Apr 6, 2012

"He saw and believed . . ." Do I?

Acts 10: 34a, 37-43
Colossians 3: 1-4

John 20: 1-5

President Ronald Reagan frequently used a phrase when discussing relations between the United States and the Soviet Union which is often quoted: “Trust but verify.” Actually this is a well-known Russian proverb that Reagan enjoyed so much that one time his counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev stated, “You repeat that at every meeting!” Reagan responded, “I like it.”

Clearly what the proverb implies is that a relationship between people can be built on trust but that trust will only be won by the other party when the reason for trust is checked out.  “Once I can confirm that you are telling me the truth, I will trust you.” So it begins with a positive but uncertain basis that hopefully ends over time in genuine confidence.   If you’re describing political and international relations between countries, or scientific theory, this proverb is valuable.

But, in the realm of faith and in the fantastic claim of the Resurrection of Christ we may have to take a bit different approach.  The story of Jesus’ resurrection has been labeled by critics of religion and people of faith as fairy tale, delusion, or a desperate attempt by followers of Jesus to keep his memory alive. Yet, more than 2,000 years later, we are still claiming this same truth.  But, how does one verify the Resurrection of Jesus?

What proof did the Apostles, the first to make this astounding claim that their teacher, prophet, and wonder-worker who had just three days before been brutally executed by the Roman forces, is now alive – return from the dead! It all began with their testimony, after all.

First, they needed to be convinced themselves.  Jesus would often make statements which alluded to his arrest, death, and his return three days later.  When he walked through the outer court of the Temple in Jerusalem and in a fury turned over the tables of money changers bilking people coming to offer sacrifice he challenged: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2: 19).

The Apostles were no doubt somewhat confused by Jesus’ cryptic statements but also likely hopeful there was a deeper meaning to what Jesus was claiming. Was he speaking in parable or symbol or was he stating some event for the future? When chided by Jewish authorities of his time, Jesus would claim that his works (miracles) were proof that all he said was true. “Trust me because of what I do, not just what I say.” Veracity was a cherished and essential point in ancient times. 

So, according to the Gospel of John we hear on Easter morning (Jn 20: 1-9) Mary of Magdala was the first to find the tomb of Jesus now empty that early Sunday morning. John tells us that she “ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved (John), and told them ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb . . .’” Mary announces the empty tomb but not the resurrection.  She naturally fears that the body of Jesus has been stolen.

Peter and John run in order to verify her claim. We have no idea what was in the mind and heart of either of these disciples but clearly they were eager to see. Once they arrived, still no risen Lord but the empty tomb and burial cloths (Shroud of Turin?). John goes in to the tomb – he sees and believes.  Believes what? That Mary’s story is true or that Jesus has risen? As John indicates, they did yet not understand the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Can they now verify that Jesus’ own claim of his resurrection was indeed true?

So, we like the disciples today are faced with the same question.  An empty tomb, the claim of a woman who indeed loved Jesus, two eager disciples who seek verification and perhaps hope against hope that the body of Jesus was not stolen but something far more mysterious had taken place. 

As the Easter season unfolds, we will hear many more confirmations of the truth of the Resurrection.  Jesus, I assume, must have well known how important it would be to confirm the resurrection through many succeeding proofs.  They will see him, he will eat with them, he will speak to them and to many others, and they will touch him.  And thus they will come to trust in the truth of this astounding claim – that Christ is indeed raised for us.

So, this Easter season is the perfect time to challenge our personal faith and the temptation to be skeptical, to doubt, or simply dismiss the risen presence of Christ as being true. But, in the end, most of us came to believe in the same way that the earliest of Christians did – someone told us it was true and invited me to be open to that possibility. Our family, our friends, parishioners who we met all have played some role in the formation of our faith.  In short, we believe because they believe.

We come to know someone who believes and invites us to open our hearts; we see their lives lived and we are inspired.  We visit a vibrant and loving community of Christians and realize that there is a deeper reason for them to live as they do than just being nice people. 

Verification is provided through the lives of so many martyrs in Christian history who went to their own deaths rather than deny their faith. Christ was alive for them and he remains so for us.  The lives of our saintly brothers and sisters tell us that being a Christian is standing in trust of a God who poured out his life that we may live fully alive.

The resurrection claims of Christ are fantastic to say the least.  But, with God all things are possible and the transformation of our lives from sin to virtue become possible because of Christ who is alive. 

In the Eucharist we encounter him along with our brothers and sisters.  We are standing before the empty tomb every time we profess faith in the Lord and live that out in his Holy Church.  But, are we just staring into darkness or do we run to tell others?