The continuing presence of the risen Lord
(Readings: Acts 2:14; 22-33; Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday again draw a picture of the first Christian believers in the period immediately after Jesus' Resurrection. As a result of their unique contact with the risen Jesus, the disciples were filled with God's Spirit and filled with an overwhelming sense of the salvation which Christ had brought them. The gospel passage carries the message that for those of us who come after those first witnesses, who don't have the privilege of that unique encounter with Christ, we meet him and receive life from him in the Eucharist, the "breaking of bread".
As we come together to to celebrate the Eucharist again, we call to mind our faults and failings and weaknesses, and we ask God for his pardon and healing.
In the gospel passage last week Jesus appeared among the small circle of his disciples when they were still in hiding shortly after the crucifixion. He breathed on them, St. John says, and they "received the Holy Spirit". This was the experience of Pentecost, which different writers of the New Testament describe in different ways.
The New Testament authors don't try to analyse exactly what happened or what sort of experience the disciples underwent when they received the Holy Spirit. They spend more time describing the way it affected them and the radical change it brought about in them.
That's the focus of the readings this Sunday: the way that seeing Jesus alive again and being given the Spirit of God by the risen Jesus affected the disciples.
First of all, it caused a sort of awakening in them, the dawning of a new understanding of God and the salvation he was offering in Christ.
All the time that they had travelled around the countryside with Jesus listening to him preach, witnessing his miracles and so on, the disciples had often misunderstood the significance of his words and actions. They had often misinterpreted what God's Reign was all about.
But after the Resurrection, and after Pentecost, it seems that everything became a lot clearer to them. In the experience of Pentecost - whatever it actually consisted of - they were touched by God in a way that enlightened and completely transformed them. They were suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of having been saved: rescued and freed from a "useless way of life", as St. Peter says in the second reading. Now they seemed to experience God and his guidance more forcefully than they ever had before.
So the first effect of Pentecost was this awakening, a new experience of Godís presence and influence.
The second effect was the effect on their conduct and activity. The men who had so often failed to understand Jesus' message of salvation became preachers of the message themselves, and the transformation which had taken place in them was demonstrated in the new confident, knowledgeable, profound, way they preached. They were different men, different characters to what they had been before.
Peter explains the cause of this transformation at the end of that passage in the first reading. "What you are seeing and hearing," he tells the crowd, "is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit".
When we come to the gospel passage which is linked with these other two readings, the theme is slightly different.
After Jesus' Resurrection the disciples had the unique experience of seeing him, being in his company and talking with him. The "outpouring of the Spirit" that they received was a unique and unrepeatable event as well. So the strength of their belief in Christ, their conviction about the salvation he brought, was based on their own direct experience.
For the rest of us, coming after the first generation of Christians, our contact with Christ is less immediate to say the least. We haven't had the privileged experiences that they had. We have to meet Christ and find salvation in the belief and the prayer and the practice of Christ's Body, the Church, passed on down through the centuries.
St. Luke's message to us his readers in these final lines of his gospel is that although Christ isn't directly present to us the way he was to his first followers, he is present, and remains present, to us in the "breaking of the bread" - not just in the bread and wine that become his Body and Blood during the Eucharist, but in the whole spirit of prayer and solidarity in Christ that the Eucharist creates in us, if we approach it and take part in it in the right spirit.
The disciples may well have encountered the risen Jesus, and received God's Spirit, in a dramatic way. Luke's point - which came out of the experience of the early Church communities in any case - was that for all the later generations of disciples, the same encounter with the risen Jesus, the same awakening and outpouring of God's Spirit, is available to us especially through the Eucharist.
I know that God calls people in all kinds of circumstances and make his presence felt in people's lives in whatever way he wants. God might be able to work more effectively in an atheist who actually practices the commandment of love in regard to other people than he might be in a person who calls himself a Christian but refuses to dedicate himself in any way to serving the needs of others.
But it's also true I think, in the context of our own Catholic faith, that when people are in earnest about their spiritual life and their whole relationship with Christ and with God, they come to value the Eucharist more and more as a support and a means of progress in holiness, and a source of contact with Christ.
It's difficult to think of any of the saints, for example - ordinary people like us who happen to have been more open to God's influence on them - who were indifferent or casual or disrespectful towards the Mass or anything connected with the Mass. The language they tended to use about the Eucharist was always more in the direction of deep gratitude and reverence for something which they experienced as giving them nourishment and drawing them more fully into God's own life.
Thatís the direction that todayís gospel points in for all of us. It shows how early the Eucharist came to be understood as the main source of Jesus' continued presence among the community of his followers. And that's the point that St. Luke wants to leave his readers with in the closing lines of his gospel.
So I would finish by suggesting that perhaps this Sunday we could pray for the whole Church community, but especially for ourselves here today, that we'll take Luke's point and appreciate the Eucharist more as a real meeting-point with Christ and that we'll be able to "recognise him in the breaking of bread" as readily as his first followers did.