Commentary on Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31
TODAY’S GOSPEL BEGINS in an atmosphere of fear. It is Easter Sunday, two days after the death of Jesus. The disciples are inside the house, with the doors firmly locked, because they are terrified that, as companions of Jesus, they too will be liable to arrest and punishment. The words of assurance they had been given earlier are all forgotten.
Suddenly, there is Jesus standing in their midst. The very fact that he can be present in spite of the locked doors indicates that he is not the same as before, that he is present in a new way.
“Peace with you!” is his greeting. It is the normal Jewish greeting of “Shalom”. But, coming from Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to this group of frightened people, it has special meaning. And, in the Greek, there is no verb so it can be taken either as a wish or a statement of fact – where Jesus is truly present to us, there is peace.
He shows them his hands and side. He is not just a disembodied ghost but the same Jesus who died on the cross – and yet there are differences.
The disciples’ fear is gradually transformed into an unspeakable joy at the return of their Master. He continues to speak to them. Repeating his greeting of peace, he proceeds to give them their mission. There is no critical word of their failure to stand by him in his final moments. “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.”
Then he breathed on them. The breath of life, reminiscent of God breathing on the dust of the earth and creating human life in the first man. It is also the breath of the Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
A new mission
Then comes their mission: “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” Is that all he gave them to do? It does not seem much. What about all the other things the Gospel talks about? And yet, it is all there in those words.
There is no full forgiveness of sin without reconciliation. Their task is to bring about the reconciliation of all with their God, with their brothers and sisters and with the whole of creation. It can also be summed up in the letters JPIC – Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.
That is their primary mission, to which all their other efforts and teaching will be subordinated. To restore right relationships between God and his people and among the people themselves. That is a pretty big programme.
In practice, it involves a lot more than just saying words of forgiveness. It involves much more than “going to confession” and being absolved by a priest. It involves working to create a whole society based on right relationships with God, between people and with the rest of the creation. It is the making of the Kingdom of God. That is a pretty big programme.
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And, of course, their mission is also ours. The words of Jesus spoken to them are also spoken to us.
An ideal community
This is very well expressed in the description of the ideal Christian community we find in the First Reading. “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul”. This is the unity of community and fellowship.
“No one claimed for their own use anything they had, as everything they owned was held in common.” Or in the Marxist version: “To each according to his need; from each according to his ability.” None of that individualistic greed and competitiveness that so marks our societies today.
As a result, “none of their members was ever in want” because those who had wealth gave it to the community. “It was then distributed to any members who might be in need.”
Can we find that today anywhere in the Church? Actually yes. It is present in communities of religious life, where it is properly lived. But it needs to be lived more widely among all Christians. The Basic Christian Community and other forms of lay community living are moving in that direction.
The Second Reading speaks of keeping God’s commandments. And, the writer tells us, those commandments are not difficult. That may not be our experience and yet it is true because those commandments are only a call to be totally true to our human nature. They are not asking us to do things which are not in accord with our nature or transcending our nature. And, of course, in the New Covenant, the commandments in question are those telling us to love each other as Jesus loves us, to be agents of peace and reconciliation and justice, which ties in with the Gospel and the First Reading.
On that day, there was one apostle missing – Thomas. When he was told that his companions had “seen the Lord”, he said he would not believe unless he saw with his own eyes the marks of the wounds and put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side.
And then, one week later – today, in fact – they were all, including Thomas, gathered together in the room. Although the doors were locked, Jesus was suddenly there among them. After the usual greeting of peace, he invited Thomas not just to look but to touch the wounds in his hands and side. “Do not doubt any longer but believe.”
Thomas yields completely to the experience. “My Lord and my God!” It is one of the most powerful acknowledgements of Jesus’ real identity in the whole Gospel and the only time anyone directly calls him God.
Ironically, too, it is an act of faith. Thomas could not see directly that Jesus was God. No one can see God directly. But the experience convinced Thomas that he was in the presence of God himself.
The following words of Jesus are meant to encourage us, all those who have not had Thomas’ experience: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” We, too, need to be always open to experiences where God’s unmistakable presence can be recognised.
Finally, we are reminded that everything that is in the Gospel is to help us to come to that stage of faith by which we believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” and that, through this belief, we may find life.
Untold numbers of people have tried this and found that it is altogether true. They have found in following Christ a meaning, a direction and a very special quality to their lives which cannot be found anywhere else. May that be our experience too.