Phycologists and psychiatrists often remind us that during any given day, most of us rarely perform any totally free actions. The normal pressures of living in a community environment force us either to do things we by nature wouldn’t do, or not do what by nature we would do. Usually the most forceful pressure is that of fear. We worry about the harmful effects our actions will have on us. That’s one of the reasons today’s first reading is so significant.
Before the 1960s we often defended our faith’s rationality with the argument that those who passed our faith onto us were “sciens and verax.” In other words, they knew what had happened and truthfully conveyed those facts to us. But once people began to understand the authors of our Christian Scriptures really weren’t eyewitnesses to the events they narrated, the sciens part went out the window. A new argument for our faith’s reality began to evolve, revolving not so much around our faith ancestors’ knowing what happened and faithfully passing it on, but around the drastic change in the personalities of those ancestors springing from their contacts with the risen Jesus.
Luke narrates some of that change in our Acts passage. Remember how he pathetically described Peter’s denial of Jesus in the gospel part of his two volume work? The leader of the Twelve was overcome with so much fear that he denied he’d even known this itinerant Galilean preacher, much less was one of his followers. Yet now, after experiencing Jesus alive in his midst, this lowly fisherman courageously informs the Jerusalem authorities, “We must obey God rather than men.” What happened to the fear?
I presume it was still there. But it now was alongside another more powerful force: the conviction that nothing was more important than life, and the risen Jesus was providing that life. Along with the author of Revelation all the first Christians learned, “The Lamb that was slain . . . received power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.” Those with faith in the risen Jesus received the same life and strength, enabling them to overcome the fear which paralyzed others.
Their encounters with the risen Jesus changed their personalities.
Scholars are convinced today’s gospel pericope narrates the very first of those encounters. The other gospel meetings seem to have been read back into the disciples’ post-resurrection experiences. Notice that Jesus’ followers have done what we would have logically expected them to do: return to Galilee after his death. It’s only when they go back to doing what they always did – fish – that they experience him as a “new creation.” It’s in this context that I always mention Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ insight that after the death of a loved one, we eventually have to “go back to work:” we have to return to doing what we did while that loved one was still with us. It’s only then that we experience that special person in a new, unique way.
That seems to be exactly what happens in today’s gospel pericope. His followers encounter him/her in a different way than they had encountered him before. Yet, how can we be 100% certain we’re really coming face to face with the risen Jesus in the ordinary things and people of our daily lives?
There’s one rule of thumb that might be a good indicator: after the encounter we discover we’re called to do things we’ve never done before. That certainly happened to Peter by the Sea of Tiberias, and might be the reason some of us refuse to admit such encounters in our own lives. We’ve already got enough to do.