Third Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:13-19; 1 Jn 2:1-5a; Lk 24:35-48

The Resurrection: consider the way it did not happen: On the first day of the week, Jesus’ disciples were scarcely able to contain their excitement any longer. The glorious day had arrived! As soon as the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, Salome and the eleven apostles, accompanied by other followers of Jesus, made a triumphant procession singing hymns and songs of thanksgiving as they went to the garden where Jesus was buried. This caused great wonder among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and many joined the disciples that day. When they arrived at the tomb they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away just as they had expected. And behold! Looking into the tomb they saw a young man sitting there, clothed in a white robe, and they were beside themselves with joy. The angel said to them, “You seek the risen Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He is not here. Behold the place where they laid him.” Then Peter entered the tomb and after carefully gathering together the linen wrappings he stood at the entrance, and lifting them high into the air before the other disciples he proclaimed, “The Lord has risen!” And they responded with shouts of joy, “The Lord has risen indeed.”  Returning to the upper room in Jerusalem they began to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection with a festive meal when Jesus stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”  And the Lord praised them for believing that he would rise from the dead.

But that’s not the way it happened, is it? It’s too unrealistic, too fabricated, something a serious seeker of the truth would rightly discredit as pious fable.  By contrast the Gospels are shockingly honest about the disbelief of the disciples.         

On the first day of the week three women came to the tomb with heavy hearts not to seek a risen Lord, but to anoint the dead, crucified body of Jesus, whom they had loved and lost. After a sleepless night, probably tossing and turning in anguish at the dreadful memory of Jesus’ agony and death, they expected nothing more than a corpse, the remains of one who had been so dear to them. And the men, the eleven apostles, fearful for their lives, did not even have enough courage to venture outside the locked room where they were hiding. After all that Jesus had said and done, after miracles and prophecies foretelling his death and resurrection, it did not enter their minds or hearts as a possibility. They had no hope that he would rise from the dead, not even enough faith to check out the tomb on the third day to see if he really meant what he foretold.

The Resurrection was so contrary to their expectations that after an angel proclaimed the good news to the three women and said they should tell Peter and the disciples, St. Mark writes the women were so confounded that “They fled from the tomb, for terror had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone.” It was too much for them to grasp. No one believed until Jesus made his first appearance. And the first one to whom Jesus revealed himself was, surprisingly, Mary Magdalene, from whom he cast out seven devils. To her was given the honor to be first in proclaiming the good news. But St. Mark writes that the other disciples, who were mourning and weeping over the death of Jesus, would not believe her. Later, when Jesus appeared to the eleven, St. Luke writes, “they were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.”  Jesus said to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; touch me see that it is I myself.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, how he had to suffer, die and rise again.  

The good news challenges our disbelief, our despair, our lovelessness. It grows stronger when persecuted. It takes possession of us when confronted with the great moral choices of life between good and evil. It presses on for the great prize of life with Christ on the other side of cruel death.

For example, during the dark days of World War II, there were German Christians who faced the cost of Christian discipleship heroically, like Pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer and Blessed Franz Jaegerstatter, whose conscientious objections to the war cost them their lives. The story of Private Joseph Schultz1 is less well known. He was a German soldier on the Eastern Front in Yugoslavia. On July 20th, 1941, he along with seven of his brothers in arms were sent out on what they thought was a routine mission. After a short march they soon understood that they were on a quite different mission than what they thought. Ahead of them, they saw a number of captured civilians, peasant farmers, men and women, who were blindfolded, and positioned up against a haystack. The soldiers in his platoon were ordered to stop a few yards away, and to execute every one of the civilians. Seven of the soldiers prepared their rifles, but Private Joseph Schultz, disobeying a direct order, dropped his rifle and walked toward the civilians. He took a position among them and chose to be shot rather than kill helpless civilians. The officer gave his orders: “Ready! Aim! Fire!” A few seconds later the peasants and Private Schultz were dead. That’s the power a Christian disciple receives from the Resurrection of Christ to overcome natural instincts when faced with grave moral decisions.

It happened in 1930 when Moscow sent a Bolshevik named Bukharin to indoctrinate the Christians of Kiev with Communism. At an hour-long assembly, he presented arguments against Christianity and in favor of atheism. The force of his words was backed by the presence of soldiers standing at attention around the hall. Pleased with himself, he asked if there were any questions. One man snapped to his feet and requested permission to speak. Given the nod he went up to the microphone and stood next to Bukharin. Not a sound was heard as he looked out over his people. Then he shouted out the ancient Orthodox greeting, “Christ is risen!” Immediately the entire assembly stood up together and with one voice thundered their response, “He is risen indeed!” That’s what it’s like to be “clothed with power from on high,” by the Resurrection of Christ. 

  1.; Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, William Morrow and Company, Inc., NY, 1998.


Third Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey


Third Sunday of Easter at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Acts 5:27b-32, 40b-41; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21:1-19 ]

In today's gospel we see a beautiful story of the heart of the resurrection as experienced by the disciples, that is, by us. It is the experience of presence. It is a presence that beckons and demands a decision. In return it renews and transforms in areas of proven failure.

We have each, I am sure, had an experience of the resurrection. After all, the spiritual journey is a paschal journey: a journey of dying to an old way of living and rising to a new life, to new meanings. This is why Jesus told skeptics that no sign would be given them except the Sign of Jonah. Thomas Merton saw that Sign as an emblem of monastic life.

Before the resurrection, there is the passion: that which we passively endure. Jesus' passion began the moment He let Himself be “handed over”; He gave up control over His life. We handed ourselves over on Profession Day. Married couples hand themselves over on their wedding night.

In today's gospel, the disciples first experience the absence of Christ. Then, whether suddenly or gradually, they (and we) experience the utter gratuity of the presence of Christ in our lives.

The irruption of the presence of Jesus Christ in the life of the apostles and of ours is experienced first and foremost as a forgiving presence. He never said, “I forgive you.” His presence was enough to convey it. Another way to say “forgiveness” is to say “LOVE WITHOUT CONDITION.” There is nothing harder for a human being to receive. Nothing else shatters our old way of perceiving, understanding, and being in relationship. The gratuity of the presence shattered us because we saw there was something to forgive; something had separated us. We were given not just a change of attitude on the part of Jesus or God, but a change of relationship.

This change is what Jesus offers Peter. After his three-fold denial, Peter needs a conversion of heart. Today's gospel shows us his second conversion. This goes way beyond his first conversion of being called to “be a fisher of men.” An experience of personal failure sets the stage for conversion by giving us the desire to re-gain self-respect. Peter experienced the absence of Christ when he “went out and wept bitterly” after his denial. His heart was broken by his own doing. His only hope was in the psalm that promised, “A broken and contrite heart you will not spurn.” Yet he could see no way that the relationship could be amended.

What Jesus demanded was a decision that was to direct Peter from now on. That sort of effect was achieved when Jesus asked him a third time if he loved Him. It was then that Peter became desperate. The desperation was about his relationship with the risen Christ. Desperation has two effects on a person: it is pervasive, and it is deep. In this it makes room for faith, hope, and love. These then have three effects in our lives: they are pervasive, enduring and deep.

So Peter was able to make an effective decision that was not about a course of action, but about motives; about what was to be the orientation of his heart. A decision for love is a decision for living in the presence of God. As a result, Peter was later able to assert that, “We must obey God, rather than men.” Earlier Jesus had said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” With the decision for love made, it was for Jesus to command the course of action for Peter, to give him a mission: “Feed my sheep.” This sealed a covenant typical of second conversions.

Similarly, as monastic's we have a second conversion during formation which is sealed as a covenant on profession day. As William of St. Thierry taught, the novice's first conversion decides the direction of her heart; the spiritual mother decides the actions that will express it. Her vows seal the covenant.

In case you haven't noticed, living those vows -marital or monastic- requires effort! We do it awkwardly. Today, Jesus comes to console the man who denied Him. The risen Christ is a presence that is gratuitous, human, forgiving, and that leads us on. When the risen Christ says, “Follow me” He is calling Peter and us into His fullness of life and complete joy. If we do not follow Him into His joy, we will ultimately find it hard to believe that we are following Him at all.