The Word Among Us

Lent 2011 Issue

Reason to Believe

The first disciples can help convince us.

Reason to Believe: The first disciples can help convince us.

"You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16)

With a clarity and boldness that could only have come from the Holy Spirit, Peter confessed his faith in Jesus. From all he had seen Jesus do and from all he had heard him say, Peter realized that Jesus was more than an insightful rabbi and more than a holy prophet. He was the Messiah, God’s anointed who had come to redeem Israel.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the world today could make the same profession of faith? WouldnR#8217;t it be wonderful if everyone could receive revelation from the Spirit like Peter did? But we live in a world that holds many different opinions about Jesus. Some say he was a great philosopher. Others say he was a gifted teacher, a master storyteller, even a prophet in the tradition of Elijah and Moses. Still others say he was a compassionate, caring individual, an excellent role model for all of us of selfless living. With all these opinions and assessments, it’s no wonder that the question of Jesus remains unanswered for so many of us.

Still, Peter came up with the right answer—and with that answer, he discovered the meaning and purpose for his life.

This Lent, Jesus wants to ask all of us that two-thousand-year-old question: “Who do you say that I am?” So let’s ponder this question. On the one hand, we should answer with faith, not needing definitive proof. But on the other hand, God has given us the gift of reason so that we can make logical conclusions, including conclusions about Jesus. Blind faith is not the only way. We can understand who Jesus is based on some logical and reasonable conclusions.

Three Possibilities. In his book Mere Christianity, the popular author and Christian thinker C. S. Lewis suggested three possible responses to the question of who Jesus was. He proposed that Jesus was either a habitual liar, a demented lunatic, or the risen Lord.

Lewis wasn’t trying to present an in-depth evaluation of the question of Jesus. He was merely trying to show that the first two options—liar and lunatic—weren’t likely answers. Why? Because while some people in Jesus’ day, including some of his relatives, thought these things about him, many more became convinced that Jesus was who he said he was (Mark 3:21; John 10:33). Moreover, those who chose to believe in him did so despite the severe price they would have to pay.

Think of everyone who hung on Jesus’ words. Think of all the people who saw him exercise miraculous power over nature, over sickness, and even over death. Think, too, of the people who experienced a new found joy, power over sin, and peace because of Jesus. Some were so moved by what they experienced that they left their jobs, their homes, and their families to follow him. Some were so convinced that they braved mockery, persecution, imprisonment, and even death out of love for Jesus!

It would be a mistake to attribute all of this to the superstitious reaction of an uneducated and unsophisticated crowd. Jews in the first century weren’t a superstitious people. They held God in high esteem and reverence, fearing even to speak his name. It would never dawn on them that he would walk among them as a poor tradesman. But something about Jesus captured their hearts. He stood out. His words and his deeds stretched their faith to the point that they began to see him as something far more than a good man—or a liar or lunatic! In the final analysis, the testimony of these disciples can give us great confidence that Jesus really is who he said he was.

The Turnaround. So what happened to these disciples to convince them so deeply about Jesus? To help answer this, let’s compare three key events in the lives of Jesus’ first followers: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

On Holy Thursday, at the Last Supper, the apostles appeared to be clueless about Jesus, even though he was giving them his farewell address. Thomas protested: “We do not know . . . the way” (John 14:5). Philip begged: “Show us the Father, and that will be enough” (John 14:8). Jesus said that one of them would betray him, and Judas, lying, said: “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” (Matthew 26:25). Peter wouldn’t let Jesus wash his feet (John 13:8). And all the apostles were fighting among themselves as to who was the greatest (Luke 22:24).

On Good Friday, everything looked like it was spinning out of control. Jesus had been arrested. Peter, the “Rock” of the new church, had denied he ever knew Jesus. Just about everyone else had run away. Only his mother, John, and a few other women watched as Jesus was crucified and died. It seemed that everyone had lost hope. Their faith was shattered. They all thought the dream was over.

Then on Easter Sunday morning the women came—not to see the risen Lord but to anoint the body of a dead person. But the tomb was empty, and the women were face-to-face with an angel who told them that Jesus had been raised up. Later that day, Jesus appeared to the apostles in the upper room and to two other disciples walking on the road to Emmaus.

What a dramatic turnaround! Jesus had risen, and they all saw him. These men and women who had lost their hope believed again. And this time, they were sure. Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. They were willing to dedicate themselves to him and give their lives to him more deeply than ever before. Seeing the risen Jesus was the most exciting experience of their lives, and it changed them forever.

Empowered and Emboldened. We can only guess what happened after that. On Easter Sunday, Jesus had breathed on them and told them: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Then for the next seven weeks, he taught them and convinced them more and more about who he was and what he was calling them to do. In just fifty days, the disciples went from fear-filled deserters to evangelists-in-waiting. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they were being empowered and emboldened by Jesus himself.

Shortly after Pentecost, while Peter and John were headed to the Temple, they were led by the Spirit to pray for a man who had been crippled for forty years. And the man was healed! When the crowd saw this, Peter began to preach—right there on the Temple grounds, right in the hearing of the elders who had arrested Jesus (Acts 3:1–4:31).

After being arrested and after being warned by the magistrate to stop speaking about Jesus or teaching in his name, Peter said it was simply “impossible” for them to keep quiet about all they had seen and heard. Imagine: They had been imprisoned just as Jesus was. They were hauled before the Sanhedrin just as Jesus was. Every indication told them that they might be put to death just as Jesus was. But rather than run away or deny Jesus as they had done at his Passion, they stood firm and spoke out not only boldly but even defiantly.

It wasn’t just Peter and John who had changed so much. All the disciples became courageous, outspoken proclaimers of Jesus. Years later, reflecting on all that had happened in those few months, St. John wrote: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory” (John 1:14). They knew, they saw, and they witnessed the glory of the Lord. They had no doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. And that conviction made them fearless. They were willing to die for Jesus. It’s hard to believe that these were the same men who were fighting at the Last Supper and running for their lives at the crucifixion just a few months earlier.

Blessed Are You! After he had risen, Jesus told Thomas that all the people who would not be able to see Jesus in the flesh as he did would be blessed because of their faith. That’s us! We are the people Jesus was talking about. Jesus is asking us to believe without having seen. He is telling us that what happened to the apostles can happen to us.

It sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? But if we look at the dramatic change in the apostles’ lives, we can see more than a glimmer of hope for our own lives. The apostles didn’t preach the gospel because there was money in it. There was no promise of prestige, no glory except heaven. Instead, the future seemed to hold misunderstanding, persecution, and even death. So what made them so bold, courageous, and even joyful? Could there be any other reason but that they were convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God? And this is precisely what the Holy Spirit is prepared to show us this Lent as well.