April 8, 2012
(Baptisms, Ordination to Doorkeeper and Confirmation)Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active.
"Angel gear" is what New Zealand lorry-drivers call coming down the mountains with the engine off and no brakes. On Easter morning all Christians should put themselves in "angel gear," turning off all our mechanistic doubts and refusing to put the brakes on the faith and hope that Easter morning represents for each of us.
A lot of non-Christians have no problem agreeing that this first-century Jesus of Nazareth was a gifted leader, a provocative teacher, a prophet and a powerful moral figure that the world should emulate. But on this morning, Jesus' secular well-wishers and the church's members must part company. This morning we celebrate a mystery and a miracle - the greatest miracle and mystery ever known: Christ is Risen!
Then why do we so often crack that cornerstone and undermine its stability? Why do we doubt the miracle of Easter morning? Why do we diminish the mystery with all our explanations? Why do we come up with such silliness as the notion that the resurrection was something that happened in the minds of the disciples rather than the body of Jesus? We falsely flatter ourselves when we rationalize our doubts and dissembling’s as part of our 21st-century- critical-scientific-rationalistic heritage.
Let's not fool ourselves - the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was just as hard on the faith of first century believers as it is on ours. Death has been around for a long time - first-century folk knew its face just as well as we do. In fact, they saw it more closely and intimately and frequently than do we in our hospitalized, sterilized, death-denying attempt to avoid the whole topic.
We envy those who actually saw the resurrected Jesus before the ascension. We imagine it was much easier for them to believe. But while it is true that none of us had the honor of actually bumping into Jesus in the flesh on the way to church this morning, it is also true that none of us helped pull his lifeless body off the cross on Friday evening either. None of us carried his heavy, limp, blood-stained form into a barren tomb and wrapped it in a shroud. For those who had known the living, laughing, loving Jesus, there was no doubt that he was stone-cold dead! Believing that he could be truly alive again - not just some spiritual apparition, but a warm, living being - was an enormous act of faith for the first disciples.
Mary, Simon Peter, and John, all three go to the tomb. They “saw and believed.” But what did they believe? Initially, only that someone had taken the body. They “did not understand.” Only as the risen Lord repeatedly came to them that their belief grew to encompass the vastness and richness of the significance of the empty tomb. Only as the risen Lord repeatedly comes to us, our own belief in the meaning of the empty tomb continues to grow. Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active.
Anyone who has ever been to a burial service in a cemetery knows how gaping the six-foot hollow in the Earth is. If we peer into the empty space, it seems to go down forever. It is deep, foreboding, not just a little bit frightening. We are much more comfortable when the casket is lowered, the Earth has been replaced and cultivated and planted, and living green grass replaces the gaping hollow. Death and tombs have finality about them. No doubt so Mary, Simon Peter, and John believed as they raced to the place where the lifeless Jesus had been laid. They simply “did not yet understand.” They sought a lifeless body and found an empty tomb. They simply “did not yet understand.” They queried about “where” and discovered “what.” They simply “did not yet understand.” They simply “did not yet understand” that “he had to rise from the dead.”
Our belief in, understanding of, and appreciation for the resurrection must begin with the empty tomb. For it is the empty tomb that announces the stark reality of death. It is the empty tomb that brings us to raise the question about “where they put” Jesus’ lifeless body. It is the empty tomb that sends us scurrying in search for what we thought was lifeless. It is the empty tomb that brings us to belief. It is the empty tomb that announces something utterly new; Jesus is alive; he is risen. Only as the risen Lord repeatedly comes to us does our own belief in the meaning of the empty tomb continue to grow. Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active. And Jesus’ risen presence can be found where we least expect it - in a gentle smile, in the unexpected extension of a helping hand, in the goodness and generosity of our family and neighbors and friends. And even perfect strangers.
This is what Jesus taught. This is what we should believe. Our faith is never still. For our risen Lord is active. Here in our small community in this very chapel, we teach a humbler or down to earth ministry. It is such a shame that even in this day and age; that in this time of understanding and great knowledge; that we still have people who are either turned away at a church door, or made to feel as though they're not worthy of Christ's love. Christ did not forbid the woman who had been married multiple times who approached him at the well. She obviously had been divorced multiple times. And yet churches in this day and age will turn away someone if they have only been divorced once, while Jesus did not turn away the one who had done so multiple times.
The child waiting to be baptized is turned away at the church door all because something that their parents have done or have not done. Maybe the parents of never been married. Maybe one or both of the parents have been divorced before. Maybe one of the parents is not Catholic; maybe not even Christian. Maybe the child does not belong to either one of them. And I ask you, how can you withhold the sacrament of baptism from a child that had nothing to do with whatever their parents have done? “Suffer the little children to come unto me not, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” I think that speaks on how Jesus would've treated a child looking for baptism.
I could go on about the many things that some churches do “in the name of Christ” with the many they turn away for one factor or another in their lives. Like the early disciples, we do “not yet understand.” Yet we sing our continuous hallelujahs. What Easter reminds us about resurrection is that it dispels darkness, sin, and death, but not the Christian requirement to embrace dying to self, not the requirement to love one another, not the requirement to keep coming back to the empty tomb. Resurrection does not eliminate self-giving, but instead it encourages us to embrace love made visible, for this is where the risen Lord is. Easter teaches us that to share in the new life of resurrection we must identify with Jesus’ supreme act of love. We must give ourselves over for others in total love. Here is the Paschal mystery; we sing hallelujah even when dying to self, for the empty tomb promises risen life. Only as the risen Lord repeatedly comes to us as our own belief in the meaning of the empty tomb continually grow. Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active. In our Easter faith. Through our acts of love.
When the news of Jesus' resurrection, the rumor of an empty tomb, began to circulate, the Roman and synagogue authorities got nervous. Having taken enormous effort to post guards so that Jesus' body could not be stolen, these officials now used these same guards to start spreading a rumor that body-snatching was what had happened. The possibility that a genuine miracle had taken place was too threatening, too incredible for those who had opposed Jesus and put him to death.
They did an excellent job spreading doubt, however, for that rumor still circulates today. There are lots of church members who confess faith in Christ yet continue to suspect that the chief priests and leaders probably had the story straight. For these Christians the concept behind a risen Christ is perfectly acceptable, but the reality of an actual resurrection is just too outlandish to take literally.
We expect life and death to follow a certain set of rules and to meet certain rational criteria. Therefore we scramble around trying to find alternative explanations for the empty tomb. Maybe the guards did fall asleep and some well-meaning disciples did come to take the body. Maybe Jesus wasn't really dead - only drugged, or in a coma, or hypnotized - and he came out of it and escaped the tomb. Maybe this was all part of an elaborate plan to prove Jesus' messianic nature.
But maybe, just maybe, all our doubts are wrong! Today, we are not only here to witness the resurrection in some mystical way, but we are also here to witness some very special events that will take place in a few minutes. We have Jaime Alexander and her children Henry, Molly, and Julie who will all be baptized today. Do you suppose they would be here today for this particular event if there was too much doubt in the risen Christ? Baptism goes back to the time of Jesus himself, with his own baptism by John the Baptist. Jesus taught that we should be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism originally was only done on Easter; so today in a time when baptisms are done any time to year, we have four on this very special day which makes it even more special. Easter faith is never still The risen Lord is always active.
We have Stephen KoKo, who will be ordained to the level of Doorkeeper. It's just one of many steps on the path to becoming a Deacon as he desires to be. It's not all about what he desires though, because those of us who are in ministry know all too well that when we are called, we are called whether we like it or not. You suppose that “KoKo” would be willing to do all that he has to do to become a Deacon and then get down into the muck of what he will have to minister to and with all that he would have doubts? The road the Holy Orders, as it is referred to those of us who are been ordained, is a very special path to a chosen few. Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active.
We have a young lady here, Erika Acosta, who will be confirmed in her adult age. She has many questions; probably more than I have answers; but that isn't stopping her from coming up to the front altar today to become not only a Catholic, but a Christian. I would hazard a guess, that she has curiosities that some would call doubts, but like Jamie and her children and “KoKo”, do you think she would be up your today if she were full of doubt? Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active.
Erika will also have her first communion. Many people not familiar with the Catholic faith, or sometimes even those who are Catholic, often wonder why give such reverence to a little unleavened wafer. I don't have time here today to go into a long discourse on it, but suffice to say that some people have faith in that miracle that Jesus proclaimed would take place each time we did this in memory of him. Holy Thursday, the Passover meal that Jesus had with his disciples the day before he was crucified, lives at that very heart for us as Catholics. Some of us experience a miracle every time; some of us only sometimes; some of us never. Yet, all of us who still come know in faith that receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is like taking the medicine that keeps us alive. Maybe Erika will feel that way today too.
I personally have no doubt that Jesus is God. I have no lack of faith in him as God. I do sometimes question, however, if I have the strength or faith in general to continue to be the person he has called me to be. Do I have the resolve to be the priest he has called me to be? Am I asking for the right thing? In the end, none of these questions really matter. Because my love for Christ our Lord will never go away.
It surprises me that with all the evidence and all the miracles, that some people still struggle to believe. In our very little family here; all of us in this room, we have amongst us a family grieving on this very special day. Bernadette KoKo passed on to a higher life this week. Yet here they are; worshiping on Easter Sunday. Here they are, cheering on and praying for their dear son Stephen KoKo in the path that God has chosen for him. Little do they know, just being here this day with such grief, is faith in itself. Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active.
That Christ actually died, is evident from the fact that the centurion and the soldiers declared him dead in official government documents. That the women came with the expectation of anointing a dead body. That the blood and water flowed from his open side. That the disciples assumed he was dead and his resurrection greatly surprised them. That he did not appear to his disciples on the third day in a weakened state, but as a mighty conqueror of death. And that Christ himself declared that he was dead but now is alive for evermore.
Several things prove that Christ arose bodily. Jesus himself declared after his resurrection that he had flesh and bones and even tried to show them to St. Thomas. Matthew declared that the women who met Christ on the resurrection morning held him by the feet. Christ partook of food in the presence of his disciples after he had risen. Jesus was recognized by his own after the resurrection, even to the imprint of the nails.
The apostles could not have had any ulterior motive for proclaiming so stupendous a fact. They proclaim Christ's resurrection at the risk of their lives. The disbelieving disciples believed when they saw the risen Christ and became indefatigable heralds of the resurrection. That is the empty tomb. The Scriptures tell us that the tomb was empty. Surely if this were not true, someone would have been able to show that the disciples were deceivers, that the tomb was not empty. And yet no proof that the tomb was not empty exists. The only proof that does exist is that it was empty.
Nothing could've inspired these discouraged disciples to assemble themselves together for meditation and worship of a master whom they regarded as dead. Certainly nothing could've induced them to proclaim his name to their fellow Jews in the face of persecution but the absolute assurance that Christ had risen dead.
Mary and Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early on Easter morning. They get to the tomb and not only is it empty, but someone dressed in white is there. The centurions were nowhere to be found. This figure in white clothing only tells them that they will not find Jesus here, for he is risen. The women, great with anguish, went out and fled the tomb; trembling with astonishment and said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Now tell me, when have any of you in this room ever known for woman to keep quiet about anything as astonishing as that of the women followers of Jesus saw? Won't happen! It was bad enough that they lost the one they loved; now they lost him again. His body was gone and they could scarcely grieve a healing kind of grief. “What's that you say? He's not here? He is risen, gone on ahead of us somewhere?” It was too much. Death and grief, awful as they were, the women came to understand. But risen? What does that mean? The women, too, had died with Jesus. They had believed in him, given their hearts to him, and something in them had died as surely as he did on that Friday.
If the resurrection of Jesus is false, then I ask you again, when have you ever known for woman or even a man for that matter, to keep quiet about something so great? Add to that, the factor of how severely the Roman officials and the chief priests and Pharisees were trying to squash any movement or mention of Jesus. Do you think they would risk their lives; they're very selves and families, for a Jesus who did not exist – for a Jesus who was not resurrected?
Easter is our spiritual supernova. We must experience it as the true miracle it is without trying to make it fit our expectations and, especially, our limitations. When we refuse to let the miracle be miraculous, when we try to crimp it and cramp it to fit our style, we find ourselves distorting everything that made up Jesus' life and ministry on earth. It is time to let the mystery shine.
Let's quit analyzing Easter. Instead of looking for human explanations for the open tomb, let's look with awe at that mighty angel perched in front of it. Let us be so convinced of his presence that we see the misty vapors of angel breath billowing from his mouth as he tells the wondering women what has happened to Jesus. Then we must walk with bold faithfulness through the tomb's opened doorway, look at its empty, uninhabited space and shout the miracle: "He is Risen!"
I want to leave you with two final thoughts. Did any of you watch the news or read the paper yesterday about the story of a Navy jet that crashes into some apartments? The article ends with a gentleman who felt his house shaking and so he ran outside to see smoke billowing and as he walked he came upon one of the two pilots who had ejected from the plane. The gentleman is quoted as saying: “I saw the parachute on the house and he was still connected to it, and he was laying on the ground with his face full of blood,” he said. “The pilot said, ‘I’m sorry for destroying your house.’” I frankly have no idea if that pilot is Christian or not, but he sure sounds it to me. He isn’t worried about himself or the plane. He was only worried that he damaged the gentleman’s home.
Finally, a quote from Archbishop Fulton Sheen:
"The law He gave was clear: life is a struggle; unless there is a Cross in our lives, there will never be an empty tomb; unless there is the crown of thorns, there will never be the halo of light; unless there is a Good Friday, there will never be an Easter Sunday"
Do you see the angel's breath this morning? No? Then get in angel gear. Easter faith is never still. The risen Lord is always active.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.