Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reasons Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Pope Francis

(Easter 2013: This homily was given on March 31, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.) 
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2013]


Some people think that Christians are supposed to have “blind faith.”

But that’s not true.  That’s a lie which is usually told by men and women who want an excuse to avoid taking the claims of Christianity seriously.  Perhaps they’re afraid that if they DO make the effort to examine Jesus and his teaching with an open mind, they might start to become believers themselves—which means they’d have to change the way they’re living.

And that they don’t want to do!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that we are to have good, solid, rational reasons for what we believe about Jesus and his gospel (what the Catechism calls, “motives of credibility”).  And these “motives of credibility” are to show that (and here I quote): “the assent of faith is ‘by no means a blind impulse of the mind.’”  (CCC, 156)

The event we celebrate at Easter—the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—is, of course, at the very center of Christianity.  As St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless.  You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead.  If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men.”

You can’t say it any more directly or any more clearly than that!

So, why do you believe it?  (I presume that you do because you’re here this morning.)

What are your “motives of credibility” when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection?

I can’t answer that question for you, but I can answer that question for me—and I will in this homily.  This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a list of some of the most important and noteworthy reasons why I believe that Jesus Christ is risen, and alive—and with us.

The first one I’ll mention is the witness of the apostles.  Their testimony that Jesus is alive and that they personally saw him and talked with him and ate and drank with him after Good Friday is very compelling!  Now you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, how do you know that they didn’t make it all up?  How do you know that they didn’t steal the body and then make all their claims about Jesus being alive?”

Well, I don’t know those things with absolute certainty.  But I do know that, if you believe that the apostles did in fact fabricate the story, then you’re left with an even more difficult question: Why?  Why would they have done it?  What could possibly have been their motivation?  It’s not as if they stood to make a lot of money by telling the story!  There we no big “book deals” to be had from selling their story of the risen Jesus to a Jerusalem publishing house.   There were no appearances on “60 Minutes” or “The Tonight Show” that they could look forward to!  Quite oppositely, they knew very well that if they persisted in saying that Jesus of Nazareth had actually come back from the grave, then they would probably end up like Jesus ended up—DEAD!

But that didn’t matter, did it?  They preached the resurrection of Jesus with certitude and conviction, knowing full well that it would bring them intense suffering and perhaps even martyrdom.

Chuck Colson, the converted Watergate criminal, said it well: “People will give their lives for something they believe to be true.  They will never give their lives for something they know to be false.”

In other words, had the apostles known that the resurrection was a lie, they never would have died for it.

So the witness of the apostles is one reason why I believe in the resurrection.  A second reason (which you could say is a corollary to the first) is the change in the apostles themselves.  Scripture is very clear about it: before the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, these men were cowardly, fearful, immature, and (to put it mildly) not very bright!  But after they encountered the risen Christ—and after he returned to heaven and sent them the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—they were completely different: they were strong; they were fearless; they were emotionally and spiritually mature; and they were incredibly insightful!  

How do you explain the change?  I explain it by saying that Jesus made them that way, because he was risen and alive and was operating in their lives! 

Those who don’t believe in the resurrection have to come up with another explanation.

A third reason I believe in the resurrection is much more personal: it’s my own experience!  I believe that I’ve experienced the presence of the risen Christ in my life many times and in many ways—especially (though not exclusively) in the difficult moments.  I’m sure many of you here could—and would—make the very same claim.

The final reason I’ll share with you today as to why I believe in the resurrection of Jesus is this: the experience of the Church.  If Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, and if he’s the head and the Church is his body (as St. Paul tells us in First Corinthians), then what happened to “the head” 2,000 years ago should also happen to “the body” now!  (In other words, if Jesus really is alive and present in his Church, then the experience of the historical Jesus 2,000 years ago should, in many ways, parallel the experience of the Church today.)

And isn’t that what we see?  Look, for example, at how the world responded to the events that surrounded the resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis. 

C.S. Lewis said that Jesus, when he walked the face of this earth, inspired three reactions in people: hatred, terror and adoration.  That is to say, people were either passionately for him or passionately against him.  Almost nobody was lukewarm when name “Jesus of Nazareth” was mentioned in first century Palestine!

And so it is with the Catholic Church today.  Mention the Church in casual conversation with co-workers or friends or family members, and most of them will be either at one extreme or the other.  Very few, if any, will have no opinion about the Church and her teaching.

But that’s exactly what we should expect!  The Church inspires great love, as Jesus did; and the Church inspires intense hatred, as Jesus did.

And the Church inspires great interest, as Jesus did!  I was in my car when Pope Francis got elected, and every one of the stations that I normally listen to had coverage of the event.  Every one of them!  I couldn’t have found any music even if I had wanted to!  The next day the headline of the Providence Journal read, “Humble Pastor as Pope.”  It was in huge, bold print—right above a picture of the Holy Father that took up half the page!

Gee, I thought the Catholic Church was irrelevant, and didn’t matter!  The people in the secular press and media are always telling us that the Church is out of date, behind the times, and needs to change her teaching before she disappears!

Really?  Well, if that’s actually the case, then why are they all so interested in what goes on in the Church?  I don’t know about you, but personally I have no interest whatsoever in things that don’t matter—and I think most people feel the same way.  So why are so many of those in the secular world obsessed with us?

I believe it’s because they realize, subconsciously and intuitively, that the Catholic Church speaks with the voice of the risen Christ!  As secular journalist Kathleen Parker put it in a column she wrote just before Pope Francis was elected, “Whatever one’s personal opinion of Catholicism (I am not Catholic), the church remains a bulwark against Western secularization and the growing culture of choice.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus would be if he were still walking on this planet among us!

Even the terrible scandals involving bad priests in the last ten years testify to the connection between the Church today and the historical Jesus who is still alive and with us.  The John Jay College for Criminal Justice estimated that about 4% of priests were engaged in this type of evil activity during a 42-year period.  Well, lest we forget, out of the first twelve priests, one turned out to be an incredibly evil man: a thief and a traitor.  Mathematically speaking, this means that Jesus lost 8% of his first group of priests (one out of twelve is roughly 8%), so the failure of 4% today shouldn’t surprise us all that much.

But neither should the great sanctity and charity present in other members of the Church—priests and laity alike!  Is it a coincidence that the Catholic Church is the largest private, charitable organization in the world (as Bill O’Reilly reminded Jay Leno the other night on Leno’s TV program)?  No, it’s not a coincidence—at least it’s not a coincidence if you believe that the risen Christ lives and acts through the Church!

Is it a coincidence that committed, serious, devout Catholics like John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are among the best and most loving people in human history?  Once again, it’s not a coincidence if you believe that Jesus Christ is risen and alive and is living in the hearts of holy people in his Church in our generation!

It’s good for us to gather today—as we should every Sunday—to renew our faith in the Lord’s resurrection.  But our world today demands more than simple belief!  It also demands holiness; and it demands that we have reasons—good, rational reasons—for believing the things that we say we believe.  You’ve just heard some of mine.

What are yours?