Listening to this first reading – and let’s start with the first reading – it can help us to have some sense of context. The context of the proclamation of the scriptures is ourselves – the gathered community of those who recognise in Jesus the fullness of the revelation of God, present in our midst in the active power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. That’s what makes listening to the scriptures an experience quite different from that of hearing even the most inspiring of speeches, (or homilies!).
But it is always at least a help, and sometimes it is a necessity, to know something of the context in which the scriptural event took place, or in which the words we listen to were handed on or eventually set down in writing.
So the first reading we have heard – Peter telling the people that “it is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who has glorified his servant Jesus, the same Jesus you handed over and then disowned” – lights up, at least for me, when I am reminded of what has just happened when Peter speaks these words. Accosted by a beggar as he and John approach the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, Peter has said to him: “Silver and gold I have none, but I will give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!”. Luke tells us that the man leaps up, and leaps about with delight, just as Isaiah had said centuries before, speaking of the coming deliverance of Israel:
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf unsealed,
then the lame will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (Is 35: 5-6)
This, says Peter, is what we have been waiting for all these years of fidelity to the coming of the Messiah, from the time of the patriarchs: “the promised one of Israel’s story” is present and active, now and here, making a visible difference, a tangible difference in our lives, bringing the healing and joy of which Isaiah sang.
The reading from John’s First Letter reminds us that Jesus is the one who has taken our sins away, the one who has rescued us, the one who makes it possible for God’s love to come to perfection in us, so that we can be holy. It is the same promise, and the same challenge to be open to God-in-our-midst, as in the first reading.
And so in the Gospel reading: Last week we heard the account of the first meeting between the risen Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel of John, and we thought about the way in which Jesus meets those who had betrayed him, meeting them with peace and sending them on mission to proclaim the good news of God’s love, the crucified and risen one meeting us in our woundedness and sending us out, touched and transfigured in our very hurts by his transforming love.
Today we have the same meeting, through the eyes of Luke. We can remind ourselves of the context: the two disciples who had set off disconsolate on the road to Emmaus have just got back, hurrying back the six miles or so in the fading light to share their good news – they had met Jesus and spoken with him on the road, and recognised him in the breaking of the bread. And the disciples in Jerusalem had shared their good news with them – that the Lord is risen indeed and had appeared to Simon.
“And while they were still speaking Jesus himself stood among them.” There’s something strange about the way in which the disciples come to recognise the risen Jesus being present to them. “Jesus stood among them” – and they were frightened because they thought they were seeing a ghost. It clearly wasn’t the case that there was a knock on the door and a “Can I come in?” – Jesus is, somehow or other, just there all of a sudden. It’s scary – to put it mildly – because it turns the world upside down. It’s one thing hearing about Jesus as the risen one – and another to have Jesus, the risen Jesus, right there in your life, in your living room.
But his message is just as we heard last week – and will always hear: “Peace be with you.” The Risen Jesus brings us peace, even as he brings us the power and strangeness of God. And the peace that Jesus brings tells us that as the power and strangeness of God breaks into our world, we can recognise this God, our God, as the one who has always been with us, the one who is with us now, the one who will always be with us. “Why are you frightened? Look – it’s me. And it really is me. Look: I’m sharing some grilled fish with you; come and touch me.”
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened the scriptures to his disciples: just so now, Jesus opens their minds and hearts to understand the scriptures, to understand how it was that the faith of God’s first people had looked forward to his coming – and not just to his coming, but to the manner of his life and his death – and not just to his death, but to his rising and the proclamation of the love of God made manifest in the life of the resurrection. Jesus is saying “this is what was expected – but you had lost sight of it, so you didn’t recognise it when it happened – and so you didn’t recognise me, did you? But now I am here: Peace be with you.”
Jesus meets us where we are because he has always been there with us. “The eyes of the blind will be opened” and in our turn we shall see that Jesus stands among us, looks at each one of us “not in judgement but with the eyes of love”, and says “Peace be with you.”
It is worth remembering that among the three “peoples of the book” we christians are the ones who don’t generally greet each other with those godly words. “Shalom Aleichem” say our older brothers and sisters, God’s first and always chosen people. “Salaam Alaikum” is the greeting we hear exchanged between our Muslim neighbours and, if I may put it like this, our “second cousins” in faith. As Catholic christians we tend to limit ourselves to a quick weekly “sign of peace” – but what we have to share is greater than that!
Last week, Pope Francis published a third “Apostolic Exhortation”, which has as its opening words “Gaudete et Exsultate”, Rejoice and be Glad. Let me encourage you to read it: it’s very different from most papal documents, and it’s not very long, either. I haven’t yet read it all, but it seems to me that it speaks to our readings today:
Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. … Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace.”
“Peace be with you,” says Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, “do not be afraid”. And as we let these words sink into our hearts, so it becomes more and more true that “we are witnesses to this … to all the nations” – a mission that for us, this gathered community of faith, begins in Manchester.