Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States. After he left office, he was popularly admired for his work in charity and service to the poor. He had long been an active member of his congregation, the Plains Baptist Church. Every year, that church has a week-long mission whereby members go out into the local community and invite the unchurched to attend one of their meetings — an outreach in which Jimmy Carter participated.
At one point, Mr. Carter was asked to speak at another church about Christian witness. He decided to talk about his home church and its efforts. In order to prepare, he went back over his records to see how often he had participated. He learned that over a 14-year period, he had visited 140 homes. He later recalled that he felt pretty good about that effort, until he compared his witness for Christ with his “witness” for political office. He found that in 1966, while running for governor of Georgia, he had visited over 300,000 people to convince them to vote for him. Reflecting on this, he told the audience, “The comparison struck me – 300,000 visits for myself in three months, and 140 visits for God in 14 years!”
Witnessing is an activity we’ve been hearing a lot about these last few weeks, and we will continue to hear about it as we celebrate Easter. We hear the call to witness the resurrection of the Lord from the dead, and we recall the witness of the early church. We hear of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Lord at the empty tomb. He tells her to go to the other disciples and announce that he “is going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Jesus is asking her to witness. In this sense, being a witness entails becoming a witness. Last Sunday’s Gospel passage recalled the appearance of the Lord to Thomas and the others. When Jesus approaches Thomas, who before had doubted his resurrection, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” — to which Jesus replies, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
The only way those who have not seen will come to believe is that the good news of Jesus’ resurrection has to be told to them. In other words, someone has to bear witness (cf. Romans 10:14-15).
This is the role of the church. We’ve been hearing and will continue to hear passages from Acts of the Apostles in the first readings for the liturgies of the Easter season. Many of these stories recall the witness of the early church to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The readings for today’s liturgy continue that message. The passage from the Gospel of St. Luke recalls another appearance of the risen Lord. Jesus emphasizes that he is not a ghost: “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.”
He then asks them for something to eat, and tells those gathered, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
The first reading contains one of Peter’s speeches from Acts of the Apostles. He speaks of God – “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers” – as the one who glorified Jesus by raising him from the dead. This same Jesus, who was handed over to Pilate and was put to death, has been raised. Peter then says, “of this we are witnesses.” He and the other apostles and disciples give witness to the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. They then offer the invitation to faith so that “your sins may be wiped away.”
The second reading, from the First Letter of St. John, speaks to a community of faith that has already received the witness and are themselves, as we are today, called to be living witnesses of that faith. This entails committing ourselves, every day, to following Jesus. This daily following involves avoiding sin and seeking to keep the commandments of the Lord. John encourages his readers, including us, not to be discouraged when we sin, for “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is the expiation for our sins, and not only our sins but for those of the whole world.”
He goes on to remind us that this can not be used as an excuse for sin or for lazy discipleship: “Those who say, ‘I know him,’ but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them.” Then he reminds us that it is in keeping his word that the “love of God is truly perfected” in us. It is in this daily striving to allow the grace of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection to grow in us that we bear living witness to its power to save.
Jimmy Carter had a humbling experience when he considered his efforts in politics to his efforts to evangelize. He recalls it as an eye-opening event in his life. He recognizes the need to bear witness. All of us who have been initiated into the Paschal mystery through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are called to witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – sometimes with words, and always with deeds.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.