“You Ask Me How I Know He Lives; He Lives Within My Heart” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, April 23, 2023

Over the last couple of weeks I have used my homilies to put forward two main reasons for us to have faith that Jesu really did rise physically from the dead. The first, as you recall, was the mystery of the empty tomb of Jesus and who could have possibly moved the huge stone at its entrance, The second proof is the number of personal appearances and encounters Jesus had with different individuals and groups. In one case, St Paul tells us that he appeared to more than 500 people at one time (1 Corinthians 15: 6). It would be well nigh impossible, if Jesus had not really risen from the dead, for one or more of those 500 not to give the game away and expose the lie.

The third and final proof I want to give that Jesus really and truly rose from the dead on Easter Sunday is shown by the transformed lives of those whom Jesus did appear to after his resurrection. Let’s begin with Peter. In our first reading, we are treated to part of the very first sermon Peter gave about Jesus. He gives it in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, a huge Jewish feast, when thousands and thousands of pilgrims would have come to the city to celebrate, coming from all over the civilized world. As they gather in the square outside the house where the holy Spirit had just come down in great power on the disciples, they are addressed by Peter, speaking we are told , with a loud voice. This is not because he was trying to be heard by so many people. This is Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles’, way of showing that Peter speaks with great authority and power and boldness. Nothing so surprising about that, you might have thought. Peter is after all the leader of the apostles, established so by Jesus himself. 

But this is a Peter who, barely seven weeks before, had collapsed under the probing questions of a serving girl and denied he had any relationship with Jesus, in fact, denied it three times. Some leader, some authority – NOT!! But now look at him, not a trace of diffidence, or lack of self-confidence, and as for boldness…. there he is in our first reading today, sticking it to his fellow Jews, confronting them with their guilt in handing Jesus over to arrest and crucifixion by the Romans. “You did all these things,” he says to them, “you had Jesus killed, despite all the marvellous things that he did in your presence while he was alive.” He lets that sink in, then he says “But God raised him from the dead, and we are all witnesses to that fact.” So if God was so much on the side of Jesus that he raised him up, when you had killed him, where does that put you, all of you, each of you, with regards to God Himself? On the opposite side of God, and that is not a good place to be, for a people who pride themselves on being  God’s chosen race.

Peter does not do this just once in the course of the Acts of the Apostles. He does it over and over again, to different audiences, ordinary Jews, the Jewish leaders, the pagans, pagan  leaders. He is the one, each time, who stands up and delivers the thrilling news that Jesus is alive, risen from the dead. Where does he get such conviction, such boldness, such fearlessness, if not from having met with Jesus after he had risen from the dead? Nothing else can explain the total transformation of Peter from a quivering wreck of a man to such a formidable preacher. By the way, before we leave Peter’s story, take a moment to absorb the theological sophistication and depth of his first letter, of which we have an excerpt in our second reading. Peter was, as we know, a simple, uneducated, provincial fisherman, so where did he get such incredible insight into the meaning of Christ’s salvation? “Christ was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake”, he writes. Again, where does Peter get such insight into the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, except from meeting with Christ after he has risen from the dead?

 Now we come to the gospel story, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. When we encounter them, they are running away from Jerusalem, running away from the command of Jesus that they should wait for the Holy Spirit to come down on them in Jerusalem. They no longer believe that this is going to happen. We are told that when Jesus comes alongside of them, that they don’t recognize Jesus. They don’t recognize him because they never expected to meet with him again. As far as they are concerned , all their hopes and expectations of Jesus to be their Lord and Savior have disappeared, gone into the grave with Jesus’ body. Even the women’s report that Jesus is risen fails to excite them; it merely leaves them even more confused. And yet, these same two disciples at the end of our gospel account are running back to Jerusalem, back to the other disciples, to tell them that Jesus has risen and appeared to them. Now there is joy, endless joy, and excitement, in the sharing of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. When we see how these two disciples were at the beginning of our gospel story, and how they are at the end, only one thing can explain the transformation. They have met with the risen Christ. 

As we go through the Acts of the Apostles account of the beginning and growth of the Christian Church, we are continually faced with an obvious dilemma. The apostles who fled from the arrest of Jesus and were too scared to be present at his crucifixion and burial, have now become red-hot believers and proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection. Try to remember a time when all your hopes and dreams had been destroyed, and how your mood was. Would you have been able to rouse yourself straightaway after, and become totally positive and faith-filled and joyful again? No way Jose. Unless you had received inescapable evidence that all your hopes and dreams had not been destroyed after all, that, against all odds, your faith had been vindicated. If you believed that what you had hoped for was no longer going to happen, could you have so soon after, emerged and claimed that in fact, it had happened after all? Could you have conspired in a total lie, a fraud, and continued to sustain that deception under brutal torture and threats of death? Of course not.

Yet, that is precisely what happened to these 12 apostles. So totally devastated at Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, so absolutely convicted that he was now buried in a tomb and that was that. And now, so suddenly going around claiming to all and sundry that he was in fact risen from the dead. And no threat, no intimidation, no grilling, no interrogation, can make them have the slightest doubt. Again, no way Jose. Unless, unless, the unthinkable has really happened and this same Jesus has in fact risen from the dead and appeared to you and others with unmistakeable signs that he is no ghost, but a real, physical, living person. 

In Muslim countries, in China and elsewhere, Christians are continually being arrested, tortured, and killed, for claiming Jesus is alive. Every attempt to break them fails, because they have had a personal experience, a personal encounter with a personal, living Jesus. A poster I saw many years ago still has the power to electrify me. It has the caption: “You ask me how I know He lives. He lives within my heart.” As St Peter says in our second reading today: “Your faith and hope are set on God”. Not on some story you read or heard some time ago. Not on some delusion or drug-induced fantasy. But on God, on your personal encounter with Jesus Christ, which has lifted you out of doubt and cynicism and skepticism, into a living, vibrant, personal relationship with Him. If you are still struggling to have that some kind of conclusive experience and encounter, can I encourage you to come along and attend our viewing of the first series of “The Chosen” tonight? Come and dare to challenge Jesus to make himself real to you through this series.

“Lord Jesus, if you are real, be real for me.”