to God, on account of our witness that God comes first.

In the bulletin this week, I print the pastoral letter the US Bishops published 10 days ago on religious freedom. I urge you all to take the time today, when you go home, to read it and to speak about it with your family members, fellow parishioners and friends, so that you might be able to take these arguments to conversations with others who may not as easily see the truth about how we can never cooperate with evil. I’d like to highlight just one part of that pastoral letter. After describing the many attacks that have been occurring against religious freedom in our country and how this goes not only against our faith but against the explicit will of the founding fathers and the history of democracy, the bishops turn to how we’re called to use our religious freedom. They cited the words not of popes but of a non-Catholic American hero, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who taught powerfully that an “unjust law — a man-made one that is out of harmony with the moral law or the law of God —is no law at all.” And they commented, “It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices.” This is a reference to the so-called accommodation President Obama proposed two months ago in trying to force all individuals and institutions, including Catholic ones, to pay for other people’s abortion-causing pills, sterilizations and contraception. The bishops continue, “If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.” The duty to obey God rather than men didn’t have an expiration date with the members of the early Church. We’re called to continue to give this witness today.

At the end of the document, the bishops urge all lay Catholic citizens to “be both engaged and articulate in insisting that as Catholics and as Americans we do not have to choose between the two,” between obeying God and obeying the laws of our country, by eliminating unjust laws. They call upon those holding public office  to protect and defend the fundamental liberties enshrined in the constitution. They call upon those who work in hospitals, clinics, universities, colleges, schools, adoption agencies and social service agencies, like all those described in the Catholic Charities video before Mass. The bishops say they “may be forced to choose between the good works we do by faith and fidelity to that faith itself,” and add, “We encourage you to hold firm, to stand fast, and to insist upon what belongs to you by right as Catholics and Americans. Our country deserves the best we have to offer, including our resistance to violations of our first freedom.” They call upon priests to have the “courage and zeal” to preach and catechize about the importance of religious liberty, for those who work in the media to use their skills and means in this “great struggle … in defense of our first freedom” and for bishops themselves to be “bold, clear and insistent in warning against threats to the rights of our people.” We’re all called to give that witness!

This mission we have may not be easy. We may need to suffer for our faith, to suffer out of fidelity and love for the God who suffered everything for us on the Cross. But we do not fight alone. And we do not fight unarmed. We return now to the Upper Room, where Jesus meets us, gives us his peace, teaches us about his sufferings and our mission, and equips us for the mission with his body and blood and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We, too, are witnesses of all that he has done. We, too, are called to be his martyrs, as believers and as citizens. May he help us to be courageous in this mission. Otherwise our country will cease to be the land of the free and the home of the brave!