To see the risen Christ and bear witness

Listen to mp3 file
2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C: April 7, 2013
Acts 5:12-16; Ps 118; Rev 1:9-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31

On that first Easter Sunday—on the evening of that first day of the weekthe disciples were shut up in a room, with the doors locked, for fear—for fear that the same authorities who had just put Jesus to death would come after them next. And one week later they were inside again with the doors locked again—even though they knew he was risen.

But how much things had changed by the time of our first reading, which was probably just several months later. Now we see them out in the open, gathering all together in Solomon’s portico, which was part of the Temple complex, and walking in the streets. People looked at them and esteemed them, saw the many signs and wonders done at their hands, and brought their sick to be cured.

What a difference! From a defensive posture, guarding against threats, locking the doors in fear—to a posture of advancing, of moving forward and reaching out, of spreading grace and the good news, with courage and joy.

What made the difference? It was our Lord Jesus Christ, who had risen from the dead. The grave could not hold him; he had conquered death; and he had appeared to them, triumphant and glorious! His disciples had seen him; they had listened to him; they had touched him; they ate and drank with him; and they were changed by him—changed into witnesses of his resurrection.

And let me give you an example of what they did not experience. Many of you probably saw some parts of The Bible miniseries that was shown recently on the History Channel. I was able to watch the last few hours of it when I visited some parishioners last Sunday. And one aspect that did not impress me was how Jesus was depicted after his resurrection. Because he looked just as he had looked before he suffered—only now he had a little glow around him. It was as if he had simply returned to the same earthly life; he looked so very nice and insubstantial. This was the conqueror of death? This was the one who transformed his apostles and sent them forth to boldly proclaim the Good News?

No. To get a better sense of what the disciples saw in our Lord Jesus raised from the dead, we do better to listen to one of those who was there—to St. John, speaking in our second reading, after he had seen him again in a vision decades later on the island of Patmos. What does he tell us?—and let’s include three verses that were omitted from our lectionary reading:

…in the midst of the lampstands [I saw] one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever…” (Rev 1:12-18)

This is our Lord Jesus; this is the Victor over sin and death who transformed the apostles!

And this is the Victor who transformed even Doubting Thomas. For we heard what St. Thomas demanded after he missed him that first night: “Unless I… put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” And then, a week later, our Lord appeared to him and said: “Put your finger here… and put [your hand] into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” And do you notice that that Scripture never says that Thomas actually touched him? It seems that merely seeing him, merely making that person-to-person connection with him, was enough to draw out of Thomas his great and awesome profession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

35 years ago, the theologian Karl Rahner wrote (Theological Investigations, XX, 149): “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” And this observation of Rahner’s goes well with the words of Pope Paul VI two years before that, when he wrote: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 41)

Mystics; witnesses. How interesting that what this future in which we are now living requires is what was ancient; and that to proclaim the Good News to modern man, in the New Evangelization, requires that we become again what the apostles were, that we gain what St. Thomas and St. John and the others had, that we also see the risen Jesus and know him, so that we too become witnesses who have seen him and mystics who know him. Surrounded by the challenges of today’s world, it is not enough for us to know that certain things are taught or even that certain things are true; we must know him personally; we must have seen the risen Lord.

But that then brings us back to the very difficulty that Jesus raises: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” The way that the apostles saw Jesus during the 40 days between Easter and his Ascension into heaven is not available to us; nor is it likely that any of us will experience a vision such as St. John later had. How then will we see him and become the mystics, the witnesses, with the bold joy needed today?

We will see him now not with our eyeballs but with the eyes of our heart. And to explain what I mean by that, let me briefly mention three points from my own life by which I have come to see him with the eyes of my heart:

  • First, when I was in my 20s, I went through several years of spiritual searching. And I now see that this was a matter of growing beyond the simpler way of knowing and believing that I had been taught as a child—when that was all that I could take in. It was Jesus himself who was beckoning me to go deeper—to come to know him better, with all that my mind and heart had grown into. This is something that many of us need: to grow deeper in faith now than we ever could when we were 13 or 8 or 5.
  • Second, one summer during my seminary years, I took part in a silent Ignatian retreat, in which a key part was spending 4 different 1-hour periods of prayer each day for 8 days. And what I received during that time was very personal and very deep, so that I discovered how very much he loves me personally, as I never had before. If we will give the Lord our time and prayerful attention—for a day, a weekend, or even 8 days or longer—will he not show himself to us and give us everything that we need? He will!
  • Third, as a priest, I have an amazing vantage point for watching our Lord working in people’s lives right now—and hearing confessions might be the very best spot at all. Every day, I see souls responding to his grace to move away from sin and toward beautiful holiness. Every day! When you enter into the Lord’s work of grace in your life, your family’s lives, and others’ lives, you see the risen Lord at work; you even get to be one of the instruments that he uses to accomplish it.

And so it is very possible—for you and for those you know—to see our risen Lord Jesus in all his power and majesty and love. You can be touched and transformed; you can become a witness; you can move from doubt and fear, to joyful confidence in spreading his Gospel and his grace.

“Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.” These things are written that you may come to believe… and, believing, have life in his name.

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