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Sermon Of The Week: Easter 2000
By BISHOP ROBERT N. LYNCH, ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF ST. PETERSBURG:
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000
Dear sisters and brothers in the risen Lord:
During the early part of the Second World War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, beating a retreat in advance of a Japanese onslaught in the Philippines, promised the people of that island nation, "I shall return." MacArthur sought to bring assurance to a beleaguered people that better moments would be coming -- a promise he ultimately was able to deliver a few years later with the liberation of the Philippines by the allied forces. I wonder how many people believed MacArthur when he boldly delivered his promise.
This evening we have heard the account from the Gospel of Mark of the first news of the resurrection. The women approach the tomb, out of love and not out of any particular degree of faith, and are there greeted by an angel who reminds them of a promise Jesus had made to them some time before: "You need not be amazed! ... He has been raised up. He is not here ... He is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you. (Mark 16:1-8)
If Mark were not given to brevity, he might have recorded the angel as saying, "Didn't you understand? He told you time and again that he would destroy death, rise from death, join you again after death. Woman, man, where is your faith?"
Well, our faith as Christians depends entirely on our belief that Christ did indeed arise from the dead. Sure, we wish we could prove it beyond a few of his friends who witnessed to these events 2,000 years ago, but we can't. For us, it is a matter of faith.
There is a deep chasm of difference between certainty and faith, but it is very possible to live with both in one's life.
I remember some lines spoken by Judas in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar: "Every time I look at you, I don't understand. Why you let the things you do get so out of hand. You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned. Why'd you choose such a backward time in such a strange land? If you'd come today, you would have reached the whole nation. Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication."
In the musical, in real life, in the Gospels, Judas could not understand that faith is the substance of things unseen. We do not believe in Jesus Christ the way we believe it will be sunny and warm here tomorrow. We believe because, by believing, we ourselves, and not historical or scientific facts, are changed. Faith -- which operates in the realm of the probable, plausible and possible. Faith engages us always to embrace the impossible. We do not need faith to embrace those things which we rationally or empirically see. Faith is that which we cannot see. He simply is not here. Don't you get it?
The great English Catholic, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, was once involved in an argument with an atheist who said, "Mr. Chesterton, you are an intelligent man. How can you believe that a man died and came to life again? It is absurd. It is physically impossible." Chesterton is reported to have slammed his fist on the table and replied, "I believe precisely because it is impossible."
So our faith in Christ's resurrection, which is at the heart of all we believe, must move us to answer other faith questions. Where is he?
I trust we will not make the same mistakes as his disciples and forget what he told us while he was living among us. To do that is to spurn faith, to cheapen faith, to abandon faith.
"Behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of time."
"Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, in their midst shall the Father and I be."
"Take this bread and eat it; drink this cup; for this is my body, this is my blood."
"Go forth throughout the whole world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
"Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they shall be retained."
Those are some of the things which he said to us while he dwelt among us. They are indicative of where he is to be found in today's world and in the church he left behind, but they all require faith for they challenge the popular parameters of plausibility.
St. Paul got it right, did he not? "If Jesus Christ is not truly risen, our faith is in vain." That a man should rise from the dead is an amazing claim, an extraordinary claim, an impossible claim according to everything that we can see. But for that very reason, just because the claim is impossible, it opens up the greatest and most amazing of all possibilities. Christ is risen. Faith is possible.
This evening we come to the vigil better prepared than the women of old. We know "the rest of the story." Tonight darkness and light compete to remind us of ancient events. A world created by a loving creator, a civilization spared by a loving God, a people spared Pharaoh's wrath by a covenanted God, the same people called to return to fidelity having strayed from God but never abandoned by him. Water to remind us of God's life-giving presence, to moisten the drought of our disbelief.
True, he is not to be found in the empty tomb. He is everywhere we are, just as he said he would be. And he longs to see our faces in the love we return to him and the care we have for one another.
Three sacraments of the church now await us -- each an opportunity to meet Jesus. Baptism for a few, confirmation for a few more, and Eucharist, his last gift as a man among us prior to his death and resurrection. And in faith we shall meet him where he is, today, not 2,000 years ago. And if you cannot touch him, anoint his feet, wrap your arms around him in an embrace of friendship and love, look into his eyes, hear his voice as you might wish, but still you believe, then truly you are an Easter person. You have come tonight both out of love and faith, and the latter shall sustain and nourish the former.
Bishop Lynch delivered this homily Saturday at the Easter Vigil Mass at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. The Diocese of St. Petersburg has 358,000 Catholics, 73 parishes, six missions and a pastoral center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The diocese covers five counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.
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