Words on the Word
3. Sunday of Easter
Acts 6.1-7: As David says of him.
1 Peter 1.17-21: Christ, known since before the world was made.
Luke 24.13-35: Starting with Moses, he explained all to them.
Our first reading cites a speech Peter gave in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection. He could speak of Jesus with authority. Peter was among the first Jesus called. He was one of the small group Jesus invited to witness privileged revelations: on Mount Tabor, at the raising of Jairus’s daughter, during the terrible vigil in Gethesmani. Jesus appointed Peter as the Rock, the Church’s foundation. He called Peter to walk on water. Peter was the first who arrived at the empty tomb. Most essentially, Peter was the first who experienced the force of Christ’s resurrection through transformative forgiveness. On that day of Pentecost seven weeks and three days had passed since he who had first promised, ‘I will give my life for you’, had denied Jesus with violent oaths. Before that time Peter had considered himself a man of integrity, one on whom others might lean; then he discovered in his heart an unsuspected capacity for betrayal. As a result all he had experienced in Jesus’s company, by Jesus’s gift, seemed unreal. An inner darkness wrapped itself like a shroud around the time spent as a disciple. Wasn’t the whole thing an illusion? The way forward seemed to point towards a return to old habits. ‘I’m going fishing’, Peter said — and we get an impression of deep disappointment with himself, with life. But then, there in the boat, which stood for everything that was old, he met him who makes all things new. When Peter was allowed to confirm his love three times, the death-dealing wounds of his betrayal were healed and made glorious
About all this Peter could have told the people of Jerusalem. He could have said: ‘Look at me! I’ve an extraordinary story to tell about my life before and now. I am no longer the same!’ That would have been the kind of preaching we’ve a taste for now: subjective, emotional, with a whiff of tabloid sensationalism. Yet Peter chose another approach. Having soberly recounted what had taken place at Easter, he said, ‘That’s what David foretold’, then cited a Psalm he had learnt by heart.
But how on earth can anyone explain what is going on now by citing a text written a thousand years earlier? What is the relationship between revelation and experience? This question touches our reading of Scripture. It touches the way we understand our life of faith today.
This same question is touched on in the story of the wanderers to Emmaus. Here, too, the point of departure is depressed perplexity. Cleopas and his companion go mourning a dead expectation. They had seen Jesus crucified and buried. ‘We had hoped that he was the one to liberate Israel!’ Perhaps only those among us who have lived under occupation or under a totalitarian regime can fully appreciate the dream of freedom Jesus looked set to accomplish politically. All of us, however, can recognise the basic pattern. Religious hopes do often have a political aspect. We wish for influence and public recognition; perhaps we wish to reclaim lost territory. We seek visionary figures who might serve this purpose — popes, bishops, prophets, or whatever. Then we’re upset when these do not live up to the goals we have set; or when they are hounded to the cross by a faceless crowd. The hearts of the wanderers to Emmaus were full. They poured forth from their abundance in a monologue that could surely have gone on all night. We all like to tell others about our private experiences of being wronged. That way our self-pity is given free course.
Jesus listens for a while. Then he says, ‘Stop!’ Firmly he upbraids the two, then asks: ‘Are you so slow to believe what the prophets have said?’ It is striking that he does not speak of what he has just been through — about what it was like to descend into the underworld, then rise. No, he referred to ancient texts. Starting with Moses and going through the prophets, he explained what Scripture had said about himself. It was this consciousness that what happens in the present is rooted in an original, unfailing plan that made the two friends’ hearts burn. They realised that they were part of a story that exceeded them, yet embraced them entirely, piercing their hearts.
The Easter Vigil begins with a wonderful ritual. In the darkness of the night, out under an open sky, before a fire, a candle, the work of the Mother Bee, is blessed as the priest prays: ‘Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to him and all the ages, to him be glory and power, through every age for ever.’ Christian hope is rooted in more than the story of an individual who once vanquished death, whose victory can still affect the life of other individuals. Christian hope is rooted in the certainty that Jesus Christ is the key to the enigma of the universe and to all history.
Easter is more than a firework of revelation preceded and succeeded by dark silence. God’s incarnate Word is the same Word that was from the beginning, that speaks in Scripture and still operates in the Church, Christ’s Body. That is why it is essential for us Christians to be deeply rooted in the past. It is essential that we know Scripture well, that we know the history of the Church and of the saints.
Avoid, then, a disproportionately contemporary and self-centred vision of things which may make the faith more graspable, perhaps, but also reduces it to something banal. No political or sentimental aim will rejuvenate our soul and inflame our heart, but only the unchangeable promise of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the same today, yesterday, and forever.
The text of today’s collect:
May your people exult for ever, O God,
in renewed youthfulness of spirit,
so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption,
we may look forward in confident hope
to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.