Orbiting Dicta

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14, 22?28
1 Pt 1:17?21
Lk 24:13?35

At this time of year much of the nation’s attention is fixed, for a while, on the Kentucky Derby.  And there are usually wars and rumors of wars to excite and frighten people. This year is no exception.  But extraordinary events sometimes overshadow even sports events and international violence.  On this Third Sunday of Easter [8 April] in 2005, the world had just marked the funeral and burial of Pope John Paul II.  That single ceremony accounted for the greatest gathering of heads of states in history, the largest-ever single Christian pilgrimage as more than 4 million people gathered in Rome.  In 2011, exactly three years later, on the first of May, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were beatified.  And we have just witnessed another extraordinary week which began with the unprecedented canonization of the two popes in the presence of two living popes, again on Divine Mercy Sunday. Vatican sources estimated the crowds last Sunday in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area to be in excess of 1,300,000. [http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/27/popes-john-paul-ii-and-john-xxiii-saints-canonisation]

The world will gradually let these amazing scenes to fade from memory, just as the violence in Ukraine and the disappearance of flight 370 will be displaced by other events that captivate and enthrall us for a while.  Donald who?  Sterling or Trump?  But some things do not fade.  Some things remain as an indelible impression on the mind not just of a few or even a million people, but of humanity itself. They sometimes start in very small, encounters, little noticed and even incredible on first hearing.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not just one of those, it is above all, the pivotal event upon which history itself turns. And yet belief in the Resurrection, and everything that flows from it over the course of history, itself depends on the memories of a very few people.  Unlike the funerals of popes and kings and princesses, only a handful of frightened mourners attended the burial of Jesus.  No one witnessed the Resurrection.  But beginning with Mary Magdalene and her companions, the good news of the Resurrection of Christ began its world-transforming history.

Simon, or as Jesus nick-named him in Aramaic, Kephas, and we know as Petros, Peter “the Rock,” stands very much at the heart of today’s readings.  The first reading is taken from Peter’s long Pentecost sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, the first public preaching of the gospel.  The second reading is from a letter ascribed to Peter himself, and while Peter does not appear personally in the gospel, he is there in an important and mysterious way.  And it’s all about the Resurrection of Jesus and how we come to faith.

The gospel tells the story of two early disciples walking back to Emmaus, a village some miles from Jerusalem.  One of them, the fellow named Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early Christians to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. For like the Apostle Thomas, he and his companion could not bring themselves to believe the women’s report that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.  Like Thomas, they won’t or can’t believe unless they see for themselves.

Of course, they do come to faith, after they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, after which he is simply gone.  Beside themselves with joy, they rush back to Jerusalem, which would have taken hours, and burst in on the still-trembling disciples and their companions with the news and the proclamation of their faith.  And this is where it gets interesting.

They were saying “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [Luke 24: 34-36]

“…he has appeared to Simon.”  Familiarity may have dulled our perception of how strange that little sentence is. For we know nothing from the gospels about an appearance of Jesus to Peter.  But we hear of it again, in fact the first time we learn of it is in St. Paul’s first letter to the little Christian community at Corinth in Greece:

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he appeared to Kephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [1 Cor 15:3-7]

We know nothing about Jesus’ appearances to James, either, or, and this is especially interesting, to those 500 people who were witnesses.  Not everything has come down to us.  But the mere record of it is telling.  It tells of the faith of the early Christians, a faith founded on living encounter with the risen Christ.  But the words of Jesus in John’s gospel are even more important for that very reason:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [John 20:29]

Without doubt, great crowds are impressive, especially in today’s world.  Still, the immense and impressive gatherings in Rome a week ago and in years past seem a far cry from the quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus.  The gospel reminds us that these huge gatherings are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that occupy our attention in this Easter season, in breaking open the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.  God breaks through to each of us in our own way and in our own time.  Or, rather, God’s time, when not our eyes, but our minds and hearts need only to be opened by the willingness to believe in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere and everywhere.