With the celebration of Easter, we are now approaching the season of graduations from college, and high school graduations will soon follow.
Among all the things this graduation season brings, there will be numerous commencement speeches, presuming schools find COVID-sensitive ways to hold commencements this year.
And among the many points of wisdom that graduation speakers offer, one of the most common is that the word “commencement,” strictly speaking, means that something is beginning—not that something is ending. There will also undoubtedly be lots of Shakespearean quotes and appeals to “follow your heart” and to “dream big,” and so forth.
I bring this up not just to give a clearer sense about where we’re at in the calendar (or to provoke a sense of dread in those who have lots of graduation cards to fill with cash in the coming weeks), but rather because what we heard from St. Peter in the First Reading for Easter Sunday Mass is something like a commencement address, reflecting on the past and showing how it points towards a bigger and better future.
Peter was speaking in the house of Cornelius, whom Scripture describes as a Roman centurion and a “God-fearing man” (Act 10:2). Cornelius was also a man on the brink of being baptized, after having a vision in which an angel told him to send for Peter and to listen to what he had to say. Peter also had a vision in which he was told to accompany the men who had been sent to escort him to Cornelius’ house so that he might speak to him.
What we have in last Sunday’s reading from Acts 10 is the speech Peter gave when he met Cornelius. I don’t know if there was any prior “chit-chat”, but it certainly appears that Peter got right to the point. And in these few paragraphs he laid out for Cornelius the heart of the Gospel message.
Anyone who has ever prepared a speech knows how difficult it is to hone down your message to what is really essential, and to get your point across clearly and effectively. Peter’s speech to Cornelius is a masterpiece of preaching. Here we have a man of the deepest faith, who knew Jesus, who had been a witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, who had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and who relied on the Spirit in everything he said and did.
Only reliance upon God could produce a speech like this, and yet it still took strong faith and an open heart to accept the otherwise incredible things Peter was saying. What did he say? I’ve organized his message into kind of a “top ten” list:
1. He appealed to the experience of those gathered around him: “You know what has happened all over Judea…”
2. Peter makes it clear that Jesus came from God and was anointed by the Holy Spirit, sharing in God’s being and power.
3. Peter testifies to what Jesus did in His earthly life: “He went about doing good and healing those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
4. He identifies himself as a witness. It’s easy to write off the word of someone who does not have personal experience with what he or she is talking about. We tend to give a lot more credit to someone who speaks from first-hand experience.
5. He tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is the story of our salvation: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance.” God has so planned it that some would come to know Jesus first, and then share their friendship with Jesus with others.
6. Peter continues to make it clear that he is not just off doing his own thing, spreading his opinion around. Peter and the other apostles have been commissioned by God to tell others about Jesus, to give witness by their words and by their transformed lives. He speaks with divine authority.
7. Peter begins to make things personal: He says that Jesus is the one who will judge all of us at the end of time. Every one of us will die, and every one of us will be held responsible for his or her thoughts, words, and actions at the end of our lives and at the end of time.
8. He affirms that the testimony of the prophets—which is an expression of all the hopes of Israel—finds fulfillment in Jesus. All that the human heart can hope for, all that has been promised by God, is delivered in Jesus.
9. Peter makes it clear that we need to respond to the Good News of Jesus. This is not just a nice story we can smile at and then forget. It demands from us a response. If you hear the story of a couple getting engaged, you can enjoy the story but then forget about it. If someone proposes marriage to you, you can’t just smile and walk away. You need to answer! When the Gospel is proposed to me, I am called to say “yes,” that I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and my Savior. God makes it clear in the scriptures that our eternal destiny and that of every person depends upon the answer we give to the question, “Do you believe in Jesus?”
10. We come to the promise itself. Jesus brings forgiveness of sins. He brings God’s mercy. He brings the promise of salvation and eternal life—a promise no one else can make! No one else has the power to give what Jesus is offering!
Most us who are Catholics were baptized as infants, so we have never known a “B.C./Before Christ” time in our own lives. But all of us at one time or another have had to think about the empty tomb. All of us have had to make a mature decision to believe in Jesus, to say that the tomb is empty because Jesus rose from the dead and left it forever. And at every Easter Mass we testify to this belief as we renew our baptismal promises. We affirm once again that we absolutely do believe in Jesus and what He has done for us.
When we pronounce the words “I do,” we need to be careful not to do so merely out of habit. Sometimes, congregations at Mass seem to answer with the same level of enthusiasm we have when we’re doing online shopping and have to click the box that says, “I agree to the following terms and conditions.”
To say “I do” to the Baptismal Promises is to distinguish ourselves from billions of people who do not believe in Jesus. If a person really means his “I do,” he will also be distinguished from millions of those who say it but don’t really mean it, or mean it only half-heartedly. There was never a good time to be a half-hearted Christian, but especially today, when so many are opposing Jesus and attacking His Church with everything they’ve got, we need to give Him our whole hearts, our whole minds, our whole bodies.
The speech in Acts 10 is not just about Peter preaching to Cornelius and his household. It’s about God speaking to us, members of His Church, today. All of us have experiences, life histories, which have brought us to this moment. All of us need to know the message of the whole Bible, the message of God’s love for us revealed completely in Jesus. All of us need to know that God loves us so much that He was willing to die for us, that He is so powerful He rose from the dead, and that He is so merciful He offers this same eternal, divine life to every last one of us.
All we need to do is to repent of our sins, to believe what God has told us, and to live as Jesus’ disciples in His Church. And we need to take up the mission of the apostles, since the mercy of God is not just for us, but for everyone. We need to accept the risen Jesus, especially in the Eucharist. And we need to allow the Holy Spirit to empower and direct us, since we’ve been anointed as Jesus is anointed by the Spirit. God will transform us from the inside out, so that we become holy like Christ and learn to speak effectively about God to other people.
Finally, it is important to drive home the point that all of this is not just directed towards all of us, but also to each of us. Each of us is in a different life situation, at different ages, with different professions or no profession, with our own families and friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Each of us has different gifts, different weaknesses and temptations, and different crosses to carry.
But no matter what a person’s situation, God loves each of us and calls us to something more. He wants today to be a kind of “commencement” for all His people. He gives us new and immortal life filled with peace and joy. He wants us to live with Him and to share His love forever. But to receive all of this, we need to say “yes” to Him wholeheartedly, holding nothing back for ourselves, giving everything over to Him Who has given everything to us.
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