However many times Jesus seems to have told his disciples that He would have to suffer and die for us, and then rise from the dead, the Scriptures show us again and again how much His resurrection caught them by surprise. In today’s Gospel, for example, Jesus appears to the women who had gone to anoint his body. Overjoyed at hearing from an angel the news of His resurrection, they leave the tomb but are still fearful. They are not expecting to see Him risen. But at the appearance described in today’s reading, they fall down before Him, embrace His feet, and do Him homage. He tells them not to be afraid, and to tell His brethren to go to Galilee where they will see Him.
Presumably there were in that day as in ours experiences of the resuscitation of someone far along in the dying process and the correlative difficulties in trying to ascertain whether someone is really dead.. Bur this sort of thing is not at all the case with the death of Jesus. Pilate had his centurion ascertain beyond the possibility of doubt that Jesus really died, and the Gospels recount the story of how blood and water flowed out when the centurion opened His side with a lance.
If even a disciple who had often heard Him say that He would rise from the dead had trouble thinking in the new categories of the resurrection, it is all the more understandable for the authorities who had brought about His death to think in these terms. Confronted with the soldiers’ report about an empty tomb, they concocted a tale about the theft of the body and bribed the soldiers who were on guard duty to say that His disciples had stolen the body. They simply could not imagine that the claims about the resurrection of Jesus might be true.
The veracity of the claim that He rose from the dead is a question for every age. The claim is so astonishing, it colors everything else. Perhaps today we take it for granted from having heard it so often. But when the claim was freshly made and heard for the first time – and for us as well, if we really think about it – the question might not have been about its truth so much as about its very possibility. If anything is final and definitive, death seems so. In this light we can understand the way in which the authorities reasoned when they paid off the guards. That the disciples had stolen the body would seemed far more likely than that He had really risen from the grave.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles shows us a very different St. Peter. Now, utterly fearless in carrying out his principal task as an apostle – being a witness to the resurrection of Jesus – Peter and the others show themselves transformed by the gift of supernatural fortitude that they had received along with all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And not only does the Holy Spirit set Peter on a course from which he and the others would never waver – even when faced with the prospect of martyrdom – but the Spirit gives him the gifts of wisdom and counsel needed to determine how to preach about this mysterious fact.
The bulk of what is recorded from Peter’s sermon in this part of Acts concerns the completely new light that Peter has been given about the scriptures. Suddenly Peter is graced with an understanding of Psalm 16 that was brand new. The promise that God had made to David that a descendant from his house would sit forever sit on David’s throne has now come into focus for him as actually a prophecy about Christ. This promise to David must have seemed empty and broken, for the throne was no longer occupied by anyone from David’s line but by the likes of Herod. Yet Peter’s experience of seeing Jesus risen lets him explain psalm 16 in a wholly new light, for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus makes everything different.
The passage from psalm 16 reads in this way:
I saw the Lord ever before me,
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Therefore my heart has been glad and my tongue has exulted;
my flesh, too, will dwell in hope,
because you will not abandon my soul to the nether world,
nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.
It is now clear to Peter that the psalm is not about David but about the Messiah. What is means is that David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, for Jesus had not been abandoned to the netherworld, nor did his flesh see corruption. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead; and of this fact Peter and all the apostles had been made witnesses.
Someone with a skeptical streak could presumably ask why anyone should believe Peter and the others. For any of us who have not seen Jesus risen, there is need for an act of the will if we are going to believe a witness – we will need to decide that we take Peter and the long chain of tradition between him and ourselves to be credible. Are they credible in making such an astonishing claim? It is quite understandable that we might prefer knowledge of what we ourselves have experienced, or what we can work out for ourselves by our own reasoning.
But what Jesus arranged for all of us is the testimony of those who saw Jesus after His resurrection from the dead. Are they credible? On this point we do well to borrow from a defense of apostolic credibility that St Paul supplies for us in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Either the Apostles really did see Him raised from the dead or they did not. Unless we accept that they really saw him, they must have been mistaken or must have had some sufficient motive for lying about what they saw.
What possible motive could they have had for claiming to have seen Him if they never did? If it were merely wish-fulfillment, it does not take much pain or the prospect of more pain ahead to realize that wishing something to be the case does not make it true. None of them grew rich or powerful from making a claim that they knew to be false – they lived as itinerant missionaries, and all but John died as martyrs. If they had generally talked nonsense or seemed crazed, one could perhaps chalk it up to madness, but there is no report of that. In fact, the sophistication of Peter’s speech here at Pentecost and that of the other sermons and writings that we have from the apostles gives evidence to the contrary. If they were just overly credulous but down deep unsure about what they saw, one would have expected at least some of them to have recanted or to have expressed some doubt in the face of actual pain and torture and the prospect of being put to death.
For St Paul, there is no good explanation for the resolute insistence of the Apostles that they saw Him risen except that they saw Him risen. What they saw made all the difference for them, and it was for this purpose that Jesus appointed as His witnesses. It can do the same for us, and it can be the reason for living our lives differently. Perhaps there was a day when we could have been content and comfortable in being Christian. The increasing challenges of our day, however, make this stance ever less possible for us. Let us be thankful for the witness of Mary Magdalen and the other Mary mentioned in today’s Gospel, and for the witness of Peter and the other Apostles recounted in the passage from Acts. They show us a pattern for our faith. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus makes everything else look different.