Today we continue our celebration, overcome with Paschal joy, because Christ is risen, alleluia! We rejoice because he is risen, and this is the central proclamation of our faith, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and rose again on the third day!
I often think, especially in this season, what it would have been like to have witnessed the Risen Lord with my own eyes—to be present in that room with the Apostles when Jesus appeared to them. I like to think that I’d be “overcome with Paschal joy,” but more probably, I’d be like the Apostles, who were terrified!
And Jesus knows they are afraid. He even calls them out, saying, “Why are you troubled, and why do questions arise in your hearts?” It’s a good question. You see, the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus had literally just told them that they had seen the risen Lord, and that they had supper with him. So why did the Apostles react with fear?
The Church historian, the Venerable Bede, says that they did not yet believe that real flesh could rise again from the grave. They thought they were seeing a ghost! And don’t we all have a natural fear of ghosts?
So then, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” But even that seems not to allay their fears. And so he has to demonstrate to them that it really is him, in real human flesh. So what does he do? He eats a piece of fish. Now, ghosts can’t eat, since they are pure spirit. Thus, Jesus proves to them that he is really there, and they have nothing to fear. He wants them to be at peace.
What does the peace of Christ look like? St. Gregory of Nazianzus says:
Let us then reverence the gift of peace, which Christ when He departed hence left to us. Peace both in name and reality is sweet, which also we have heard to be of God. Peace is a blessing commended by all, but observed by few. What then is the cause? Perhaps the desire of dominion or riches, or the envy or hatred of our neighbor, or some one of those vices into which we see men fall who know not God. For peace is peculiarly of God, who binds all things together in one. It is diffused through the whole creation, whose glory is tranquility. But in us it abides in our souls indeed by the following and imparting of the virtues, in our bodies by the harmony of our members and organs, of which the one is called beauty, the other health.
St. Gregory is saying that peace remains in our souls when we practice virtue, and a peaceful soul is a beautiful soul.
Of course, we all have times when our souls are not at peace. And, like the Apostles, we all have natural fears. For example, it is natural to be afraid of wild animals, like mountain lions or wild boars. It is natural to be afraid of tornadoes or of traffic accidents. We should be afraid of those things to an extent, in the interest of self-preservation. Yet, even though these things could be deadly, we Christians no longer have a reason to fear death. Because we have a supernatural peace that overrides our natural fears. We know that death is not the end. Death is swallowed up in victory! And this gives us great peace.
Christ’s death on the cross has destroyed death forever, and his resurrection has restored the eternal life that we lost with the sin of our first parents. He has opened up for us the possibility of living a life of grace. And this is how we know that we are living the life of grace—that we have been forgiven of our sins. As John’s letter states,
“He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world. The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep
his commandments. Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them.”
How are we assured of the forgiveness of our sins? Now, one of the most prevalent heresies right now, right here in central Texas is the idea that we can forgive our own sins. Typically, this error takes a very subtle approach that sounds like this: “Well, Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and I’ve accepted that Jesus is Lord, therefore my sins are forgiven.” This way of thinking starts with two good premises, but it skips ahead to the conclusion by leaving out a few very essential steps.
Let’s ask ourselves, how is it that I know Jesus? How did I come to know him, and to know all about him? You may say, “My parents taught me.” Great! This is the duty and responsibility of good Christian parents—to introduce their children to Jesus. Perhaps at some point, your parents opened up the Bible and read to you about Jesus. Or perhaps they took you to Mass so that you could encounter Jesus in the Word and in the Eucharist. Perhaps they took you to CCD and taught you how to pray at home. Yes! This, too, is how the faith is passed on. Or maybe you came to know Jesus later in life. I will go out on a limb and guess that at some point you encountered a Christian, and it was thru this disciple of Jesus Christ that you came to know him. Perhaps he or she opened the Scriptures and explained their meaning to you.
My point is this: None of us would know who Jesus is, or that he rose from the dead, were it not for the Church! The Church, that is, the followers of Christ, have introduced you to Jesus and taught you about him. And this Church was established by Jesus Christ himself. Have you ever thought that it didn’t have to be this way? God could have instantly infused knowledge of himself into each of us at birth, but instead, he chose to involve us in the process of making himself known to future generations. So, in order for the good news to be proclaimed, he established his Church. Some early members of this Church wrote down the things that Jesus said and did, and these writings became the New Testament of the Bible. So, even if you “read your way into the Church,” it was thru the writings of Christians that you did so. The Church makes Christians.
Now, Jesus entrusted more than just his story to the Church. He also gave certain members the ability to forgive sins in the name of God—a pretty amazing thing, considering that this is one of the reasons they crucified Jesus in the first place—he was forgiving peoples’ sins in the name of God. But this was the means by which he has chosen to forgive us. We know this because of the gospel reading from last week, when Jesus appeared to the Apostles and said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Now, I don’t know about you, but if I am going to forgive somebody their sins, I am going to need to know what it is I am forgiving. And this implies confession. In the epistle of James, he writes, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” And even Peter says in our first reading today, “Repent and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”
Now, if these Apostles, who knew Jesus personally, and who were present in the room when Jesus appeared and gave them the authority to forgive, if these Apostles are imploring us to repent and confess our sins, then it stands to reason that this is the way that Jesus has established for us to be forgiven.
So, back to our modern heresy: Jesus died for my sins, I believe in Jesus, so my sins are forgiven. Let’s see if we can restate it so that we fill in what’s missing.
- Jesus died to atone for my sins
- I believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God
- I recognize that I am a sinner, in need of his grace
- I acknowledge my sins in my heart
- I appeal to God for forgiveness thru his chosen minister
- God forgives me thru the words and prayers of that minister
- My sins are forgiven!
In short, we confess our sins to Jesus’ priest because that is how Jesus has chosen to forgive us—thru the ministry of the Church. In the prayer of absolution, the priest actually prays, “Thru the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace…” This is the true peace that Christ has come into the world to give us—the knowledge that we have been forgiven of our sins, we are in a state of grace, and we are destined for eternal joy in Heaven.
This is the peace that drives out all fear. This is the peace that makes us certain that we will see God. This is the peace that makes us unafraid even of death.
There is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York named George Rutler. On September 11, 2001, Fr. Rutler was in his Manhattan parish. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center tower, he immediately hailed a taxi and said, “Take me to the tower.” As the taxi neared the chaos and terror, seeing thousands of people running for their lives, the driver became overcome with fear. He said, “Father, this ride’s on me, but I ain’t going no closer. You’re on your own from here.” Father Rutler, knowing the danger he was in for, exited the cab, and rushed to the foot of the towers. There, he saw dozens of firefighters and first responders preparing to enter the towers, knowing that they would never return. Fr. Rutler did what Christ had ordained him to do. He began absolving the firemen of their sins, granting them the assurance of God’s grace and the promise of eternal life. Those firemen rushed into the burning buildings and gave up their lives, saving countless neighbors from the unspeakable death that awaited them. Were they afraid? On a natural level, of course they were. But what gave them the supernatural courage to enter those burning towers? The peace of knowing that their souls were made pure. They had nothing to fear, not even death. They were certain that death is not the end, and that “no one has greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Fr. Rutler saved many souls that day, not just those of the firemen, but of those who the firemen helped to safety. Without the peace and courage bestowed on them by the Sacrament of Penance, the firemen would have been paralyzed by the same fear of the cab driver. Fr. Rutler survived the destruction of the twin towers, and he continues his ministry in New York today.
The peace we receive from Jesus Christ, the peace we offer one another, is the peace of knowing that death is not the end. It is the peace of knowing that we will see each other again in Heaven. It is the peace of having a soul made pure in the waters of Baptism and the Sacrament of Penance. Fear nothing, Christian, for nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and even death is swallowed up in Easter victory. Peace be with you.
 1 Corinthians 15:54
 1 John 2:2-4
 James 5:16
 Acts 3:19
 John 15:13
 Romans 8:35