The gospel passage we read today is the last we shall read on the Sundays after Easter relating appearances of Our risen Lord. This one occurs near the end of St Luke’s gospel. Again the emphasis is on the joy of the disciples. Their joy was so great that they could not believe it, and they stood dumbfounded. Jesus took the initiative and asked: Have you anything here to eat? The fact that he was able to eat a piece of fish before their eyes satisfied them that he really was there in the flesh; he was not an illusion.
This incident follows the return of the disciples from Emmaus. When Jesus joined them as they walked towards the village, he drew their attention to all the passages in Scripture which spoke about the Messiah – this without revealing that he was speaking of himself. It was only when they were at table that they recognized him in the breaking of bread. Back in Jerusalem he repeated the lesson for the Eleven: Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms has to be fulfilled. And after explaining everything he concluded: So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. And the punch line is: You are witnesses to this.
Once the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, their fear left them and they did indeed begin to testify to the fact that Jesus, who had been crucified, had risen from the dead. His death won pardon for our sins. He is the Son of God. The Acts of the Apostles is concerned mainly with just two apostles: Peter and – above all – Paul. In the early part we can read several of Peter’s sermons, and today’s first reading was taken from one of them. Addressing a Jewish audience, he tells them bluntly: the same Jesus you handed over and then disowned in the presence of Pilate … It was you who accused the Holy One, the Just One, you who demanded the reprieve of a murderer while you killed the prince of life. Peter recognizes that there were mitigating circumstances. They didn’t know that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. And in any case the prophecies had to be fulfilled. When all was accomplished, God raised him from the dead, and to that fact we are the witnesses.
I expect you remember that last Sunday we read St John’s account of Jesus’ apparition to the disciples on that first Easter Sunday evening. It was then that Jesus gave them the power to forgive sins – the sacrament of reconciliation. St John touches on this matter in the letter from which our second reading was taken. It is concerned not so much with what priests can do for sinners as with what Jesus does for us all: If anyone should sin, we have our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is just; he is the sacrifice that takes our sins away, and not only ours, but the whole world’s. Jesus’ suffering and death have won us pardon, but if we do sin after Baptism he will continue to argue that we should not get our just deserts. He never ceases to implore the Divine Mercy for us.
To recapitulate: in the gospel Jesus told his followers that they were to be witnesses to his death and resurrection. In the Acts we see that they had begun to do that. Bearing witness to the resurrection is expected of every Christian – including ourselves.
A lady who heard me last week suggested that I should tell you something of my experience of missionary work in Africa. It is a form of bearing witness, but there is much more to it than standing up in a market place and shouting “Jesus is alive”. For a dozen years I worked in country parishes in Burkina Faso, a poor, dry, land-locked country in West Africa. Missionary activity began there in 1900 and has made good progress to the extent that there are now 15 dioceses, each headed by an African bishop, with many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Despite that progress there are still many people who follow the African Traditional Religion, who make sacrifices to the spirits of their ancestors asking them to intercede on their behalf with the Supreme Being. There are many Muslims too. In the cities you find that the great majority are either Christians or Muslims, but in country districts many still follow the traditional religion.
Why does anybody change? The motives are usually mixed. People follow their friends. Or there may be economic reasons such as not being able to hold a stall in the market unless they become Muslims. Or – and this is important – they may be attracted by the mutual support they see in the Christian community, and the hymns they hear the Christians sing as they worship. If somebody wants to become a Muslim, it’s very easy: they just have to raise their finger and say: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”. This can be done without giving the person any instruction at all – which means that there are lots of very ignorant Muslims around. By contrast, someone who wants to become a Christian, must follow instruction for several years; at the end of each year they will be examined on what they have learned and if they don’t answer well enough they’ll have to repeat the year. Meanwhile, they are expected to participate in the life of the Christian community, come to Mass regularly, take part in working bees and live upright virtuous lives.
On the Sundays of the last Lent before their Baptism, the catechumens take a number of steps towards reception of the sacrament. On one Sunday, for instance, the priest formally teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. In fact they will have learned it long before, but on this Sunday it is transmitted to them, phrase by phrase, in the presence of the whole community. When we got to that part of the Mass on that Sunday I would always ask the catechumens alone to lead the community in saying the prayer.
Their initiation reached its climax during the Easter Vigil when, after years of preparation, whole crowds of catechumens were baptized. At the beginning of Mass they were dressed in their ordinary clothes, but once the waters had been poured they went out into the night with their godfather or godmother and put on new white clothes, then processed back into the church while the choir – and congregation – sang this joyous hymn “Tônd fâa soob daare” (= “The day of our Baptism”). And the festivities continue on Easter Sunday.
Missionaries do much more than teach the faith and administer the sacraments. We work at promoting development, sinking wells and bores, trying to improve agriculture, maternal and child welfare, responsible citizenship. The tasks never end. All are aspects of bearing witness to God’s love for humanity. And we have vacancies! (Quentin Howard)