Understanding that the Bible is the word of God is key to understanding the Bible. It’s not a bad thing to look at Biblical texts in their historical context or their literary context — one can learn a lot that is valuable to the spiritual life in doing that. However, we must never in doing that lose sight of the fact that the word of God is living and effective. It is addressed as much to us in our time and place as it was to the ancient citizens of Jerusalem shortly after the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord.
I point this out because it is far too common for well-meaning people to dismiss a difficult teaching of the Bible as merely a relic of another time that does not in any way apply to us. This simply is not the case, and in today’s first reading when Peter addresses the people, he is addressing you and me just as surely as he was addressing the residents of Jerusalem some two millennia ago.
““The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence when he had decided to release him. You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death.”
Well, that stings just a little bit. It doesn’t soften the blow much that Peter goes on to say that this was done out of ignorance. But sometimes the truth is the hard truth; softening it makes it not the truth anymore. Peter speaks to us this way not to reassure us or to make us feel better, but to make us realize the cold, hard truth: when we sin, we deny Christ. We hand Him over to death. We choose a murderer over the author of life. We – every one of us – is responsible for the death of Christ every time we sin; it is precisely because of those sins that Christ had to die.
This is the cold, hard truth that was true 2000 years ago as certainly as it is true today. It will continue to be true until the end of time and the Final Judgment. We can, however, find great reassurance in the fact that while it is true, it is not the totality of the story.
In today’s second reading, we encounter a passage from the first letter of John. First he exhorts us not to sin – and, really, this should be the goal for all of us. Though we may not fully reach our goal, if day by day, week by week, and year by year, we cooperate with the grace God gives us and detach ourselves more and more from sin, we can become like the saints. We can become what John calls us to be; we can become saints ourselves.
But until that time, John reassures us that “if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.”
The same Righteous One who Peter reminds us we handed over to death is the Righteous One who John assures us will intercede on our behalf. What wondrous love that is! What perfect and amazing love it takes to intervene on behalf of creatures so undeserving as we are — and not just for you and me, but for the whole world. We should never lose sight of the fact that Christ sees every man, woman, and child on this planet as being every bit as worthy as you or I am of receiving His love and grace.
So, if our sins are the reason Christ had to suffer and die and if our salvation is the reason He rose from the dead, where does that leave us? It ought to leave us crying out with the Psalmist: “When I call, answer me, O my just God, you who relieve me when I am in distress; have pity on me, and hear my prayer!”
The fact that He had to open their minds to the correct understanding of Scripture clearly indicates that there is a wrong — or, at least, incomplete — understanding of Scripture that they previously held. It tells us there is a right way and a wrong way to understand what is written in the Bible.
It ought to leave us understanding that we are called to repentance for our sins. It ought to leave us with the certain knowledge that we are called to turn from wrong paths and follow the Lord. When we repent, we are forgiven. When we amend our lives, we grow in relationship with Our God.
Jesus is not a ghost. Jesus is not an idea. Jesus is not a memory. Jesus is a man: flesh and bone. Jesus is God. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples, asking them “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?” He told them, “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 ate with them. He taught them. He commissioned them to go forth and to spread the Good News to all cities and nations. He commanded them to tell the Gospel to all people and to train others to follow after them, so that the Gospel would always be proclaimed.
He also did something else amazing. As Luke tells us in today’s Gospel reading, He “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” He enabled them to see everything in the Old Testament that prefigured the coming of the Christ… that prepared the people for their savior. The fact that He had to open their minds to the correct understanding of Scripture clearly indicates that there is a wrong — or, at least, incomplete — understanding of Scripture that they previously held. It tells us there is a right way and a wrong way to understand what is written in the Bible.
And it tells us very clearly that we need an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures if we are to understand them. Christ gives that authority to His Church – the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This is why Sacred Tradition is so important; this is why Holy Scripture alone is not enough. Without the Tradition that Christ began with His apostles and that continues in an unbroken line to us today, we would surely misunderstand the Scriptures. Our reading of them would be fragmented. Partial. We need an authority to open our minds to Scripture just as surely as Christ’s disciples needed an authority to open their minds.
For us, the authority is the Church. It is our Tradition that goes all the way back to the moment that Christ stood among His disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”
We live in the age of the Church. The Church today is doing what it has done since the time of Christ: it is bringing His name to all peoples and nations. It is proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Let us pray always for the grace to hear that which the Church proclaims and for the wisdom to answer the call of Christ – a call made in peace from His perfect love… a call that desires nothing more than that which is our greatest good.