|“Peter Preaching at Pentecost” by Benjamin West|
When I was a college student at East Tennessee State University and just starting to come back to Church I took a college class on the history of Christianity. When we got to the subject of the resurrection I remember our professor stating (much to the chagrin of the more fundamentalist Christian students) that the academic discipline of history could not make a conclusive statement either for or against the resurrection. But what the discipline could say is that “something happened” that enabled those first disciples to move from remaining behind locked doors in fear as we find in today’s gospel (Lk. 24:35-48); “But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” to boldly proclaiming Christ as Messiah in the public square as we find Peter doing in today’s first reading (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19); “You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you … Repent, therefore, and be converted…”
That class and I would say specifically that statement “something happened” was one of the key components of my returning to the Church and the active practice of the faith. What enabled Peter (the one who had denied knowing Jesus) and those first disciples (the ones who had run away) the ability to move from fear to being bold proclaimers of Christ and the resurrection? Was it just a hoax they cooked up in their minds to steal the body away and see how long they could ride the “Jesus as Messiah” train? Hoaxes do not last so long (two thousand plus years) nor show such continued vitality. Was it that the “spirit” of Jesus had risen – his vision of the world and living together in harmony – while his body remained dead. But who willingly chooses martyrdom rather than denial for an idea (as we see throughout history beginning with those first fearful disciples)?
In today’s gospel we are given some specifics about the resurrection that are worthy of note. Jesus again appears to his disciples. Again he say, “Peace be with you.” Knowing their fear and their uncertainty he says,
“Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones that you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.”
Neither hoaxes nor ideas ask for a piece of fish to eat.
There are many ways to run from the scandal of the resurrection. We are all quite adept at it; both without and even within the Church. One such way (often touted as being an “enlightened” approach) is to see the resurrection as a nice idea – Jesus’ spirit continuing to live on. But today’s gospel is quite clear. Jesus is not a ghost. Jesus is risen – body and soul. He is the firstborn from the dead. Jesus is risen and he has not risen in vain.
If we are to be christian then we must be willing to encounter the fullness of the resurrection; that “something that happened” as my professor said so many years ago and in that encounter we must be willing to make a fundamental faith statement, “I believe”. Only this will move us from fear to peace.
This encounter and the peace and courage it alone brings continues today. Recently Pope Benedict (who is Peter in our midst) travelled to Mexico and Cuba. In the face of the chaotic violence of the drug trade engulfing Mexico (estimates of around fifty thousand people killed) this eighty-five year old man proclaimed firmly and resolutely that drug trafficking is a sin and it is wrong. Then going to Cuba at a Mass where the very Cuban government sat in the front rows, again this elderly man who has no armies behind him nor economic might called for greater freedom. What enables him to do this? If one reads his two books on Jesus of Nazareth or listens to any of his words one quickly realizes the answer. This man has encountered Christ risen and alive – not an idea of Christ, not just the spirit of Christ – but Jesus Christ himself and he has made his faith statement.
The peace is there if we are willing to encounter and if we are willing to profess.