“You are witnesses of these things”
Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19; 1Jn 2: 1-5; Lk 24:35-48
Today’s gospel bears some connection with the gospel of last Sunday. Last Sunday’s text tells us that Thomas, who is called Didymus, was not with them when the risen Jesus appeared. So he did not believe when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord Jesus. Thomas told them that unless he sees the nail prints and put his finger on them, he would not believe. Today’s gospel narrates an incidence of Jesus appearing to the disciples, gathered in one place.
1. THE BACKGROUND TO THE GOSPEL TEXT OF TODAY
It had been a long and emotionally exhausting day, the first Easter day. The day began with the disciples feeling that numbness that comes with losing someone you love. Soon their minds were spinning with reports of the empty tomb. As the day progressed they heard reports from people claiming to have seen Jesus. Imagine how their minds must have spun. They were filled with questions: What is going on? Has he truly risen? Are these hallucinations? Is it a ghost that they are seeing? Deep down, these disciples wanted to believe it was all true. But we can suspect that they were afraid to believe out of fear of being disappointed again. This is where the gospel of today picks off.
In the gospel text of today, Jesus, whose death the disciples mourn, appears before them, and the story is different! No matter how much you loved a person, when he/she dies, if he/she were to suddenly appear to you, your first emotion would be one of fear, terror. There is a saying: “dead men don’t bite”. Apparently, nobody believes that. People are simply afraid of ghosts. They are just not human, and we do not know what to make of them. People are usually afraid of the unknown.
That must have been the situation of the disciples of Jesus in the immediate aftermath of his resurrection. They knew about his death. Some of them had seen him die. A few were involved with his burial. When he now suddenly appeared among them, they were in a state of alarm and fright. It made no difference that Jesus greeted them with “peace”. Peace is the last thing you feel when you are confronted with a ghost. You want to run, take to your heels.
2. THE ASSURANCE OF JESUS
Jesus had to go a great length to convince his disciples that he was not a ghost, that it was really him, and that he had risen from the dead. “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence (Lk 24:40-43). Showed them his hands and feet, Jesus asked them to touch him. He asked for food and ate it before them. Ever so slowly, it began to sink in that it might really be him. They began to be happy, but there were still some lingering doubts. Is it possible, did it really happen, that a dead person just rose and came back to life? But it has never happened before in all history. It would be wonderful if it was real; but was it?
Doubts persisted: whenever the risen Jesus appears to somebody, the gospels tell us that the person never recognizes Jesus immediately, and whoever sees him has doubts. Mary takes him for the gardener (Jn 20:15); the Emmaus disciples see in him a stranger and traveler (Lk 24:13); the apostles think he is a ghost (Mtt 14:26); Peter, out fishing in the lake of Tiberias, thinks that he is a fisherman telling him what to do (Jn 21:1). The apparitions are always presented together with the doubts. Even during the last appearance of the Risen Lord in Galilee, “some hesitated” (Matt 28:17).
Notice that Jesus does not condemn them for their doubts. His followers were confused and they were emotionally exhausted. He understands. Rather than criticize, Jesus helped those present to believe the truth (he did the same thing a week last Sunday with Thomas).
Each of these things that Jesus did in order to convince his doubting disciples – showing them the distinguishing marks on his body, touching she wounds of his hands and feet, examining the wound in his side, and preparing him food – was designed to show tangible proof that Jesus stood there as a real person. He was not a ghost; he was alive again yet in a new way. His body bore familiar markings. He was recognizable, yet he was different because he was able to come easily into a locked room and could quickly disappear.
3. JESUS INSTRUCTS HIS DISCIPLES
In spite of his assurance, those doubts of Jesus’ disciples would just not go away. So, Jesus had recourse to scripture. “He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem”. (Lk 24:44-47). Here, Jesus is convinced that at least, they would believe Scripture; they would believe Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. Jesus reminds them that Scripture could not be mistaken in its predictions. His resurrection has happened in fulfilment of Scripture, no more, no less. That began to convince the disciples at last, at long last. But it would not end there.
We notice that Jesus wanted them (and us) to know and understand the truth about the resurrection. It is not enough to simply “have an experience”. Jesus wanted them (and us) to understand and evaluate the experience. He taught them from the Scriptures so they would see that the truth is not something hidden, it is something that has been there all along but they just had never understood it before.
Furthermore, by opening the Scriptures to his disciples, Jesus is making it known to them that spiritual truth comes from God. The Apostle Paul writes:
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Cor 2:14). Paul is not saying that the gospel is something mystical. He is telling us that we need the enlightenment of God’s Spirit to really “get it”. Practically speaking this means that if you want to really understand the Bible you need to ask the Lord to open your heart and your mind to his instruction. It is only through the help and instruction of the Lord himself that we can come to “big picture” of his plan and design for us and the whole world.
4. THE MEANING OF THE RESURRECTION
Jesus gives all these lessons to his disciples so that they can fully understand what the “resurrection” means. The expression “He is risen” means to awaken from sleep, to wake up, to raise oneself, to rise up, to awaken the dead, to rise from the dead. As we can see, this word is very apt to the events of that first Easter morning. The resurrection simply means that Jesus who was dead and was buried, has come back to life. Jesus was dead and was in the grave already. He had given back his spirit to his Father. He truly died. At Easter, we preach that HE IS ALIVE, the angel tells the women on Easter Sunday: “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Mtt 28:6). The same Jesus, who suffered and died and was buried; it is the same Jesus who is now alive again. He is now glorified and he has defeated death. Death has no power over him anymore. The resurrected Jesus cannot die any more. As the old formula for the profession of faith during Holy Mass says: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
5. “YOU ARE WITNESSES OF THESE THINGS” (Lk 24:48)
The disciples, once convinced, would now have to be witnesses of the resurrection to the world at large, in accordance with Jesus’ closing words in today’s gospel. In his preaching in the first reading of today, Peter keeps repeating: “We are witnesses” (Acts 3:15). The apostles are witnesses to the resurrection, because the works they do prove unequivocally that Jesus is alive. A person who observes an accident or a crime is called a WITNESS. He/she is valuable because he/she can enlighten those who do not know what happened. The disciples of Jesus were to be witnesses to the world of the message and work of Christ. This is why they wrote the gospels in the first place. The gospels are the eyewitness testimony of those who were present with Jesus. They are testifying to what they have seen, heard, and touched. We too are witnesses, though in a different way.
We can see Peter in the first reading doing solid witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples were not entitled to keep the secret of the resurrection to themselves. It was such a momentous event, the like of which had never been seen before. No one can keep that kind of thing to him/herself. It is GOOD NEWS, the best news ever to have happened! No one can successful keep good news under the lid. You want to spread it abroad; you want to let the whole world to hear it. That is exactly what the disciples did with their good news that Jesus rose from the dead, never more to die. This is what the Church and all Christendom have been doing for 2021 years and more. They will continue to do it until there will be no one else to tell that Good News.
The task of the disciples of Jesus is to preach to all peoples of the world. He/she is to “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, … in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47). Jesus tell them that the message would be preached, “TO ALL NATIONS”. The Jews had thought of themselves as the people of God and everyone else was a pagan. Now the door was opened to the entire world! Yet, this is not a new plan of God. From the very beginning God said to Abraham (Genesis 12) “through Abraham’s seed ALL nations would be blessed.” As we read the book of Acts of the Apostles, we find that Peter was summoned by God to the home of a GENTILE by the name of Cornelius. Cornelius and his friends and family received the message of Christ and salvation. From that point on believers came from every nation. No one is excluded from God’s fold.
6. CHRISTIAN WITNESSING
Individual Christians, wherever we are, must join in spreading that Good News. Once we have been convinced that it is true that he rose from the dead, we become duty-bound to spread that Good News. We have no right to keep it to ourselves. It is not ours to keep. That is how we become witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus to the men and women of our time and age who are yet to be reached with the Good News that “he has risen from the dead”.
To be true witness of Jesus, we need to understand that following of Christ is not simply about going to church, being baptized, or knowing certain facts. True, it may include these things; but it is not only these things. Being a follower and a witness of Jesus involves recognizing Jesus as the one who was promised by God; the only One who can set us free from our bondage to sin and futility. Being a follower means embracing him as the one who has risen from the dead. It means surrendering to him as the One uniquely qualified to guide and direct our lives. Furthermore, we need to see that being a follower and witness of Jesus is not just about what will happen to us when we die. It is about what happens in our life right now! It impacts the choices we make, the amusements in which we engage, and the way we speak. It impacts the way we do our jobs and the way we relate to our family members and others. It changes our values, our pursuits and our moral choices, as St. John way in the second reading of today: “Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him” (1Jn 2:4-5). Being a witness of Jesus starts now and goes on forever.
The story of the resurrection of Christ is not just for Easter Sunday. It is a vital message for every day of our lives. It is our strength in the times of trial. It is our assurance in the time of doubt. It is our confidence at the time of death. And it is our motivation for living for Him every day of our lives. We pray, therefore, that inspired by our faith in the Risen Jesus, we may be true WITNESSES in every aspect of lives, so that, through us, many more people may come to know Jesus.