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 arrived at the subject of the resurrection I remember our professor stating (much to the chagrin of some of the students) that the secular academic discipline of history could not make a conclusive statement either for or against the resurrection. But what the discipline of history 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 that led to my returning to the Church and the active practice of the faith. What was it that 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 and public proclaimers of Christ and the resurrection? Was it 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 and chronic vigor. Was it that the “spirit” of Jesus had risen – his vision of the world and living together in harmony – while his body remained dead in the tomb? But who willingly chooses martyrdom for an idea or the “spirit” of someone’s thought (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 greets them with, “Peace be with you.” Knowing their fear and their uncertainty he then goes on to say,
“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. All sorts of people throughout history have proven to be quite adept at it. 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, not a vague idea. 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. We must be willing to encounter 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.
There is a saying that contends that you must have “skin in the game” in order to be truly committed to something. When the Word became incarnate, when Christ suffered his passion and crucifixion, when the resurrected Christ shows his wounds which he still bears in glory, then God shows that he has “skin in the game” for our salvation. If we want to know the peace and life of the gospel then we also must be willing to have “skin in the game”. By our lives, our words, our choices and our actions we must profess, “I believe”. Nothing less will do.
This encounter and the peace and courage it alone brings, continues today. We can look at the successors to Peter himself as witnesses of this to our world. These men do not have any military or economic might yet they continually stand before the powers of our world with nothing other than the word of the gospel. Think of St. John Paul II confronting communism. I remember when Pope Emeritus Benedict travelled to Mexico and Cuba during his pontificate. In the face of the chaotic violence of the drug trade engulfing Mexico the eighty-five year old pontiff proclaimed firmly and resolutely that drug trafficking is a sin and it is wrong. Then going on to Cuba at a Mass where the very Cuban government sat in the front rows, again this elderly soft-spoken man called for greater freedom. Think of Pope Francis calling the Mafia out and all worldly powers that would de-humanize the person made in God’s image. What enables these men to do this? These men have encountered Christ risen and alive – not an idea of Christ, not just the spirit of Christ – but Jesus Christ himself and, from that encounter, each one has made his faith statement and has moved from fear to a bold peace.
This peace is there for us also if we also are willing to encounter Christ risen and if we are willing to profess him as Lord!