What Kind of Experience Did They Have?

4th Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019

Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100:1-3, 5; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

I want to begin by asking you a simple question: “What did the apostles and early Christians experience that withstood the test of time? What was it that gave the Apostles strength to continue to preach the Gospel, even in the face of persecution?” In our day and age, here in Wichita, it is a little hard to conceptualize this. For most of us, the persecution that we have faced for our faith is limited to people looking at us like we’re naive, or someone being a little antagonistic toward our faith, or maybe some friends or family members don’t really talk to us anymore or are really uncomfortable talking to us. And perhaps some here have faced real, intense persecution for their faith.

But we cannot underestimate the persecution faced by the early Church. Our first reading tells about Paul and Barnabas preaching in Antioch, and how there they faced “violent abuse” (Acts 13:45). Early Christians were cooked alive, dragged through streets, eaten by lions, crucified, burned. St. Paul himself gave a list of all the suffering he endured for the sake of Christ: labors, imprisonments, beatings, brushes with death, stoned, shipwreck, robbers, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, abandoned by his friends (c.f., 2 Cor. 11:23-33). I asked the middle school kids this past week if they had ever heard of the Jesuit missionaries of North America, to which they said, “No.” But even they endured intense persecution: they had their fingers chewed off, were left out in the cold and rain and snow, and were tortured and killed.

And so we come back to our question: “What did the apostles and early Christians experience that withstood the test of time? What was it that gave the Apostles strength to continue to preach the Gospel, even in the face of persecution?”

We’ve all had experiences that we can point to and say, “That made me feel alive, that gave me new life. That was a time when everything was right.” And these are irreplaceable moments, moments we wish could go on forever, times when we think we found the secret to the world. But then, without warning, even these can fall apart. Relationships especially! When a relationship is going so well, bringing such newness and life—but then even it can fall apart, can change, can leave us feeling betrayed and disappointed, and so much more.

I can’t help but think that this is what the early Christians experienced, the Apostles especially. They encountered Christ, life was different, everything was experienced as new and invigorating.  But then they had to face these persecutions. And yet, for some reason, while experiences like these—persecutions and trials, or even just a bad day—leave us feeling betrayed and disappointed, wanting to give-up and escape—for some reason, in the face of persecution, the Apostles continued on. Why? What did they experience? How could they keep their faith and still be “filled with joy” (Acts 13:52)?

Simply put, they experienced Christ. They experienced some concrete, real fact in their life. They experienced life alongside a transformed and attractive humanity. What they experienced was “eternal life.”

As you read the Gospels, as you read the story of St. Paul, what you continue to see over and over again is that it all began in an encounter with Jesus Christ. Christ came and ate with them, he spoke with them, he confronted them, he lived with them in friendship. And yeah, as cheesy as it sounds to say, “Jesus is my friend,” that’s how Jesus Himself described himself. He told the disciples: “ I no longer call you servants…I have called you friends” (John 15:15). And in this friendship, in this companionship, the apostles experienced the newness and fullness of Jesus’ humanity. They experienced life as something new and exciting. They felt as if they had found the secret to the world.

The apostles encountered Christ, they lived in companionship with him, experienced his transformed humanity—they experienced eternal life. In the Gospel today, Jesus says something kind of strange. He says,  “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life.” I give them eternal life. Not, “I will give them eternal life.” No, “I give them eternal life.” Right now. Eternal life is given to those who follow Christ.

With Christ, in their relationship with Christ, in their day-to-day companionship with Christ—with Christ they experienced eternal life, the fullness of life. And it was this experience that withstood the test of time, that gave the Apostles strength to continue to preach the Gospel, even in the face of persecution. When they abandoned everything on the shore of the sea, when they gave-up their posts as tax collectors and gave their money away, when they left their houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children and lands for the sake of Jesus Christ and for the sake of the gospel (c.f., Mark 10:29)—when they followed the Christ, they began to experience eternal life, the fullness of life.

Especially on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations and also as we celebrate Mother’s Day, we have to realize that one of the ways in which we encounter Christ is through our priests, through our religious sisters and brothers, and through our mothers. I’m sure each and every one of us can point to one of these people and talk about how it was through them that we encountered Christ.

It was my mother who taught me to pray, who taught me the faith, who gave me the witness of living a life not centered on herself but on her children. My dad often talks about the religious sisters that taught at his school when he was growing up. It is through encounters with so many different priests—in confession, in mass, in preaching—that I have encountered Christ. Jesus Christ doesn’t show up in our house like he did two-thousand years ago. But he does show up. We just have to be attentive to it, attentive to how he is showing up today.

Because when we have an experience of Christ, when we have a lived experience of Christ, an experience which continues each and every day, when we experience Christ as something concrete and real in our life, when we experience life alongside a transformed and attractive humanity, when we have the experience of the eternal life that comes with a life lived in companionship and friendship with Christ—that’s the kind of experience that will endure the test of time. That’s the kind of experience that gives us strength to follow the Lord, wherever he may call us.

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