"We can be sure that we know God only by keeping his commandments"
(Readings: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for Mass this Sunday illustrate some of the questions the first followers of Jesus grappled with in the initial period after his resurrection. As they made sense of the events God had pulled them into, they discovered aspects of faith and reached conclusions about God's character and God's plan of salvation which are just as valuable for us today.
As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of Christ's love we acknowledge our sins and weaknesses and ask God for his pardon and strength.
Jesus' resurrection, which is the central reality of the Christian faith, is a mystery: not a puzzle with no adequate answer but something which the first followers of Jesus knew from actual experience but then struggled to find the right images and the right language to describe. The reality was that they saw Jesus alive again after his crucifixion. But there was more to this reality than they could grasp with their minds and explain with ordinary words: this was the mystery.
The gospel passage for today's Mass illustrates this experience. When Jesus appears to the disciples for the first time they're frightened and alarmed and their first reaction is to think that they're seeing a ghost. Jesus responds by going out of his way to show that he has very definitely risen from death in his physical body, "flesh and bones" as he says himself. Then he eats some food to accentuate the point.
St. Luke is emphasising that in his risen body Jesus is the same as before. In other places in the New Testament the writers emphasise that he is different from before: his physical appearance has a radiant or luminous quality - shining brightly as in his Transfiguration - and his friends don't recognise him, at least to begin with. His risen body is also different in that it won't age or decay: one of the implications of the Ascension.
These were the conclusions that the disciples reached after seeing Jesus again on several occasions after his death. Their experiences made a huge impact on their outlook and behaviour - their fear evaporated and they became courageous preachers of the Gospel - as the first reading shows.
On our part, as present-day followers of Christ, we don't have proofs that we can produce of Jesus' Resurrection, scientific studies of what his risen body was like. Someone who insists on that kind of information will never become a believer.
What we have is the testimony of the disciples: their descriptions of their meetings with Christ and the evidence of the transformation these meeting worked in them. Those are the experiences that the Church is founded on.
In one sense it all depends on whether we believe that the disciples were telling the truth or not. I personally believe they were - that they had no reason for lying, and that in fact the pressures were all the other way. I accept their testimony about seeing the risen Jesus and I accept the aspect of mystery about it: that even for those who saw him directly, his risen state was real but difficult to describe and explain.
That's what we mean by faith and it's this attitude of faith that the Church's proclamation seeks to elicit from people, as we see St. Peter doing in the first reading. God raised Jesus from the dead, he says, "and to that fact we are the witnesses". Come to faith in Christ, he's saying, not on the basis of any proofs we can offer, but on the basis of our testimony about what we've witnessed.
Then there's a second aspect to the readings this Sunday: the consequences, or the concrete demands, of faith in Christ.
"Now you must repent," St. Peter tells the crowd he's preaching to, "so that your sins may be wiped out". And St. John says in the second reading, "We can be sure that we know God only by keeping his commandments". When anyone obeys God's commandments," John goes on, "God's love comes to perfection in him".
There's a common thread running through these remarks by different writers. Accepting the apostles' proclamation that Jesus is God's son, now raised from death, isn't just a mental conviction. It summons us to a transformation of character and behaviour, and in fact the impact God has on the person who is open to him in faith brings about this transformation.
According to St. John in particular we can't claim to know God genuinely unless we reflect God's values and attitudes in our own attitudes, patterns of behaviour and ways of treating other people.
This is partly a warning or at least an appeal to members of the Christian community to be constantly examining their own motives and making a disciplined effort to put Christ's commandments into practice. Knowing God, St. John is saying, leads to keeping the commandments. But then the reverse is also true: keeping the commandments leads to knowing God.
We don't always have a strong sense that God is immediately present to us. In fact often he seems distant, unreal, unavailable to us - more so when we're under pressure or in difficulty in some way.
But especially at those moments, if we persevere in carrying out the practical demands of discipleship, we'll eventually grow in the sense of God's presence and activity. Gradually we'll become more like God and God's love will "come to perfection" in us. He won't remain unknown to the person who makes the effort to live out the practical demands of the Gospel.
St. John's advice might be particularly valuable to the many people today who find faith in God difficult. Every Christian, at one point or another, will have an experience of the "absence" of God: the sense that he has somehow departed, is no longer providing support, or simply doesn't exist. When this happens many believers gradually drift away from faith altogether.
But all the spiritual experts in the Church's history have echoed John's sentiments: as far as possible we should try to persist and persevere in the way of Christian life and when we do that, knowledge of God, a sense of friendship with God, will re-emerge. In fact, when we persevere in "keeping the commandments" our acquaintance with God is growing and strengthening all the time, even if we don't have a strong conscious sense that it's happening.
Those are the two main lessons that emerge from readings this Sunday: our faith in Jesus' Resurrection rests on the testimony of the disciples who witnessed it. Faith comes out of a trust in the truth of that testimony, which struggled to describe the mystery of what was witnessed. And the second lesson, reflecting the preaching of the first Christians, is that faith in God mandates the practice of holiness - but also that the practice of holiness, persevered in, will strengthen our faith in God.