The Word Among Us

Easter 2024 Issue

Witnesses to the Resurrection

The Apostles Teach Us About Persevering in Faith

By: Fr. Mike Schmitz

Witnesses to the Resurrection: The Apostles Teach Us About Persevering in Faith by Fr. Mike Schmitz

Ever since the days of the pandemic, many of us have come to a greater realization that there are things in this world that can kill us. There are real things that can end our lives. And not only that, but so many people weren’t just dying during the pandemic, they were dying alone—and that’s something that can make us even more fearful.

In a way, it’s good to think about this as we celebrate Easter because there is one thing that changes everything—including how we deal with frightening things like a pandemic. And this is the one thing: the resurrection of Jesus. Up until the point of the resurrection, Jesus can be interesting but still ignored. He can still be a great healer and a great teacher and a great prophet. You can have an opinion about him. You can say something like, “Well, I’m glad if you like him; that’s your truth.” But either the resurrection happened or it didn’t happen. Either it’s true or it’s false; it can’t be both.

Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. The main reason that I’m a Catholic Christian is because Christianity is rooted in history. It’s rooted in facts; it’s not based on philosophies or opinions or feelings. In one of the Mass readings for Easter Sunday, Peter proclaims, “We are witnesses of all that [Jesus] did” (Acts 10:39). Along with the other apostles, Peter claims to be a living witness. In fact, some scholars tell us that the earliest Christian creed proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection dates back to within months of that first Easter. Not decades later, not centuries later, but within months there were Christians proclaiming that Jesus was dead but now had risen.

Imperfect, Persistent Witnesses. But who were these witnesses, these disciples of Jesus? They certainly weren’t perfect. There was Thomas the doubter, James and John the ambitious, Peter the denier, and the rest of the apostles, who were deserters. There was Mary Magdalene, who at one point had been possessed by seven demons. Think about that—the first person to meet the risen Lord, the “apostle to the apostles,” was a previously possessed woman! If the resurrection were just a story that you made up, you wouldn’t claim that the first witness to the key event of that story was a woman, let alone one with Mary’s past. In the apostles’ time, women didn’t have any influence or authority or power. So why would the apostles make that part up? They would only say it if that's exactly how it happened!

In Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests told the Roman soldiers who were guarding Jesus’ tomb, “Tell people that his disciples stole the body” (see 28:11-15). If they had to make up a story like this, it means that there actually was an empty tomb. There was no body. If the tomb was empty, how did it get empty? Well, maybe the disciples really did steal Jesus’ body. That’s possible, it’s reasonable—except for this fact: the resurrection. Every one of the disciples, including the ones who ran away on Good Friday, were unanimous, unified, and unequivocal about the central truth that Jesus was dead, and now he was alive. This is the faith they professed; this is the fact they professed.

But maybe the apostles were lying. Actually, there is a modern corollary to this. You might have heard of Chuck Colson. He used to work for President Richard Nixon, and he was involved in the Watergate scandal. Colson once said that there were a dozen very powerful and successful men who knew about the break-in, and they covered it up. When people started being questioned, these twelve men said to one another, “We are not going to crack; we are not going to tell anybody about this.” But within a little over two weeks, every one of those men confessed. Years later, after he had become a Christian, Colson said, “In March of 1973, I realized how reliable the apostles must have been—because they didn’t crack.”

Professing and Persevering. You see, it’s one thing to profess the faith, but it’s another thing to persevere in the faith. The apostles did both. They professed this fact of the resurrection, the one thing that changes everything. And what did they get for it? Persecution, torture, even martyrdom. But they didn’t crack. They persevered, steadfast to the end.

This is where it gets personal for us. Because if Jesus rose from the dead, then it doesn’t just change what we do at Mass on Easter. It doesn’t just change what we do every Sunday morning. It changes our whole life. And that’s not easy. That’s why it’s one thing to profess the faith and it’s another thing to persevere in the faith. Because the day is going to come when we won’t want Jesus’ resurrection to be true. Because it changes too much!

I work with college students, many of whom have been raised as Catholics. But then they come to campus and think, “Now that I’m far from home, I have this opportunity to live however I want. I don’t have to go to church, I don’t have to pray, I don’t have to obey all these commandments.” They’re really saying, “I can live as if Jesus’ resurrection isn’t true.” They all face the difference between professing the faith and persevering in the faith.

The same principle applies to those who are out in the world. We have to work so hard, and there is so much to do at home. We are responsible for so many things and we are carrying so many burdens. And sometimes we say, “I just don’t want Jesus to make so much of a difference in my life. I have too much to do.” But there are some truths that demand something of us, and the resurrection is one of those truths. It’s one of those facts. It’s the one thing that changes everything.

It’s Still True! Even now, when so many people are in pain, when so many feel uncertain or fearful, and when so many are suffering a loss, the resurrection is still true. If you’ve lost your job, the resurrection is still true. If you’re isolated and feeling so alone, the resurrection is still true. If you are sick or someone you love has died, the resurrection is still true. And so we profess this faith. And so we persevere in this faith.

The apostles, those first witnesses, all had the chance to recant, but none of them did. They were unanimous, unified, and unequivocal about proclaiming and professing and persevering in the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. And they all died. In fact, every single one of them died alone. Right now, you might feel alone, abandoned, or misunderstood. And it feels so painful. But that’s why we profess our faith this Easter Sunday—so that we can persevere tomorrow.

The One Central Truth. At every Easter Vigil, we bless holy water, and then we are sprinkled with it as we profess our faith in the Creed. We profess it as a fact so that we can persevere in this fact the next day. Because if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then so many other things are true.

If the resurrection is true, then it’s also true that God knows your name. If the resurrection is true, it’s also true that God has not forgotten you. If the resurrection is true, then it’s also true that Jesus has established the Church as your home, where you have a family of faith, even when you feel alone. If the resurrection is true, then it’s also true that Jesus has given us his Body and Blood, his Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist. Even if you can’t receive the Eucharist right now, it’s still true.

Even more, if the resurrection is true, then it’s also true that Jesus has given his apostles and their successors and all the priests in communion with them the ability to forgive sins in his name. That means you don’t have to be bound by sin or fear. You don’t have to be alone. Even your greatest fear, death, even the greatest fear within that fear, dying alone, has been changed, too.

If Jesus has conquered death, then he can conquer death in you. And if Jesus promised to never abandon us or forsake us, then no one who belongs to him dies alone. There is no longer anything to fear, just a faith to profess and a faith in which we continue to persevere.

Jesus Christ has conquered death, and this truly is the one thing that changes everything.

This month’s articles are written by Fr. Mike Schmitz, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Duluth and Catholic chaplain at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.