Sunday, April 15, 2018

Good Witnesses - Homily for the Third Sunday in Easter, Year B

In the epic Japanese film Rashomon, we hear about a murder mystery from the perspective of five witnesses.  Each offers a subjective, self-serving, contradictory version of what took place.  The witnesses just couldn’t get their stories straight.  Fortunately for us, Jesus made sure that the disciples got his story straight, and they were good witnesses.  It’s our duty as Christians to get the story straight, so we can be good witnesses, too.   

In our Gospel passage, Jesus provides ample evidence that he had risen from the dead.  He appears bodily to the disciples, shows them the scars of his Passion, allows them to touch him, eats fish in front of them and teaches them, just as he had done before.  “This testimony refutes any conjecture that his appearance was illusory or metaphorical.”[1]  Jesus appeared to the disciples so they could bear witness to the truth.  And they did just that.  In our first reading, we find Saint Peter preaching openly in the Temple area that the very same Jesus, whom the people had put to death, was raised by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The disciples, the Evangelists and the Church got the story straight and handed it down to us through the millennia so we, too, can bear witness to Jesus to the world.  

Jesus is speaking to each one of us when he says that “You are witnesses to these things.”  If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable enough, the word for “witnesses” in the original Greek is “martyres” (μάρτυρες), which sounds an awful lot like our English word “martyr.”  Jesus calls us to bear witness to him, even unto death.  To have seen the full light of the revelation of God is the greatest of privileges, but it is also the most terrible of responsibilities.”[2]  If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, if we’re going to claim that we believe all that has been revealed to us, then we have to bear witness to Jesus, and we have to be good witnesses, too, living just as Jesus taught us, even when it’s not easy or convenient to do so.

I can’t think of a time when we need good witnesses more than right now.  Catholics are leaving the Church in droves.  According to a 2011 Pew Research Survey, one out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic, and one out of every three people who were raised Catholic, no longer identify as Catholic.[3]  Catholics aren’t alone.  The number of people indicating that they have no religious affiliation at all jumped from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014.[4]   As you can imagine, lots of reasons are cited, but I can’t help but think that the problem lies in no small part with the fact that we aren’t good witnesses; we can’t get our story straight.  There are six major ecumenical divisions in Christianity and thousands of denominations.  Our understanding of objective truth that guided the development of civilizations for millennia has been replaced by moral relativism, where just about anything goes.  People don’t know what to believe anymore, so they choose to believe nothing.  If we really believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we need to get our story straight and bear witness to the truth. 

How do we do that?  How do we become good witnesses?  Well, we start by getting to know God through Jesus Christ.  “There are two senses in which we can ‘know’ God.  We can know academic facts about him, knowing about his attributes, or we can know him through love, as a child knows a parent or as a person knows a friend.”[5]  I would argue that both are necessary if we really want to know God and bear good witness to him.  Knowing God in the “academic” sense centers us in God’s revelation through Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church.  In this regard, I encourage you to dust off your Bible, but also to attend Bible study classes, read Church documents, especially the Catechism, and ask questions.  Your priests and deacons LOVE to answer your questions and engage in healthy, friendly theological debate.  Good witnesses know their facts.

Knowing God in the relational sense comes naturally to us.  “To know God, to abide in God and to have fellowship with God has always been the quest of the human spirit.”[6]  Through prayer, the Eucharist, Adoration and Scriptural reflection, we develop an intimate connection with our Creator in the quiet of our hearts, we nurture our ability to find God in ever recess of our lives, and we learn to listen to him.   Good witnesses are good listeners.

How else can we be good witnesses?  We live just as Jesus taught us.  Why should anyone believe the Good News and follow Jesus if we aren’t willing to follow him ourselves.  Saint John tells us in our second reading that the way to know Jesus is to keep his commandments; our lives must be conformed to the example of Christ.  Many people claim to know Jesus but fail to follow his commandments.  If we want to know Jesus, if we want to bear good witness to him, we need to love, we need to forgive, and we need to show mercy.  It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.  You know, most people we encounter in the course of a day have no idea that we’re Christians, let alone Catholics.  But if we truly follow Jesus, if we consistently love, forgive and show mercy, if our hearts burn within us like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they’ll want to know what we know, and maybe even check it out for themselves.  A good witness practices what he preaches.

At the end of Rashomon, we can only wonder what really happened on that fateful day in the forest outside the city gate.  The witnesses couldn’t get their stories straight, and we’re left frustrated and confused.  I’ll bet that’s exactly how the people who’ve left the Church feel.  It’s up to us to slow the mass exodus from our Church. It’s up to us who still believe to make Jesus known to the ends of the earth by knowing and living what we believe.  Jesus calls each one of us to be his witnesses to the world.  It’s up to us to get the story straight so we can be good witnesses.  

[1]The Didache Bible (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014) p.1406, note to Luke 24: 36-43.
[2] William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) p. 39.
[3] Thomas Reese, “The Hidden Exodus: Catholics Becoming Protestants,” National Catholic Reporter Online (April 16, 2011),
[4] Michael Lipka, “The Growing Number of America’s Rapidly Growing Religious ‘Nones’, Pew Research Center (May 15, 2015),
[5] The Didache Bible, p. 1677, note to 1 John 2: 1-11.
[6] William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) p.45-46.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

No Joke - Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, The Third Scrutiny

          Just the other day, it dawned on me that Easter Sunday falls on April Fools' Day this year.  Now with the way my mind works, I started thinking about what the first Easter would have been like if it had fallen on April 1st.  Imagine Mary Magdalene telling Peter and John that the tomb is empty; they run to the tomb to see for themselves, and the guards say: “April Fools!”  Imagine how different our Easter traditions would be, hunting for Easter eggs for hours, only to learn that none were hidden in the first place.  “April Fools!”  The possibilities are endless.  Well, fortunately for us, the resurrection is no joke, and that’s the message of today’s readings.

Our readings this morning address the linchpin of our faith:  the Resurrection.  “In the raising of Lazarus, Christ showed not only that he has power to raise the dead to life but also that he himself is the Resurrection and the life.”[1]  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus fulfilled God’s promise foretold by the Prophet Ezekiel in our first reading: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”  The fact is, “[o]ur hope for resurrection and eternal life hinges entirely on Christ’s Resurrection and his redemption.”[2]  For Christians, then, the Resurrection is no joke.

          From the very first Easter Sunday, whether it fell on April 1st or not, Christians have believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and that through him, with him, and in him, we will be resurrected, too.  “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead [because] only if Christ is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind.”[3]  As Saint Paul so bluntly put it, “[i]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15: 14).  I’m here to assure you that your faith is not in vain; it’s no joke.

          Very simply put, resurrection is rising from the dead to new life with God.  It's our human life - yes, still bodily - but now lived at a higher level, spiritualized and glorified.”[4]  Now, we have to make an important distinction here:  Lazarus wasn’t resurrected; Jesus resuscitated Lazarus; he brought Lazarus back to this life, so Lazarus would die again.  Resuscitation happens in Emergency Rooms every day.  A natural event like the resuscitation of a dead man doesn’t change our lives, it’s existentially irrelevant (though, admittedly, a pretty big deal for the dead man).  By contrast, Jesus didn’t return to his normal human life like Lazarus.  He entered a different life, a new, eternal life.  He entered into God’s life, and he brought us with him.  That makes all the difference in the world.  Jesus makes this distinction clear to Martha when he tells her that he is the Resurrection and the life. 
          Whether or not we receive this new, resurrected life depends on how we answer the question Jesus posed to Martha:  Do you believe this?  “To believe in Jesus means to accept everything that Jesus said as absolutely true, and to stake our lives upon that in perfect trust.”[5]  That’s a tall order.  In a world obsessed with scientific rationalism and challenged by sin, believing in God and his promise of eternal happiness and peace can be difficult.  Yet, we have every reason to believe. 

Historical and Biblical evidence tell us that in Jesus’ time, there was no shortage of individuals claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah.  All, but one, faded into oblivion.  Only one appeared to more than five hundred witnesses after his death (1 Corinthians 15: 6).  Then look happened?  The disciples, who were so terrified for their own lives after the crucifixion that they went into hiding, emerged three days later proclaiming the Good News of the Resurrection to the world.  “Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching.” [6]  The fact that the Apostles were willing to risk and give their lives for the faith can’t be explained by hallucinations, mystical experiences or an elaborate conspiracy to make up a really good story.  Such a story couldn’t have resulted in a radically new religious tradition that would spread throughout the world and endure more than two millennia.

          All of that said, I think the best testimony for the truth of the Resurrection is the very real impact that Jesus has on us today.  Jesus compels us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick, the lonely and the imprisoned.  Jesus moves us to forgive those who hurt us and reconcile with our estranged friends and relatives.  Jesus calls us to love our neighbor and promote peace in our world today.  And if all of that doesn’t convince you, if Christ weren’t alive and working in us today, why in the world would we all get up early on the morning after Saint Patrick’s Day to come to Church?  Saint Paul says it best in our second reading:  when Christ is in you, your Spirit is alive.  The profound inspiration that continues to work in us to change the world for the better can’t be the work of a dead man.  None of this would make sense but for Christ’s Resurrection from the dead and the promised resurrection of those who believe.  Let’s face it, believing all that Jesus taught, especially about the Resurrection, is a lifelong journey.  Whether we’re joining the Church in two weeks, or Cradle Catholics, we have to struggle continually to deepen our faith in Christ, believing that the Resurrection is real; it’s no joke.

          On April first, we’ll gather together as a community of believers to celebrate Christ’s saving Passion, his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven like we do every Sunday.  To emphasize the importance of the Resurrection to our faith, Pope Francis has ordered champagne at all Masses on Easter Sunday this year.  April Fools!  Could you imagine how crowded Mass would be if that were true?  No, receiving the promise of Christ’s Resurrection doesn’t require champagne or even fancy clothes.  It requires that we believe.  Historical, Biblical and spiritual evidence give us every reason to believe.  We’d be fools not to. 

[1] The Didache Bible (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014) note to John 11: 1-44, p. 1432.
[2] Id. at 1433.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2011) p. 214-242.
[4] Robert Barron, “The Meaning of Resurrection,” Lenten Reflections with Father Robert Barron, Easter Sunday, (April 5, 2015).
[5] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 110.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, p. 275.