Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

May 4, 2003

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

In today's Gospel we read: "Then he opened their minds to the understanding of the Scriptures." And in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles: "God raised him from the dead, and we are his witnesses."

In the readings for these weeks following Easter we are drawn into a very heady period at the beginnings of the church's life, in the Acts of the Apostles. If you have never done so, I urge you to set aside some quiet time -- it only takes 15-20 minutes -- to read the Acts of the Apostles. But read it as a single running story, not in the small snippets the church gives us for our reflection and prayer these Sundays. It's a rich narrative of ordinary people like you and me, and what happened to them and how they responded to those events.

What's it all about? It's about wonder; it's about excitement; it's about; enthusiasm; it's about joy. And it's about being drunk! (That's the kind of impression the Christians on Pentecost made to the bystanders, you know: "they're drunk; they've had too much new wine.")

But in order to appreciate all that energy, we need to allow the Spirit to take us through all the wild swings the disciples experienced during those early days. Their responses and the swings among them are a mirror of our own journey.

Remember how they reacted when Magdalen reported that she had seen the Lord and he was live? "Yeah, sure -- but they didn't find him, did they?"

Then last week it was Thomas saying he wouldn't believe until he could put his finger in the holes from the nails. And the other apostles had to evangelize him.

In today's account in Luke they've already heard the excitement of the two who had met him on the road to Emmaus, but listen to the different words describing what they are going through: there's panic, there's fright, there's disturbance, there's doubt, there's incredulity -- and -- "sheer joy and wonder."

The Gospel writers are not afraid to tell it like it was, to name the complex reality, no matter what it revealed about these pillars of the eventual church.

You may have read about the effort by scholars (particularly in a group called the Jesus Seminar) to determine which of the Gospel passage and words of Jesus were really his, as opposed to being written by the early Christian communities for catechetical purposes. To make those decisions they have developed a set of criteria that would make it more probable that a passage was genuine or not. And one of the indicators that a passage had a higher degree of probability is that it describes something embarrassing to the community. The assumption is that they probably wouldn't have made up something that makes them look bad.

No, the Gospels are not pious exhortations, they are naming reality. This new revelation was disturbing.

And so Jesus opens their minds to understand the Scriptures that had guided their people for centuries.

He begins by telling them not to be afraid, to be at peace, to still their hearts. And then he brings it all together for them, he connects all this bewildering experience and teachings.

He's really telling them their story. He is revealing himself, but he's also revealing them to themselves. He's helping them to know who they are and the ground on which they can stand.

It all has a meaning. There can be life out of death, light out of darkness. As new as this event is, it's in line with the message and the story they had been hearing since childhood. From Moses and the prophets and the psalms: the Messiah would come in glory -- but through suffering and death.

And what happens to them? This new understanding turns them into witnesses: learn the meaning of the story and you will want to tell everyone about it.

It's the whole story of our beginnings: Jesus tells the apostles; Magdalen tells the apostles; the disciples coming back from Emmaus tell them; they tell Thomas; and Peter stands up before the people and tells them after he and John heal a public beggar. And we are gathered here today because men and women like you and me told the story -- and lived it.

As you read through the Acts you may find yourself picking up a word you heard earlier but hadn't paid much attention to. There it is again! Boldness. Scholars tell us Acts is all about boldness. They proclaimed the message boldly, again and again, in front of every kind of unbelieving and even hostile audience. They addressed the crowd boldly. They spoke before the Sanhedrin boldly. They proclaimed it before the high priests boldly. They stood before Roman governors that had the power to put them to death and they addressed them boldly. The Greek word that recurs is parrhesia. It could almost be translated as 'running on at the mouth.' It can't be stopped.

And the message is not sugar-coated, it doesn't gloss over harsh realities. "You put to death the Holy One, the Just One, the One leading to life." The message is not that ignorance excused their guilt, but that even in the face of their responsibility and guilt God's saving power is still at work. As it is today.

Notice, though, that the word used to describe what they -- and you and I -- are to do is "witness", not "teach." They are witnesses.

Pope Paul VI wrote a wonderful letter on evangelization and in it he writes an amazing sentence. He says, "The modern world doesn't need teachers, it wants witnesses." A witness doesn't just say words, a witness reveals by her or his life and actions and behavior the power behind the revelation. The witness moves people by walking the walk, by a life of caring and compassion and a joy that can't be repressed.

Francis of Assisi put it very directly: "preach always -- and sometimes use words."

The story of God's faithfulness in our lives and in our world is written in our very bones, in our experience down through the years. If we could get down to our deepest spirits and touch our own truth. The Scriptures put words to that which is already in us; the words simply confirm and disclose it to us. The only way the disciples coming back from Emmaus could try to get it across was to say to one another "were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us and explained the Scriptures to us?"

You and I are called to be witnesses, to live the risen life and embody the risen joy.

I found myself thinking that the apostles didn't have a hymn book like Lead Me Guide Me. If they did, we might have heard them singing:

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I'm clinging;

Since love is lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

All: No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I'm clinging;

Since love is lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing? 

It's a kind of a deacon thing. Just comes over me every once in a while . . . .