Here on the third Sunday after Easter the readings seem to be exploring the question, “What do we do as an Easter people?” Many Christian communities have the tradition of an Easter greeting in which one person says, “He is risen” and the other person replies, “He is risen indeed.” Today, let’s take a look at the implied question that would follow such a greeting. The implied question is, “Now what?”
The Gospel today picks up the story at the end of the Walk to Emmaus, when two of the disciples walked and talked with Jesus without recognizing him. They only recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and immediately he disappeared from their sight. Just as they are telling the others about their experience, Jesus appears and gives them his peace. Then he opens the Scriptures to all gathered there just as he had during the walk with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
These stories from the days after the Resurrection show us how the Apostles were grappling with the mystery of what they knew to be true: that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again in a glorified body that could go through walls but also eat regular food. Truly human, truly dead, truly alive, truly God. As Father Mike Schmitz of internet podcast fame likes to say, “Man oh man, oh man.”
But Jesus did not suffer through his Passion and rise gloriously Easter morning just for the wow factor. It is all part of saving our souls from eternal death, and it is all part of the New Covenant and his new commandment.
The Apostle John in his gospel recorded a very long discourse given by Jesus in the upper room on the night of the Last Supper. In that talk, Jesus gave his disciples the commandment to love one another. In the 14th chapter, Jesus says, “He who has my commandments and loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (Jn 14:21)
John repeats that in the Epistle we just heard read. “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments.” And in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today, Peter preaches to the people, “Repent, therefore, and be converted.”
From these readings, we can see that the answer to our question – what do we do as an Easter people? – involves repentance; it involves conversion; it involves understanding; and it involves keeping the new commandment of Love. We are being told to walk the way of Christian perfection, and we are being given clues on what that entails.
Perfect is one of those words that doesn’t really mean what we think it means. We generally use the word to describe something that is flawless, like a perfect diamond ring. But the word for something flawless is immaculate; for it means without a spot or a stain. One of our Lady’s titles is Immaculata, for she was conceived without the stain of Original Sin. And a perfect diamond should be without flaw, for that is clarity, one of the three C’s diamond ring salesmen talk about.
There are two more C’s, however, and that gets us closer to the full meaning of the word perfection. If you found a raw diamond in a stream, you might think it was just a piece of old glass or maybe quartz. It is only after you cut it properly so you can get the true color and see the sparkle that the diamond’s beauty is revealed. After all that work, you now have a finished, complete, full diamond.
And that idea of complete, finished, lacking in no way, is the heart of what perfection means. When St. Paul says in his second letter to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7), he is describing Christian perfection. It is the way of life so that when we go to meet our Maker we are complete and lacking in no way.
The three primary components of that way of life, of Christian perfection, are prayer, discipline, and the sacraments. When we grow in these three areas, we will be converted as St. Peter invited us in the Acts of the Apostles, and we will grow closer to living the life we were made to live, the eternal life Jesus died to give us. When we finally die, we will have fought the good fight and be finished, we will have finished the race and be complete, we will have kept the faith and be full.
The key to the good fight is a life of prayer, especially prayer rooted in Scripture. Jesus opened the Scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and he opened them again when he appeared to the larger group in the gospel story we read today. It says, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” When it comes to the spiritual life, to Christian perfection, understanding the Scriptures is understanding in such a way that we – as St. Peter preached in the Acts of the Apostles today – “Repent, and be converted, that our sins may be wiped away.” The deep understanding that leads to repentance is engagement of the whole person, not just a mental exercise like understanding algebra or chemistry.
Our prayer lives need two more modes of prayer. We need community prayer, liturgical prayer, where we gather and speak the words given to us to adore, to thank, and to ask our Lord for his love, his glory, and his blessing. Coming to Mass every Sunday is the obvious example. As we grow in the spiritual life, maybe a daily Mass could be added. Finally, we need to spend time alone with our Lord, communing with him silently and away from all other distractions. This is often called mental prayer, and we have in the Gospels many occasions when Jesus went off alone to pray. It is our heart conversing with God’s heart, and it can reach a depth where words are not necessary if we remain fully open to the action of the Holy Spirit. Being still and silent in today’s busy world seems unachievable, almost a miracle, which leads us to the second critical component of Christian perfection: discipline.
Discipline is what you think it is. It is learning to live more as the early Christians did and less as we do in the modern world. It is scraping away the stuff that accumulates on us and around us and dulls our senses to the presence of the Lord. And real scraping hurts. Taking the cellphone out of a senior citizen’s hand is not too difficult. Try taking it out of Mom’s hand while she is in carpool at school. Much harder. She needs that phone. But she needs God even more. We all do.
Our prayer lives will help us grow in discipline because we will really see – our minds will be opened like the disciples’ in today’s Gospel – that we should enter into suffering as Jesus did. We will suffer without our cellphone, but we will also grow without it. And we will identify those things or places or people or routines that we have become attached to. Discipline grows alongside detachment. And the Devil hates detachment. He will scream in our ears why we could never get along without the thing we are attached to. Our discipline is to rebuke him for his lies, and go without that attachment.
And the third primary component of Christian perfection is the sacraments. Jesus made himself known in the breaking of the bread. That’s the Mass. Peter preached that people should repent so that their sins might be wiped away. That’s confession, the sacrament of reconciliation. Those, and all the sacraments, are the normal ways we can be sure to receive grace. Grace is God’s free gift of himself, of his perfection, to us. His grace helps us grow more perfect. Grace perfects nature. We cannot fix ourselves by our own powers. We need God, we need his grace. We can, however, make ourselves more receptive to his grace.
Martin Luther looked at himself and concluded we are unable to change our condition and have no role in our redemption. He described us pungently as “snow-covered piles of dung.” In this description, he actually had things exactly backwards. We were really made in God’s image, and we are beautiful unique snowflake crystals, but by original sin we have somehow let a covering of filth accumulate. Christian perfection is the way back to our original beauty. By prayer, discipline, and the sacramental life, we can learn better and better to receive and keep his word. And St. John says in his letter today, “whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.” Christian perfection is how we live our lives as an Easter people. Christian perfection is the answer to the question, “Now what?”