Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2004
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based in Acts 5:27-32, 40-41; Ps 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19)
In the Easter season, when the church is inviting us to explore more deeply the meaning of the risen Christ, it has us follow two different story lines simultaneously.
In the Gospels we hear the story of Jesus' appearances to his followers in the weeks after the resurrection. It begins with the appearance in the Upper Room, and continues with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then with today's account of the breakfast at the side of the lake.
Meanwhile in the first readings we follow the unfolding story of what happened to the early followers of Jesus after he had completed his earthly sojourn. It's in the Acts of the Apostles. And let me put in a plug here to invite you to sit down sometime and read the Acts straight through. It's not a long book, and it can give you an entirely different feel when you read as a single account instead of in the few bits and pieces we hear on the Sundays in Easter time.
I want to stay with that second story, for two reasons. First because it is so frequently overshadowed by the dramatic accounts of Jesus' appearances in the Gospels. But secondly I want to reflect on it because it's our story. And it can help us to do some "spiritual housecleaning."
You know, when the winter finally comes to a close and you can open the windows and let fresh air in, what do we frequently do? We clean house. We get rid of the stuff that has begun to clutter up the house. When a house is brand new it feels so spacious, doesn't it? And then gradually we accumulate more and more things, and the space shrinks.
The Easter season is a time to go through all our "church stuff", to see what's essential and central and what's peripheral. Extra baggage. So frequently we lose our center in all the stuff that has been added over the centuries.
So here we are in the days when Jesus has left and this small lot of disciples is facing the external world and trying to figure out what the rising of Jesus might mean. Who are they at this point?
Well, as we learn when Peter and John cure a crippled beggar in the Temple and are called in by the Sanhedrin, those religious leaders are "amazed" to see that these are "ordinary, uneducated" people. They're not the elite, those who have gone to rabbinical school. They're ordinary everyday people, like you and me.
And of course they're Jews. The experience of the risen Christ hasn't changed their understanding of that. We read that they went to the Temple for regular prayer; they observed the feasts and rituals of their people. They hadn't yet come to the realization that the Jesus movement was going to be something radically new.
And we discover that in spite of their extraordinary experience it hasn't changed their life style. They go back to their regular workaday world. Peter says in today's Gospel, "Well, guys, I'm going fishing." They haven't rushed off to some seminary or monastery -- there aren't any! Apparently this new life is going to be lived in natural human settings.
Well, then, what's new about them? What's different?
• The first thing we notice is that they are proclaiming the name. It's an expression that recurs again and again in the Acts. The name of Jesus really captures his power and their powerful experience that he still lives. And that's what disturbs the religious --- and political --- leaders of the people. They are smart and they can see that this name is attracting the ordinary people and stirring up a fever in the city. It upsets their world, their need to control things, to keep order. And so they try to stop the disciples "from ever mentioning that name." They do what every totalitarian regime does when it takes over: shut down the media! Block the free flow of ideas.
Because when the disciples proclaim the name they also declare the responsibility of the leaders. They hold them accountable. "This Jesus is the cornerstone of it all, whom you put to death. God has raised him up to life! He lives still!" There is no sugarcoating: you did this.
• And they are dedicated to the Way. As a matter of fact, that is what they were first called: the people of the Way. They weren't called Christians yet, that's further down the road when the word had spread to Antioch. These people are different because they have a "way". They go at life differently. And the way means they believe that death is not the final answer, that life will come forth out of death freely entered into.
• And they are bold. It's another word that occurs all through the Acts. These people won't be put down, they won't obey when they are told not to speak. In fa ct, the story we read today is the second time they were hailed into court. The leaders say, "We told you not to mention that name -- and you just went out and continued as if we never commanded it. And Petr says, "It's impossible for us not to speak of what we have seen and heard." How can we keep from singing?
• And it's all because they are driven by his Spirit. It is a power at work in them that will not let them be silent.
• They are being fed by the food of everlasting life. They have the Eucharist. The nourishment they need to speak out so boldly comes directly from the life of the Lord given to them.
• And they have each other. They share life, they share their earthly goods in the community. They tell each other the Good News of God at work in their midst. You know, when we hear of evangelization we think first of going outside, to those beyond the church. But Pope Paul VI tells us that the initial evangelization takes place within the body of believers. They supported each other's faith. When the two disciples experience Jesus on the road to Emmaus they rush back to tell the others" "were not our hearts burning within us as we knew him in the breaking of the bread?"
• And they had a mission. They knew they were called to tell the world about Jesus and the fact that we have been liberated from the power of sin.
• And in case we forget, they also had conflict within the community. That's how we come to have deacons. The community had developed a way of sharing food for the widows in their midst. And gradually some began to grumble: those who spoke Greek weren't getting as much as those who spoke Hebrew. And the apostles said "we've got bigger things to do, we can't be spending our time mediating things like this, so get yourselves someone to put order into the distribution - and as a result we have our own deacon Royce.
And that's it. That's all! All the rest if peripheral and secondary.
They didn't have: ordination and ranks and hierarchy. There was no pope or Vatican or canon law. They didn't even have the New Testament, the new scriptures, to fall back on -- because they weren't written until some years later. These are all good things, I'm not suggesting we try to be church without them. But they are secondary.
And you and I have all those same things! We have the name; we have the Way; we have received his Spirit; we are fed by the same Eucharist; we have the same mission -- and we are called to the same boldness and courage, to speak out.
This story and word comes to us in painful times, in our world and in our church. We watch the seemingly unending and depressing story unfolding in Iraq and we wonder where or how it can be ended. We experience the sadness and shame of the abuse and cover-up in our church and we are tempted to lose heart.
And our God, in the story of our people in Acts, tells us we have all we need to give life: our God is faithful, we are not abandoned.
What we must do is to bless God for all we have received, to proclaim the goodness and reconciliation offered by our God, to believe in the power of Jesus' Spirit at work in us. We have to speak up -- and hold our leaders accountable, whether that is in our civil government or in our church.
If you want to see how this energy works itself out in our world, I want to share with you an Easter person. You may know that ABC has revived a practice they used to have but had dropped in recent years, of naming a 'Person of the Week.' Usually it's people who don't get the big headlines but who are doing extraordinary things.
This past Friday night the person of the week was a wonderful African-American woman from Mississippi. She lives in a town where there is a large Shell Oil refinery. Andover the years people noticed that there were an unusual number of children dying and people coming down with various serious ailments. They all knew it was coming from the pollution being spewed into the air by the refinery. But people had just come to accept it: what can you do against such a giant? One day she said she just got mad; she said this has got to stop! and decided to fight. It took her ten years against enormous odds. But eventually she won and the oil company finally backed down. She was given a national award for her courage -- and when she received the award, do you know how she accepted it and thanked people? She sang her thanks, in an old Gospel song!
And that's what we have to do:
I will sing the Lord a new song,
a new song,
I will sing his praises forever more.
Sing God a new song,
sing it loud and clear.
Sing God a new song
for all the world to hear:
I will sing the Lord a new song . . . .