Third Sunday of Easter B
Saint Augustine lived long, long ago and far, far away—
dying in northern Africa all the way back in the year 430—
but this important bishop and teacher
once gave an Eastertide sermon on the gospel passage we’ve just heard,
the message of which is still quite important for us today.
To help us better understand the point he’s making,
I want to start with a little demonstration…
- Can I have two volunteers, please?
- Can I have two volunteers, please?
- Hold up this sheet.
- show head only: can’t see my body…but can presume it’s there
- What if I told you I was scratching my belly?
- What if I told you I was standing on one foot?
- You’d have to take my word for it, right?
- show body only: can’t see my head…but can presume it’s there
- What if I told you I dyed my hair? or shaved it all off?
- Again: you’d have to take my word for it.
And one more important point before we get to that ancient sermon…
We often speak of the Church as the Body of Christ—
not his physical Body, but his mystical Body:
Christ is the Head, we are his members,
and the two are closely united,
just as much as my own head is attached to my body.
So with all this in mind, let’s listen to what Saint Augustine had to say:
Now we too find ourselves in a situation
not unlike [that of the disciples in the gospel]:
while they could see something not visible to us.
We can see the Church extending throughout the world today,
something that was withheld from them,
but Christ, who in his human body was perceptible to them,
cannot be seen by us.
And just as they, seeing his human flesh,
were enabled to believe in his mystical body,
so now we, seeing his mystical body,
Just as the sight of the risen Christ
helped the disciples to believe in the Church that was to follow,
so the spectacle of that same Church
helps to confirm our faith in the resurrection of Christ.
The faith of the disciples was made complete, and so is ours:
theirs by the sight of the head,
ours by the sight of the body.
But to them and to us alike the whole Christ is revealed,
though neither to them nor to us
has it yet been granted to see him in his entirety.
For while they could see the head alone with their physical eyes
and the body only with the eyes of faith,
we can see only the body and have to take the head on trust.
Nevertheless, Christ is absent from no one;
he is wholly present in all of us,
even though he still waits for his body to be completed.
[ Sermon CXVI ]
You see, the risen Jesus came to his disciples
and showed them his wounded hands and feet to make it clear:
he’s the same God-made-man
who had been crucified just a few days before.
for a piece of fish
and ate it right there before their eyes
to help them understand
not only was he flesh and bone—no ghost!—
but that he was picking right up
where he left off:
again sharing a meal with them,
as so often before.
All of that is rather remarkable to us
who cannot see or touch him for ourselves!
But the promise Jesus makes to those disciples—
that what was now beginning in Jerusalem
would extend to all the nations
and reach the very ends of the earth—
that had to be nearly impossible for them to grasp.
There weren’t very many disciples—
even fewer, in fact, than there had been before.
And it was painfully obvious from what had happened to Jesus:
the authorities were rather hostile to the gospel message.
How could this movement possibly grow?
Was there any reasonable chance
that what Jesus had started would endure?
They had a clear view of the Head,
but were unsure about the full extent of his Body.
Nearly 2,000 years later,
there are 2.1 billion Christians in the world—
more than half of them Catholics—
comprising a third of the world’s population.
Here, on the other side of the planet from the land where Jesus walked,
you can find churches built in his honor all over the place.
We can see for ourselves: it’s just as Jesus promised!
And yet…ours is an age of growing doubts.
Did Jesus really exist in the first place?
If so, did he rise from the dead?
Was Jesus divine, or was he deluded?
Is there any God at all?
Today, while the reach of his Body is quite evident,
we have our questions about the nature of its Head.
It’s good for us to recall that before he was a saint,
Augustine was no goody-two-shoes.
Actually, he was the quintessential wild child.
His immoral lifestyle
kept his pious mother constantly in tears
and on her knees praying earnestly for his conversion.
He was an ideal candidate
for that repentance and for that forgiveness
which we hear so much about
in the scriptures this Sunday.
Saint Augustine arrived on the scene
a few centuries too late to meet Jesus in the flesh,
but he came to know the person
and the power of the risen Christ
through his contact with the Church:
through the wise preaching of her leaders;
through the moving beauty of her worship;
through the steadfast virtue of her faithful.
And that contact changed his life forever!
It’s because Augustine could see and hear and touch Jesus
in the learning, the liturgy, and the life of the Church
that he accepted baptism as a Christian (387 AD),
and was later ordained as a priest (391 AD).
He encountered the living Body,
and so came to believe—to trust—in its divine Head.
How are we doing when it comes to making Jesus visible today?
Granted, some of us may have questions—even serious ones—
about the state of the Church as a whole.
But Christ’s mystical Body is formed
by countless individual members.
That’s where we have to start: with you and me.
As Peter so boldly proclaimed to the people:
Christ is alive! Christ is with us still!
But would anybody know it by walking into this church right now?
Or if they ran into us later this afternoon?
Or if they spoke with us at work or at school tomorrow?
We each have a duty to bear witness:
to let the Lord’s hidden face be revealed in and through us
by sharing what we’ve seen, what we’ve learned,
what we’ve experienced ourselves.
There is no part of the body so small or seemingly unimportant
that it can’t lead another to Christ, our Head.
It was in the breaking of the bread
that Jesus was made known to his disciples
on that first Easter Sunday,
and it’s still in the breaking of the bread
that the Church most undoubtedly meets her Lord today.
In the Holy Eucharist, Head and members are united as one.
May the great sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood
help us to see the Lord’s face,
and help others to do likewise.