April 16, 2017
Acts 10: 34, 37-43
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“Jesus of Nazareth commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10: 42).
You’ve all heard of the witness protection program. I hope no one here knows it 1st-hand! Its purpose, according to Wikipedia, is “to protect threatened witnesses before, during, and after a trial.” Its participants are witnesses in criminal cases who don’t want to be known, seen, or heard publicly; who try to disappear and lead quiet, secret, safe lives far away from the people and places familiar with them.
Domine, Quo Vadis
by Annibale Carracci
There’s an old legend about St. Peter that you might call an attempt to go into witness protection. Along the Appian Way on the outskirts of Rome there’s an old church called, informally, “the Church of Domine Quo Vadis.” Those of a certain age might remember a 1951 movie called Quo Vadis, based on an older novel. It was one of the typical biblically-themed films of the ’50s. (The movie’s so old that an aspiring Hollywood actress named Sophia Loren got her 1st minor role in it playing a slave girl.) According to the legend, when Nero’s persecution of Christians broke out in 67 AD, Peter headed out of town to escape. And he met our Lord on the Appian Way, walking toward the city. Peter asked him, “Domine, quo vadis? Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “To Rome to be crucified again.” It was a verbal slap in Peter’s face for abandoning the flock in time of danger, as he’d once before abandoned his Master by denying him out of fear. So Peter turned back to Rome, was arrested, and was martyred by crucifixion in Nero’s gardens on the Vatican hill. Meanwhile, Jesus left his footprints in one of the paving stones where he’d met Peter on the road, and that stone with its prints may still be seen today in the Quo Vadis Church.
Such is the legend. But in today’s 1st reading, which quotes Peter’s preaching to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household, he shows no such timidity about bearing witness to Jesus. In fact, in those 7½ verses from the Acts of the Apostles, the words witness or testify are used 4 times. Peter and the other disciples are “witnesses of all that Jesus did both in the country of the Jews [i.e., in Judea] and in Jerusalem” (10:39). God raised Jesus from the dead, and he appeared “to the witnesses chosen by God” (10:41), his apostles. In their preaching the apostles “testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). “All the prophets [of the Hebrew Scriptures] bear witness that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins thru his name” (10:43).
|Church of Domine Quo Vadis|
In short, Peter and the apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ public ministry, to his passion and resurrection, to his God-given role as Messiah or Christ, and to his being the Redeemer who fulfills the OT prophecies.
Cornelius believes Peter’s preaching, and he and his household accept Baptism.
For their part, Peter and the other apostles had been very slow to understand Jesus’ preaching and to believe that he’d risen from the dead. In the gospel reading today we heard of the consternation of the women and of St. Peter; only the Beloved Disciple connected the dots between Jesus’ preaching, his passion, and the empty tomb—only he “saw and believed” (John 20:8). The others needed actually to see, to hear, and to touch the Risen Lord.
But then they became convinced believers, so convinced that they were no longer afraid to be known as his followers, to be his public witnesses, even to be persecuted, flogged, jailed, and put to death because they knew he’d risen from the dead, knew that he obtains for all of us the forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with God, knew that he is the way to eternal life. Instead of running away in fear, as they’d done when Jesus was arrested, instead of denying they’d ever known him, as Peter had done, they were more than willing to proclaim everywhere to everyone that they belonged to Jesus the living Son of God, and they were willing to die for him—which, according to ancient Christian tradition all of them did except St. John, who lived to a very old age and died in peace.
Theirs is the testimony that has been handed down to us thru the Creed, the liturgy, the Scriptures, and all the teachings of the Catholic Church—our faith that we’ll reaffirm momentarily when we renew our baptismal promises.
Our sacramental theology teaches that when we’re baptized each of us becomes an image of Jesus Christ and becomes with him a priest, a prophet, and a king. In our roles as Christian prophets we bear public witness, like St. Peter, that Jesus of Nazareth is the one Savior of the human race, the Messiah given to us by God to redeem us from our sins. Like St. Peter and the rest of the apostles, we let it be known that we belong to Jesus, that Jesus is alive, that we follow him in our beliefs and in our behavior. We preach Jesus when we teach our children their prayers and their moral code; when we participate in public Christian worship; when we act with personal integrity, with faithfulness, with honesty; when we’re generous, patient, kind, and chaste; when we defend the human dignity of the unborn, the aged, the immigrant, the handicapped, persons who are different from us in sex, color, ethnicity, etc.; when our votes and other political actions are consistent with the teachings and practice of Jesus and Jesus’ Church. Our entire lives must bear witness to Jesus: to all that he did, all that he taught; that he is truly risen and alive; that he will pass judgment on our lives, forgiving the sins of those who believe in him and follow him; that he calls all of us to a generous share of his own heavenly glory in the house of the living God (cf. Col 3:4).
|The alleged footprints of Christ preserved in the floor of the Quo Vadis church|