Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; Ps 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9; 1 Jn 2:1-5a; Lk 24:35-48
It’s funny how the presence of certain people can shift our perspective on our fears and our problems. I once heard a story about a meeting between the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Kolvenbach, and Pope John Paul II. According to the story (which at least has the ring of truth), John Paul was by this point already quite diminished by Parkinson’s Disease. Fr. Kolvenbach, then more than 80 years old, had come to ask for permission to step down as General. John Paul declined his resignation and Fr. Kolvenbach accepted his decision tranquilly. When he returned to Jesuit headquarters, his fellow Jesuits inquired about the meeting, and Fr. Kolvenbach observed rather matter-of-factly, “It’s very difficult for me to stand before this Pope and argue that I am too old and too frail to do my job.” In light of John Paul’s own heroic perseverance, in other words, even substantial concerns and frailties came to seem rather manageable by comparison.
The presence of the Risen Christ seems to have had a similar effect on his first disciples—only more so. He finds them timidly huddled in the upper room. He immediately senses their fear: “Peace be with you … Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?” The words by themselves don’t seem to have much effect. But the situation changes considerably when Christ invites them to consider who is addressing them: “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” Only then do the disciples become “incredulous for joy.”
After all, it is one thing for a person in the prime of life to say, “Don’t worry. Cheer up.” But it’s quite another thing when a man who just survived an all-out attack from the powers of evil says, “Peace be with you,” It’s quite another thing when a man, after suffering cruelly, rises from death and returns to ask, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?” Then his words and his peace become deep beyond all telling.
After all, what was there to fear in his presence? Physical suffering? Look, he was once wounded, and now even his wounds are glorious. Shame and rejection? Look, he was once despised and rejected, and now lives forever in the delight and the glory of his Father. Betrayal and loneliness? Look, he was once betrayed and abandoned, but the Father has always been with him. Death? Look, he has passed through the gates of death and the netherworld and now he lives forever.
Subsequent history suggests, in fact, that the words Christ spoke in that locked room forever changed the pattern of fear in the hearts of his disciples. Our two other readings suggest a two-fold movement.
The first and most obvious movement is toward fearlessness before men. We see evidence of this in Peter’s preaching from the Acts of the Apostles. The same Peter, who had denied Christ in a moment of cowardice, who was found hiding behind locked doors with the other disciples, now shouts in the public squares, “The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.” From this point on, the disciples obey God rather than men. After all, these same men had already done their worst to Jesus, and the Father’s love proved stronger than the contempt of men.
2. Secondly, though Christ’ presence banished one set of fears, i.e., worldly fears, it actually intensified another fear, the fear of offending God through sin (a.k.a., the “fear of the Lord”). We can see how lively this holy fear was in St. John, who writes his letter with the express purpose that his audience “might not commit sin.” Since the Resurrection had shown Christ to be life itself, and since the only “way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments,” the presence of the Risen Christ actually served to sharpen the disciples’ dread of sin—in themselves and in others.
If we want to gauge how deeply the Resurrection has touched our hearts, then, we might do well to examine our fears. What do I fear? To offend God? Or to lose favor with men? And if I find myself fearing the first too little and the second too much, I might do well to go in prayer before the Risen Christ. I might simply imagine him showing us his hands and his feet, saying, “Peace be with you.” Unworthy fears cannot long abide his presence.