Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)

Commentaries on the Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Revelation 1:9-11a,12-13,17-19; John 20:19-31

ON THIS, THE FIRST SUNDAY after the celebration of Easter, the emphasis is on faith in the presence and power of the living Jesus in our midst. This Risen Jesus now lives on in the community which believes in him. It is endowed with the same powers that Jesus had during his life here on earth. “So many signs and wonders were worked among the people at the hands of the apostles that the sick were even taken out into the streets and laid on beds and sleeping mats in the hope that at least the shadow of Peter might fall across some of them as he went past.”

The work of Jesus continues

And again, “People even came crowding in from the towns round about Jerusalem, bringing with them their sick and those tormented by unclean spirits – and all of them were cured.” This is the living testimony that Jesus is active and continues his saving and whole-making work among us for the disciples do these works, not in their own name, but in the name of Jesus their Lord.

They will also proclaim the message of Jesus as Saviour and invite people to join their company. We know that many indeed did come to join them but there is a telling phrase in today’s First Reading that “no one else ever dared to join them but the people were loud in their praise.” Is this already a hint of the counter-witness of the early Christians when they were already being regarded with suspicion by the religious and civil authorities and when it was becoming dangerous to be identified with them? They were a group to be admired – but from a safe distance. It is yet another sign that the early followers were about to share the same fate as Jesus himself.

Mixed reactions – to be expected

Things have not changed greatly in our own time. For it is through the Christian community and its witness that people come to know of Jesus and are led to faith in his message of truth and life. It is a witness that rests on the shoulders of every single follower of Jesus and we do it not just by explicitly religious actions but by the very pattern and impact of our daily lives. An impact that arouses both positive and negative responses.

The Gospel, however, brings us back to an earlier stage when the disciples have not yet come to the full realisation that Jesus, whom they saw crucified, dead and buried, is now alive, that he is risen. As the Gospel opens we see them huddled together in that room with the doors firmly locked “for fear of the Jews.” At any moment they dreaded the arrival of the police to arrest them as accomplices of the dangerous subversive who had been executed on Golgotha the previous Friday.

Peace instead of fear

And then, all of a sudden, the Jesus they presumed dead is standing among them. “Peace be with you!” he says. It can be taken as a blessing, echoing the ordinary Jewish greeting, Shalom. Or it can be taken as a statement of a fact – “With my presence among you there comes deep inner peace.” The same peace that comes when Jesus calms the surrounding storms in the gospel stories. And there is also for them an unutterable joy “when they saw the Lord”. (“Lord” is the title for the Risen Jesus.)

But it is not just to be a happy reunion. There is work to be done, the work that Jesus began and which they are to continue. “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.” They are being given a mission. The word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin word ‘to send’ (mittere). All followers of Jesus have a mission, are missionaries.

Passing on his Spirit

He breathed on them, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In John’s Gospel this is the Pentecost experience when the Holy Spirit comes down on the disciples. In Luke’s Acts, Pentecost takes place 50 days after the resurrection; for John it takes place on Easter Day. It makes no difference – the meaning is the same.

What Jesus does is reminiscent of the Creation story when God “breathed” over the waters and brought life and order into the chaos. He “breathed” again and Adam, the human being made into the image of God, comes into existence. Now, Jesus “breathes” the Spirit of his Way, of his Truth and Life, making of them (in Paul’s term) “new human beings,” full of the Spirit of the Father and Jesus.

The meaning of forgiveness

The very empowering authority of Jesus is transferred to them: “Whose sins you shall forgive… whose sins you shall retain…” When they act together in the name of Jesus, they have his authority. And, above all, their task is to “forgive sin”, that is, to bring about a deep reconciliation between people and God and among people themselves, to make all one in Him. “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God.” We are not just talking here about “confession,” instituting the Sacrament of Reconciliation, although its roots can be traced to here. Forgiving sin is much more than a juridical act of declaring sins no longer held against someone. It involves the healing of wounds and division between God and people and between people as brothers and sisters in one family based on truth, love and justice. That is the work of the Kingdom. That is the work of every Christian community and every member in it.

The doubter

But the story is not yet finished. Thomas, “one of the Twelve,” was not there on that Easter Sunday. He stands for the sceptic in all of us. “Unless I see with my own eyes … I will not believe.” In the gospel story generally, Thomas comes across as a bit of a grump. He likes to criticise, to put objections, to make difficulties, to call into question. He now wants convincing proof. “I won’t believe a word you say unless I can myself put my hands into his wounds.”

The following Sunday – the Sunday we are celebrating today, in fact – the doors are again closed. (This is now not out of fear but as an indication of the way that the Risen Jesus now becomes present.) Again there is the reassuring greeting of ‘Peace’. Thomas is directly addressed. “Put your finger here; look at my hands. Put your hand in my side. Don’t doubt any longer but believe.”

Extraordinary confession

There follows the greatest confession of faith in all of the gospels: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas had been invited to touch the wounds but he does not seem to have done so. And his cry of recognition is not based only on the evidence of his senses. He does not say, “Jesus, it’s you!” but “My Lord and my God!” It is, in fact, a profound act of faith in the reality and identity of the Person standing before him. And that is something he cannot see only with his physical senses. Only the eyes of faith can lead him to so speak.

A further word of encouragement, though, is offered for those of us who have not had Thomas’ privileged experience: “Blessed, happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Of course, all belief in Jesus involves some element of seeing, of in-sight. But we have not had the experience of seeing and knowing the Jesus of the Public Life, Jesus before the crucifixion.

However, our faith enables us to see him in all the surroundings of our daily life, especially in those people who are filled with his Spirit and who bring him into our lives. And we also see and find him in all the sick, the weak, the oppressed, the poor around us who provide us with opportunities to know, love and show compassion for Jesus. We are even to see him in those who are hostile or who do harm to us in the sense that we are challenged to be Christ for them in our unconditional love and concern for their well-being.

Breaking down barriers

To see and know Jesus in our lives is, at the same time, to recognise where he comes to us and at the same time to be ready for day-to-day opportunities when we can bring him into the lives of others. Above all, can we be true to the mission Jesus gave to his disciples to be makers of reconciliation, to be peacemakers, breaking down walls of hatred, prejudice and fear? We do this by living lives of integrity, of love and compassion, of real justice for all. When we do that, Easter is celebrated and Jesus is alive among us.

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