CNS photo/Siyabulela Duda, handout via Reuters

The divine will always involved pain, struggle

  • April 23, 2014

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 4 (Acts 2:14, 22b-28; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35)

There are two streams of history active in our world and they often work at cross-purposes. The first stream consists of human schemes and behaviour that are often the expression of desires, fears, jealousy and hatred. Even our best intentions are often fatally compromised by the presence of these tendencies. The world as we experience it is the unhappy result. The other stream is that of God’s will operating in history. It is relentless; even when temporarily diverted or blocked by human behaviour, it always triumphs in the end. God’s will is the redemption of all humanity and the transformation of the world.

Filled with the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost, Peter related to the crowd all of the wonderful things that Jesus did in carrying out God’s mission. This was followed by an ominous note — He was betrayed and killed, albeit with the foreknowledge of God. God had both a trump card and the last word — as God always does. Peter insisted that it was impossible for Jesus to be held in the power of death. This was because of who He was — the son of God — but also for what He represented. He was the Word of God incarnate and expressed in human form God’s plan for humanity and the world. God raised Him up and granted Him transcendental life in its fullness.

We can look back through history with dismay at the many ways the intention of God has been apparently thwarted, often by Christians themselves. These setbacks are temporary — the Light cannot ever be extinguished and will not remain hidden for long. Believing and living that conviction is a good definition of faith. There is no room for cynicism, disillusionment or despair in the Christian faith. We live in difficult times (who hasn’t!) and there is much to test and try our faith. It is more important than ever that we “prepare the way of the Lord” by the lives we lead and by our everyday words, thoughts and deeds.

The author of 1 Peter was thinking along the same lines when he penned his warning to his community. All humanity is equally accountable to God — no special favours or privileged groups. The only labels that count will be those like “just,” “compassionate” and “humble.” Living in reverent fear does not mean having a morbid and immature fear of God. On the contrary, it is a recognition that we cannot take God for granted nor close our eyes to our own lack of love and justice.

The two disciples in the Emmaus story needed to hear Peter’s speech. They reacted to the events of Holy Week in a typically human fashion. Having witnessed the collapse of their expectations, hopes and dreams, they had given into discouragement and disillusionment. When Jesus encountered them incognito on the road to Emmaus, they seemed to be in a hurry to get as far away from Jerusalem as possible. After relating the words and deeds of Jesus, the disciple ended with the wrenching news of the crucifixion. They were so downcast that even the news of the empty tomb failed to make an impression on them — they simply didn’t get it. Jesus patiently opened the inner meaning of Scripture for them in order to show that the suffering and death of the Messiah was not random or accidental. It was preordained and had unfolded according to the divine plan.

Human suffering is a stumbling block for many today and a major cause of unbelief. In the first few generations of the Christian Church, believers struggled to understand why Jesus — if indeed He was the Messiah as claimed — could have suffered humiliation and death. His suffering was linked to ours, for He took upon Himself the human condition. The unfolding of the divine will in history always involves pain and struggle, and the New Testament often likens it to child birth. We still struggle to learn the lessons of love, justice and unity. But as with the birth of a new life, the pain gives way to joy. As the unrecognized stranger at our side, Jesus unlocks not only the inner meaning of Scripture but of our lives too. He reveals to us that our lives have direction, purpose and meaning regardless of what we experience.