Homily for 2nd Sunday After Easter

April 15, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati


(Based on Acts 4:13-21 and John 20:19-31)


If you had read the prescribed readings in preparation for today’s liturgy, you will notice that we actually changed the first reading in the Acts of the Apostles. (I got permission to make the change from Deacon Winters—and if you rely on a permission like that, you’re in deep trouble!)


I’ve always felt bad that there are so few Sundays to hear the wonderful story of the early church in the Acts. So many stimulating events are only present in the readings at weekday Masses. I encourage you some time to make a moment of quiet and just read the whole account in Acts straight through. It only takes about 15 minutes but can be very illuminating.


First a word or two about the Gospel we just read. It’s got so many elements of drama–Jesus coming into the room though the doors were locked; the marks of the nails; and the very personal story of the doubts of Thomas with which we can all identify–that it’s easy to miss where it is all heading. To the handing over of Jesus’ mission into the hands of the disciples. Into our hands. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”.


And the Acts are the story of what happened to the early Christian community as it tried to carry out that mission.


The reading we substituted comes at the end of a very dramatic event. The whole scene is worthy of a treatment by Steven Spielberg. Peter and John, like the good Jews they were, had gone to the Temple to pray. They entered through what was known as “The Beautiful Gate,” where we see large crowds of pilgrims. There was a crippled man begging there and Peter cured him through the power of Jesus. It’s really kind of funny, as the man seems to have done a sort of jig in his joy and excitement at being cured. Peter then explained to the crowd about Jesus the Messiah and the crowd was responding enthusiastically.


But over on the side the religious leaders of the people, the scribes and Pharisees and priests, were watching the whole scene and they didn’t like what they saw. So they threw Peter and John in jail for the night while they tried to figure out what to do. The next day they questioned the two disciples and Peter gave a very clear presentation about Jesus and the power of his resurrection.


Then comes our passage:


Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus. Then when they saw the man who had been cured standing there with them, they could say nothing in reply. So they ordered them to leave the Sanhedrin, and conferred with one another, saying, “What are we to do with these men? Everyone living in Jerusalem knows that a remarkable sign was done through them, and we cannot deny it. But so that it may not be spread any further among the people, let us give them a stern warning never again to speak to anyone in this name.”

 

So they called them back and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them further, they released them, on account of the people who were all praising God for what had happened. (Acts 4: 13-21)

 

Ordinary men, speaking so eloquently? Does that sound familiar?


Maybe it will sound more familiar if we just recall what happened this past week, and change the gender of the speakers.


I believe that the Lord has given us a wonderful Easter present–a grace–in the presentation made by the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and their coach the other day.


Just think of the kind of pain and humiliation these 18-19-year-old women had been subjected to, right at the greatest moment in their young careers.


And then think of the stereotypes we frequently use in referring to college athletes. And especially black ones. “Oh, they’re just a bunch of jock bums. They take comedy courses, if they even go to class at all. They’re just enjoying a free ride.”


Then think of how they might have reacted, as many others who were insulted in that way before them have reacted, by screaming and ranting and raving.


And then look at the grace, and dignity, they and the coach showed us. Notice how they didn’t react. They didn’t whine and play ‘pity us.’ They didn’t take the easy route of playing the race card one more time by blaming all white people for all their troubles. They stayed clear and focused only on the one man who had abused them. And they were even prepared to meet him face to face and even accept a genuine apology from him. Which they later did.


But notice also, neither did they back down. They stood tall and named the pain and humiliation that had been visited on them. They spoke directly and didn’t sugar-coat it in any way. They put in very clear words the humiliation of it all.


They spoke with dignity and grace. And they spoke with power. And we can all learn something by noting that the power of what they said came precisely from the dignity and grace they showed. There is nothing more powerful than quiet integrity.


In the story in Acts Peter and John say, “Surely we can’t help speaking of what we have seen and heard.” The two of them–and those young women–named their experience for all the world to hear. And our world is a lot richer for what they said and how they said it.


But the power of their presentation didn’t stop with them. Their courage has given rise to a second amazing result. Because it has emboldened some black leaders in our country to break ranks and call for opening up a conversation that has been too long in coming.


What a breath of fresh air, to hear black public figures challenging other black (and white) people of enormous power who promote and support (and enrich themselves from) the gangsta rap culture that exults in demeaning and insulting women, condoning violence, and mocking gay and lesbian men and women!


We are blessed by the example of the young women and the few black leaders with the courage to stick their necks out and challenge other black media VIPs, to call for a halt to this culture which appeals to the worst instincts in our young men and women. We don’t know whether any of the young women acted the way they did because they believe in Jesus–or whether they have any religious belief at all–but what they did was surely the work of the kingdom. The Lord doesn’t need the righteous religious types to do his work, his appeal is simply to integrity and decency. There are powers that simply must be resisted.


And so we return to the Upper Room. Jesus says once again, as he said so often, “Do not be afraid.” He gives his disciples–and that means us–his peace.


But that peace is not to be equated with weakness and passivity. Peace is really only the foundation for something beyond that: it carries with it a mission.


Those young women were blessed to have a mature, impressive woman as their coach and model. As we must be models–parents, teachers, friends–to the young men and women who will be called to challenge the powers of this world and say that abusing and doing violence to women and gays and people of color is not ‘cool.’ You and I must keep this teachable moment alive by continuing the conversation.


The mission we have received form Jesus calls us to confront hypocrisy wherever it is found. And that includes, in the first place, in ourselves.


We are called to speak truth to power, whether that power is the power of concentrated wealth used to exploit the young and the have-nots, or the power of abusive government that ignores the people it is supposed to serve, or, sadly the power of a church when loses its way and forgets the Gospel which alone gives it its meaning.


Our God has blessed us with a great grace this week. It came at a heavy price. Let’s hope that the peace of the risen Christ will empower us to speak out with the boldness of Peter and John–and some mature young women who showed that they have learned a lot more about life than how to put a ball through a hoop.


Amen?