3rd Sunday of Easter Acts of the Apostles 3:13–15, 17–19; John 2:1–5; Luke 24:35–48
Witness to the Resurrection The risen Jesus shares his risen power with us and, through us, with others.
In his book I Believe, Grand Teaff, head football coach at Baylor University, tells a remarkable story.
It’s about a young man who was once the world’s greatest pole vaulter. His name is Brian Sternberg.
In 1963 Brian was a sophomore at the University of Washington. he was not only the world’s best pole vaulter but also America’s trampoline champion.
Teaff says—and I quote him exactly here, “Word around the track was that Brian Sternberg was the most self-centered young athlete to come along in a long time.”
Teaff tells how he watched Brian perform the day he broke the world’s record. He says, “The thing that caught my eye . . . was his poise and confidence and the fact that he never smiled.”
The next day at breakfast, Teaff picked up the paper and was stunned. The headline read, “Brian Sternberg Injured.”
Brian had been working out alone in the gym. He did a triple somersault and came down on the trampoline off center. His neck hit the edge of the trampoline, snapping it and leaving him totally paralyzed, able to move only his eyes and his mouth. Brian was left a helpless, hopeless cripple and a very bitter young man.
Five years later Coach Teaff saw Brian again. It was at a convention of coaches and athletes at Estes Park, Colorado.
The auditorium was totally dark. Suddenly a movie projector lit up the screen. There was Brian Sternberg racing down the runway and executing that record-breaking pole vault. Every coach and athlete oohed and aahed.
Then the auditorium went totally dark again, except for a single spotlight falling on a single chair on the empty stage.
Suddenly out of the shadows on the stage came a huge football player named Wes Wilmer. In his arms was what looked like a big rag doll. Its long arms and legs hung limp at its sides and flopped this way and that way as Wes Wilmer walked across the stage. The rag doll was six-foot, three-inch Brian Sternberg, who now weighed 87 pounds.
Wilmer placed him in the chair and propped him up with pillows to keep him from falling over. Then in a raspy voice Brian Sternberg began to talk. He said:
“My friends . . . Oh, I pray to God that what has happened to me will never happen to one of you. I pray that you’ll never know the humiliation, the shame of not being able to perform one human act.
“Oh, I pray to God you will never know the pain that I live with daily. It is my hope and my prayer that what has happened to me would never happen to one of you. Unless, my friends, that’s what it takes for you to put God in the center of your life.”
The impact of Brian’s words were electrifying. No one there will ever forget them.
Idon’t know of a single story that illustrates so powerfully and pointedly the lesson in today’s Scripture readings.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus instructs his disciples tobe his witnesses to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. And that’s what we find Peter doing in today’s first reading.
And that’s what we find Brian Sternberg doing before all those coaches and athletes:
“Oh, I pray to God . . . that what has happened to me would never happen to one of you. Unless, my friends, that’s what it takes for you to put God in the center of your life.”
Witnessing to Jesus is more than telling people about the life of this great person who lived 2,000 years ago. Anyone can do that. Witnessing to Jesus is more than testifying that Jesus is risen. The soldiers guarding the tomb did that.
Witnessing to Jesus is testifying by our lives that the power of the risen Jesus has touched us and transformed us in the most remarkable way imaginable. Witnessing to Jesus is letting Jesus speak through us to other people.
And that’s what Brian Sternberg was doing on that empty stage in Estes Park, Colorado. Before his tragic accident he was a self-centered athlete. Immediately after it he was a bitter person.
But then something beautiful happened. Someone introduced Brian to Jesus Christ. Beginning with that introduction, the power of the risen Jesus touched Brian and began to transform him. The result was that Brian became an inspiring living witness to the resurrection.
The most powerful force in the world is someone touched and transformed by the power of the Risen Christ.
Albert Schweitzer gave up a career as a concert pianist in Europe and became a medical doctor to the poor. Commenting on some of the influences that motivated him to do this, Schweitzer said:
“As I look back upon my youth I realize how important to me were the help, understanding, and courage . . . so many people gave me. These men and women entered into my life and became powers within me.” Reader’s Digest, October 1949
And then Schweitzer made a surprising comment about the impact of those people on his life. He said:
“But they never knew it. Nor did I perceive . . . their help at the time.”
The most powerful witness to Jesus often takes place without the people involved being aware of it.
And that’s what happened in that auditorium in Estes Park, Colorado. The last thing on Brian Sternberg’s mind was that he was giving living witness to Jesus. All he was doing was sharing the deepest part of himself and his convictions about life with a group of brother and sister athletes and coaches.
And so witnessing to Jesus is testifying by our lives that the power of the risen Jesus has touched us and transformed us. It’s doing what an 87-pound rag doll did on an empty stage in Estes Park, Colorado. It is letting Jesus speak through us to other people.
Let’s close with a passage from a letter of Bishop Duval of France. It touches on the very thing we have been talking about:
“No matter how beautifully expressed, abstract ideas rarely move people. But let a person come forward, a living person, capable of speaking to the heart; let truth flow from that person’s life, and let the person’s power be matched by an equal gift of love: then people will listen and the dawn of better days will brighten our skies.” Pastoral Letter
Series II 3rd Sunday of Easter Acts of the Apostles 3:13–15, 17–19; 1 John 2:1–5; Luke 24:35–48
The Teacup Pain passes, but beauty remains forever.
The next time you’re looking for a way to relax after a hectic day, pick up a children’s storybook. But make sure it’s a storybook intended for four-year-olds.
You’ll be surprised at what you learn. For example, you’ll discover that animals can talk, flowers can talk, and even teacups can talk.
You’ll discover something even more remarkable. You’ll discover that a teacup can tell you a story that could change your life. Consider this paraphrased example from one children’s storybook.
A grandfather and a grandmother are in a gift shop looking for something to give to their granddaughter for her birthday. Suddenly the grandmother spots a beautiful teacup.
“Look at this lovely teacup!’’ she says to the grandfather. He picks it up and says, “You’re right! This is one of the loveliest teacups I’ve ever seen.’’
At that point something remarkable happens—something that could happen only in a children’s storybook. The teacup says to the grandparents, “Thank you for the compliment. But I wasn’t always beautiful.’’
Instead of being surprised that the teacup can talk, the grandmother and the grandfather simply ask it, “What do you mean when you say you weren’t always beautiful?’’ “Well,’’ says the teacup, “once I was just an ugly, soggy lump of clay.
“But one day some man with dirty, wet hands threw me on a wheel. Then he started turning me round and round until I got so dizzy I couldn’t see straight. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried.
“But the man with the wet hands said, ‘Not yet!’
“Then he started to poke me and punch me until I hurt all over. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried.
“But the man said, ‘Not yet!’
“Finally, he did stop. But then he did something even worse. He put me into a furnace. I got hotter and hotter until I couldn’t stand it. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried.
“But the man said, ‘Not yet!’
“Finally, when I thought I was going to burn up, the man took me out of the furnace.
“Then some short lady began to paint me. The fumes from the paint got so bad that they made me sick to my stomach. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried.
“ ‘Not yet!’ said the short lady.
“Finally, she did stop. But then she gave me to the man again, and he put me back into that awful furnace. This time it was hotter than before. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I cried.
“ ‘Not yet!’ said the man.
“And finally, he took me out of the furnace and let me cool. When I was completely cool, a pretty lady put me on this shelf, next to this mirror.
“When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was amazed. I could not believe what I saw. I was no longer ugly, soggy, and dirty. I was beautiful, firm, and clean. I cried for joy.
“It was then that I realized that all that pain was worthwhile. Without it I would still be ugly, soggy, and dirty. And it was then that all that pain took on meaning for me. It had passed, but the beauty it brought remained.’’
That children’s story about the teacup contains the same message as do today’s Scripture readings.
It’s the message that before Jesus could rise to glory on Easter, he first had to suffer and die. Peter puts it this way in today’s first reading:
God announced long ago through all the prophets that his Messiah had to suffer . . . [before being raised to glory]. Acts of the Apostles 3:18
And the Gospel puts the same idea this way:
Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer .. . [before being raised to glory].” Luke 24:45–46
Jesus adds elsewhere in the Gospel that what has happened to him must also happen to us, saying:
Remember . . . “Slaves are not greater than their master.” If people persecuted me, they will persecute you too. . . . John 15:20
What the Gospel is saying is that if we are to rise to glory as Jesus did, we must also suffer as he did.
When this happens, we may shout, “Stop! Stop!’’ But in the end we will cry for joy—just as the teacup did, and just as Jesus did.
This is the message of today’s Scripture readings. It’s the message that if we are to become something useful and beautiful for God, we must first go through a certain amount of suffering.
It’s the message that if we are to rise with Jesus, we must first die as he did. Saint Augustine put it this way in a sermon that he delivered to Christians 1,500 years ago:
You are like a piece of pottery, shaped by instruction, fired by tribulation. When you are put in the oven, therefore, keep your thoughts on the time when you will be taken out again; for God is faithful and will guard both your going in and your coming out.
Let’s close with a story:
In 1954 the great French painter Henri Matisse died at the age of 86.
In the last years of his life, arthritis crippled and deformed his hands, making it painful for him to hold a paintbrush.
Yet he continued to paint, placing a cloth between his fingers to keep the brush from slipping.
One day someone asked him why he submitted his body to such suffering. Why did he continue to paint in the face of such great physical pain?
Matisse replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.’’
In a similar way, the pain that you and I experience in being shaped into something useful and beautiful for God will pass.
But the beauty of what we become in the process will remain for ever and ever and ever.
(N.B. The song “Abba! Father!’’ makes an appropriate follow-up to this homily.)
Series III 3rd Sunday of Easter Acts of the Apostles 3:13–15, 17–19; 1 John 2:1–5a; Luke 24:35–48
Redemption We are God’s twice: he made us and bought us back.
Jesus said to his disciples, “[R]epentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations.” Luke 24:47
Alittle boy had been working for weeks building a foot-long sailboat. He painted it white, printed the name “Mickey” on the side of it, and mounted a bright red sail on the deck. Then he attached a ball of string to it.
He could hardly wait to take it to the lake and put it in the water. As the boat skimmed and bobbed along, he leaped with joy and excitement.
Slowly he let out the string, and the boat floated further and further out onto the lake. Then something terrible happened. A gust of wind snapped the string.
Slowly the boat disappeared from sight. Heartbroken, the little boy began the long walk home—without his boat Mickey.
Then one day he was walking by an arts and crafts store. Sitting in the window, big and beautiful, was Mickey.
Overjoyed, the boy went in and explained that the boat belonged to him. “Sorry,” said the owner, “I purchased it from another boy who claimed it was his. If it is yours and you really want it back, you’ll have to give me back the money I paid for it.”
The boy left the store, determined to buy Mickey back—no matter how much it cost.
For three months, he saved the money he got from odd jobs. Then came the day when he went back into the store, counted out the price, and bought back his boat.
As the man gave it to him, the boy’s face lit up. He held Mickey close and said, “You’re mine again—twice mine! I made you, and I bought you back.” Adapted from Dale Galloway, Rebuilding Your Life
That story makes a beautiful Easter story.
The boy stands for the Son of God. The boat, for each of us created by God.
Like the wind that snapped the string connecting the boat and the boy, sin snapped our relationship with God, and we drifted away from God.
Then came the day when the Son of God found us and bought us back at a great price.
On Easter morning Jesus could say what the little boy said of his boat. “You’re mine again—twice mine! I made you, and I bought you back.”
This invites each of us to ask: What ought we do in return to Jesus for all he has done for us? Or to put it another way: What have we done for Jesus in the past? What are we doing for Jesus now? What ought we do for Jesus in the future? Each of us will have our own answer to the first two questions.
But let us consider the third and most important question together. What ought we do for Jesus in the days ahead?
Two things come to mind immediately. A story will illustrate the first one.
For years, every Friday night in Florida, an old man named Ed used to follow the same after-supper ritual. He’d walk slowly down to the beach carrying a bucket of shrimp.
By the time he reached the pier, the air above it was alive with sea gulls, darting about and calling out excitedly.
Old Ed would dip his hand into the bucket, take out a handful of shrimp, and throw them to the gulls.
As he did, you could almost hear him say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Old Ed is Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. He and a crew of seven crashed into the Pacific during World War II. For seven days they floated on rubber rafts with no food. All they had was rain water, which they caught in their rafts. On the eighth day, they needed a miracle to stay alive.
That afternoon a sea gull landed on Ed’s head. He caught it, feathered it, and shared it with the others. Then they used the gull’s insides for fish bait.
With the fish they caught and the rain that fell in their rubber rafts, they survived for 21 days and were eventually rescued.
Ed’s Friday night ritual was his way of thanking the sea gulls and never forgetting what he owed them. Adapted from Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm
And so the answer to the third question, What ought we do for Jesus? is that we ought always to give thanks and never to forget to whom we owe our life.
This brings us to the second thing we should do. Luke refers to it in today’s Gospel when he speaks of repentance for sin. Again, let’s illustrate with a story.
Former presidential candidate John McCain was a POW for five and a half years. During that time, he spent months alone, in solitary. At one point he was in solitary for two straight years. He writes in his autobiography:
When you’re left alone with your thoughts for years, it’s hard not to reflect on how better you could have spent your time as a free man. . . . I regretted I hadn’t read more books so I could keep my mind better occupied in solitary. I regretted much of the foolishness that had characterized my youth, seeing in it, at last, its obvious insignificance. I regretted I hadn’t worked harder at the [Naval] Academy. . . .
And I resolved that when I regained my freedom, I would seize opportunities to spend what remained of my life in more important pursuits.
And so the second thing we ought to do for Jesus for all he has done for us is to repent our past and use our future to do for others what he has done for us.
In brief, then, each of us owes to Jesus a double gift of gratitude—for creating us and for buying us back.
Like Eddie Rickenbacher, we ought to strive to build into our lives a ritual for giving thanks to him lest we forget what he has done for us.
And like John McCain, we ought to resolve to repent our past by showing forth—by word and example—the goodness of God who could say of us what the little boy said of his boat:
“You’re mine again—twice mine! I made you, and I bought you back.”