This week, much of America’s attention has been fixed on national and international events, as has become increasingly the case for the last few years. A milestone has been reached, well or badly, for President Trump, while at the end of January the danger of nuclear war with North Korea moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still closer to midnight for the world. The prospect of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has preoccupied that part of the world for almost a year. Earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and landslides frighten and threaten people around the globe.
These concerns (barring nuclear war) and others like them will gradually be displaced by other events that captivate and enthrall us for a while. But some things do not fade from memory. Some things create 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 the pivotal event upon which history has turned for nearly two thousand years. 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 presidents, 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 — “the Rock,” stands very much at the heart of today’s readings. The first reading is taken from Peter’s long Pentecost sermon found in the Acts of the Apostles. It purports to be 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 reading, 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 now-vanished village some 6 or 7 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 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 phrase 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 mention 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. The recent gatherings in Istanbul, Caracas, Paris, and London are a far cry from the quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus. The gospel reminds us that the importance of such huge assemblies is only a pale reflection of the impact of intimate, undramatic meetings that occupy our attention in this Easter season, in breaking open the scriptures and 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 broken open by the willingness to believe in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere and everywhere.