[Delivered at the 7:30am and 9:30am Masses at St. Mary of the Annunciation in Mundelein, IL.]
In case it did not immediately jump out at you, St. Peter was doing something a little strange in today’s first reading: he was trying to prove the Resurrection using a psalm. Now, that does not necessarily seem strange to us, because we are used to using the Old Testament to talk about Jesus, but it is, actually, strange. See, the Psalms are generally attributed to King David, and there is a line in this psalm that reads “my flesh, too, will dwell in hope, because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption.” Well, David definitely died, and his body definitely saw corruption, so St. Peter is saying that this text has to be about someone else, and so he concludes that this text is about Jesus. The problem is that the Psalm does not mention Jesus. In fact, nowhere in the entire Old Testament is Jesus mentioned. We are used to seeing Jesus in the Old Testament because we have been taught to see him there, by St. Peter, by St. Paul and St. Matthew and the first generations of Christians.
Now this word “taught” is very important, because it points to something called a “hermeneutic community”. “Hermeneutic” is just a fancy word for how you see something; we could also say “lens”, like the lens through which we see the world. So if you have a hermeneutic of skepticism, you doubt everything that you see in the world. Or if you have a hermeneutic of continuity, you like to see history as a slow progression from past to present to future, rather than as a series of revolutions.
There is a reason that if you give a Catholic the line “this is my body” you will receive a different explanation than you would from a Protestant. Of if you give a Protestant the line “we are saved by faith”, you will be given a different interpretation than you would get from a Catholic. We have been taught to interpret things in certain ways by the communities to which we belong.
Of course, hermeneutic communities extend beyond the Bible and the churches. Republicans and Democrats will often read the 1st, 2nd, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution very differently from each other. Or beyond texts, these same two groups of people will read the signs of the times and the events of the world differently as well. We all belong to these groups of people that teach us how to interpret the world around us, and that is okay! We often use “bias” as a dirty word, but no one is unbiased. We have all been taught to think according to one lens or another. In fact, it would be impossible to see the world, and all the information in it, without a lens. Otherwise, nothing would make sense and everything would be overwhelming. But even if we are all biased, at some level we have the ability to choose our bias, to be deliberate about our hermeneutic communities.
Which brings us to an important follow-up question. How do we decide which hermeneutic communities to belong to? How do we determine whether Catholics or Protestants are reading the Bible correctly?
That is where our Gospel reading for today enters the scene. What Jesus is doing for these disciples on the road to Emmaus is inducting them into a hermeneutic community. They had seen the signs of Jesus, had heard his words, and had experienced his death. They probably also knew the Scriptures thoroughly. The problem is that they did not know how everything fit together. They needed Jesus to explain it all to them. What Jesus is doing is giving them a hermeneutic, a specific way of seeing the world and reading the Scriptures. And that hermeneutic is himself, as the Son of God and savior of the World. These disciples did not realize that everything in the Bible was pointing to the death and resurrection of Jesus. They did not realize that Jesus himself foretold his death and resurrection. They needed Jesus himself to tell him that.
But they could have walked away from this interpretation. Sure they found it interesting and even compelling, but they could have gone to bed and woken up the next morning thinking Jesus was still dead and that this was just an interesting conversation. But they become certain about the hermeneutic being given to them when they realize that it is Jesus himself who was teaching them. At that moment, they realized that this is the truth.
All of this is to say that if we are asking ourselves which interpretation to trust, which hermeneutic community to follow, we ought to follow the one in which we recognize Jesus. In other words, when you recognize Jesus in a place, listen to what those people have to say, because they are probably holy and close to the Lord. This is why we care to much about the saints: they are holy men and women who reveal Jesus. We recognize Jesus in them, so we read their writing and study their lives, because they give us a way to interpret our theology and our practices. Their lives give us a hermeneutic of holiness.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is my sincere and ardent hope that you have recognized Jesus in the Catholic Church. The Church makes a lot of claims and a lot of demands. We have very specific ways of reading the Bible, the world, and everything. And you either trust us or you do not. And the only reason you have to trust us, the only reason you would ever accept our interpretations, is because you have recognized Jesus here. I truly, deeply hope that when you come to Mass, or participate in a ministry, that you recognize Jesus in the breaking of this bread on this altar, in the sacraments, in the clergy, in the homilies, in the music, in the ministries, in the people, in the hospitality.
If you have recognized Jesus here, then please do what the disciples in the Gospel did and tell people about it. When they recognized Jesus, it was getting dark and they were about to go to bed, but they immediately turned around and went back to Jerusalem because they had to tell people they had seen the risen Lord! This is not information that is easily kept private. If you have recognized Jesus, tell people, and then tell them where you have seen him, so that they can come and see him, too.
If you have not recognized Jesus here, then the only thing I can do is apologize. I am sorry. I have failed, and the entire Church has failed, and I am sorry. The whole reason the Catholic Church exists is to show forth the Risen Lord, to help people see Jesus, to be a community that shows Jesus forth. That is our job, and I am sorry that we have not done it adequately.
We all have friends or family members who have decided to go somewhere else, sometimes to another Christian community, and sometimes to no community at all. I cannot be mad at this people. People leave the Church because they do not see Jesus here. When they join a church like Willow Creek, where we hear there are flashier services or more exciting music, it is because they have recognized Jesus there. What am I going to do, tell them not to follow Jesus? No! If you recognize Jesus, you follow him.
No, I cannot be mad at these people, but I can be sad, because I have come to recognize Jesus here, in the Catholic Church. I see Jesus in her sacraments and in her teachings. I even see Jesus in her history and her morality and in every theology book that I read. I see Jesus in our Church every day, in so many ways, in the people, in the ministries, in the devotions. And because I see Jesus here, the Church is my hermeneutic community. I trust the Church and her interpretations and her teachings and the way she views the world. I am certain that Jesus is here, and that certainty has driven me back to Jerusalem, to preach the Good News.
My friends, this is my last Sunday at St. Mary’s. I have two prayers for you, as I move on to a new phase of ministry. First, that you will never despair on your road to Emmaus. That even when you think Jesus is dead and that all is lost, you will suddenly encounter him on the road, and you will recognize him when you least expect it. And second, that you fall in love with the Catholic Church as deeply as I have fallen in love with the Catholic Church. That we will come to recognize Jesus here, especially in the breaking of the bread.