Pope Francis, in his first encyclical after becoming pope, “The Joy of the Gospel”, wrote these inspiring words: “I invite all Christians, everywhere at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them. I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her.”
In this invitation, Pope Francis was repeating words of one of his predecessors, Pope St John Paul II who also said “Christians must have their own personal encounter with Christ Crucified and Risen, and allow themselves to be transformed by the power of his love. When that happens, sadness becomes joy, fear gives way to the path of missionary ardour.”
Last week, I spoke about one of the main proofs for belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead: the undeniable fact of his empty tomb, discovered by several women, with the stone covering the entrance somehow miraculously moved, and I asked, “Who moved the stone?” Now I want to move to the other major piece of evidence that proves the truth of the resurrection: the number of personal encounters or appearances Jesus had with various individuals in the days and weeks following his rising from the dead. Last week, we heard the wonderful story of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Jesus outside his empty tomb, and how she, at first, thought he was a gardener, until he called her by her name. Her grief up to that moment, the anguish at thinking his body had been stolen that nearly drove her out of her mind, the overwhelming joy that she experienced when Jesus appeared to her, that Jesus had to playfully ask her to stop clinging to him, all testify to the truth that she had not made up the story she later told the apostles about her meeting up with Jesus after his resurrection.
Today, in our gospel, we have the story of Jesus appearing to his apostles on the night of his resurrection. Again, the fact that they were locked away in the upper room from fear, and were clearly taken back by Jesus’ sudden appearance in their midst and scarcely able to believe it was he until he showed them the wounds in his hands and his feet, and then their explosion of joy to discover that it was true, their Lord had indeed risen from the dead – all this shows that they also were not making something up, or having hallucinations. And then we come to the story of Thomas – good old cynical, hard-headed Thomas, who clearly is not going to be persuaded against his will by the claims of even his closest friends and demands absolute physical proof before he will accept that Jesus was risen. Where would we be without someone like Thomas, who enables us to be equally rational and stubborn and not carried away by any kind of wild fantasies about a man miraculously risen from the dead? Thomas is our champion; he also provides us with an answer to other cynics and sceptics we might meet in the course of our lives who steadfastly refuse to accept hearsay evidence about the resurrection. Instead of getting upset with them, and defensive about our own beliefs, we can point to the story of Thomas and say ‘There you are. There was someone who also felt like you do, and was convinced by an encounter with Jesus to come to fullness of faith in him as Lord and God. Now, are you brave enough to challenge Jesus to have such an encounter with you?”
That is the point of these stories by the way. Not to give us entertainment, not to distract us away from all our troubles, but to convince us to ask for our own personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. That is what St John writes at the end of our gospel today: “These things are written so that you, you, may come to believe that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” What life is this that belief in Jesus leads to? It is life “to the full”, that Jesus promises to his disciples in John 10:10. It is the life eternal, the life supernatural, the life in the Spirit of God, that indeed will be realized fully in heaven at the end of our earthly lives. But it can already be experienced, here and now, in the midst of this earthly life, with all its challenges, and disappointments, and hopes and dreams and fears. This is not just “pie in the sky when we die” as so many skeptically claim about the Catholic Christian faith. It is about life here and now, and how rich, how meaningful, how purposeful, that faith makes our ordinary, everyday lives, because we have encountered Jesus in the midst of it , and nothing will ever be the same for us again.
St Paul, who was, as you remember, himself as ardent a non-believer and sceptic about a risen Jesus as you could wish to meet, and who actively persecuted to imprisonment and death anyone who claimed that Jesus was alive, until he had his own personal encounter and experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus, this Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “I handed onto your 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 Cephas (Peter) and 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 now died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared also to me, as to someone untimely born. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-9). Hard to refuse to accept and believe such a testimony, I would have thought, from the mouth of one who admits that he was initially so hardheaded and skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection, and whose life was totally turned around by his own personal encounter with this Jesus.
Why all these appearances to Jesus, and why to some and not to others? St Peter himself explains in the Acts of the Apostles to the Roman centurion, Cornelius and his household: “God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and allowed him to be appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses” (Acts 10: 40-41).
Chosen, you see. In the next several weeks, we will be showing at St Philip’s, on Sunday evenings, episodes from a DVD series called exactly that ‘The Chosen”. It is a series showing the life and ministry of Jesus, drawn from the gospels, his choosing of the twelve apostles and others, to become his disciples as he moves around among the people, healing and preaching to them. The question I will be asking, at the beginning of our presentations and throughout the series, is “Who is, or who are, the “Chosen”? And this is a “spoiler alert”, kind of. We, you and I, brothers and sisters, are the chosen. We are chosen to be witnesses to our faith in Jesus, crucified and risen, and given to us and for us, to be our savior and lead us to the fullness of life here and now on earth, and especially to the eternal life and vision of heaven.
If we want to be among those “chosen”. Perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we are not even sure whether we do believe, in our hearts, that Jesus even existed, let alone did all the things the Bible and the Church says about him. In which case, maybe we should ourselves “choose” to come along and watch the DVD series ourselves, to engage with the portrayal of Jesus and his apostles on the screen, to tie that portrayal in with what is told about Jesus in the gospels. Do we dare, to challenge Jesus to make himself real for you and me, to have a personal encounter with us that will change our very lives, here and now, brothers and sisters?
When I was teaching in a high school back in England, a 15 year old student, read aloud during class a personal prayer, very simple, but very profound at the same time: “Jesus, if you are real, be real for me” Maybe it is a prayer that you might like to make for yourselves, brothers and sisters, right here and now or alone in your bedroom or out in the woods. What have you to lose? It can lead you, as it led St Paul, to the fullness of personal faith in Galatians 2:20-21, where he writes: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in my flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and who sacrificed himself for my sake.”
Let us pray …