Sermon - Year B

3rd Sunday of Easter

How do you convince someone to believe you, trust your promises, take up your offer, and so on? Obviously, it depends on many factors in play, but generally speaking, there are three main tools at hand: reasonable or logical arguments, evidence, and handling. In fact, these three are most often employed together. A tangible piece of evidence needs a description and context; otherwise, it’s just an item. On the other hand, it can support and fortify a logical argument and make it more convincing. Handling is how we apply or use arguments and/or evidence to achieve the greatest effect. Think of a marriage proposal as an example. There are words (‘Will you marry me?’), the ring is a piece of evidence of the seriousness of the proposal, and the moment must be right, often purposefully devised to increase the chances of a positive outcome. The more unbelievable the case to convince, the harder it is to find arguments, evidence, and ways of persuasion. Undoubtedly, the resurrection of Christ was one of – if not – the hardest fact to make Jesus’ disciples believe. Today’s gospel reading is yet another instance of how hard it was to do that, even for Jesus himself.

His sudden appearance and calming words, “Peace be with you,” did little to dispel their doubts; they rather increased their confusion, as evidenced by the baffling description of their state of mind: “Their joy was so great that they still could not believe it, and they stood there dumbfounded.” So bewildered must they have looked that Jesus requested some food and ate it in front of them. That didn’t work either, so He switched to presenting arguments based on their biblical knowledge: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms has to be fulfilled.” The evangelist indicated that this part of Jesus’ persuasion was quite extensive: “He then opened their minds to understand the scriptures” as they had to be looked at from a different perspective in the wake of Jesus’ passion and death: “So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” Were they convinced there and then? Based on the wider context of the New Testament, they were not. It took them some time to gradually grow into that conviction; the Acts of the Apostles suggested a biblically symbolic period of forty days. Having finally believed that Jesus was alive, they duly started fulfilling his command: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.”

The disciples’ reluctance to believe in the resurrection of their Master was totally understandable. At the level of human experience, the dead definitely do not come back to life, a fact immortalised in the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin: “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Secondly, based on various stories in the gospels, Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection were fundamentally different from his pre-crucifixion presence. Thirdly, we must not forget that his fateful end on the cross went entirely against their expectations. Such a hugely traumatic, apparent setback must have taken its toll; recovering from it would have taken a lot of time and effort. Thank God the Church has preserved those stories in their genuineness and sincerity so we can draw some consolation that we are not the first to struggle to believe that Jesus is alive. In fact, over the last two millennia, the resurrection of Christ has always been challenging to believe in, essentially for the same three reasons I’ve just listed.

We can skip the first one – dead people don’t return to life, as in back to square one – as it doesn’t really need any explanation. The resurrection of Christ is a matter of faith, not knowledge, as we saw last Sunday in the story of St Thomas. However, such faith can influence the way we see our lives and interpret things happening to us. Without faith, life is just a string of incidents, accidents, events and happenings; some of them we can fully control, some of them only partially, and a lot is beyond our control. But when the light of faith is cast upon life, particularly when we look back, we can see that Jesus has been discreetly present all the time. This argument was used by St Peter in today’s first reading when he first accused his audience of rejecting Jesus but then effectively absolved them: “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing; this was the way God carried out what he had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Christ would suffer.” Their misdeeds turned out to play a vital role in the grand plan of salvation. That leads to the third common stumbling block to believing in Christ’s resurrection.

A common and understandable expectation, from a human point of view is that the triumphant, risen Christ should remove our troubles and make our lives easy. It is an understandable assumption, but it is completely unjustified. Jesus’ followers, from the outset, expected him to be a great leader in their political and religious struggles: “We were hoping that he would be the one to free Israel” (Luke 24:21) Had they listened to him rejecting such a notion multiple times they wouldn’t have been so crushingly disappointed by his death. Similarly, we must listen to him attentively and pay heed so that when inevitably life gets hard, we will find the meaning of it and the strength to go through it, just as the great St Paul was “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)