Sunday, April 15, 2012
The One Who Comes & Stands With Us
The Day of Resurrection: Easter Sunday, which we celebrated just a week ago, is the greatest feast of the Church’s year, the feast from which all others originate. Every Sunday that follows is an Easter-in-miniature, a reminder for you and me, of its central place in our spiritual and liturgical life.
Aside from the primary focus of Christ’s definitive victory over evil and death, Easter gives hints of resurrection in other ways. With the arrival of Spring, surely varying in degree from year to year, as we’ve seen in recent days (!), we witness a transformation in nature, a resurrection, from cold and wind and storm to budding trees and blooming flowers. Fr. Pius Parsch says “Springtime is nature executing her Easter liturgy.” (The Church’s Year of Grace, Liturgical Press, Vol. III, p. 13) Nature becomes a holy symbol, a picture book of God’s beauty and love.
Another kind of resurrection takes place within the Body of the Church. For many, Easter is the actual anniversary of their baptism. In the Easter service the rest of us at least renew the vows we pledged in baptism. As the Church you and I are part of a new and holy revival, opening our minds and hearts to the energizing forces of the Risen Christ. Today’s Scripture readings give us specific examples of such renewal.
John’s account of the resurrection and its aftermath in his Gospel reports four instances of people’s reactions to it: first, John the Beloved, who looked into the empty tomb and “saw and believed”; second, Mary of Magdala, who finds the tomb empty, to her great distress, but, when called by name, sees and knows that the supposed gardener is really Jesus; third, the disciples, whose cowering fear is turned into joy as Jesus comes and stands among them; and finally, Thomas, the focus of today’s Gospel passage, wherein Jesus “comes and stands” once more (John 20:19-31). For the Gospel writers Jesus coming and standing describes the way in which the disciples experience Jesus’ resurrection.
St. John writes from the perspective of an increasing split between the Jewish tradition and the newly emerging Jesus movement toward the end of the 1st century, even from before Jesus’ death. Joseph of Arimathea had kept his discipleship secret “for fear of the Jewish leaders”. Many people were reluctant to openly support Jesus’ ministry for the same reason. The blind man’s parents at the Pool of Siloam fear to tell the truth “because they feared the Jewish officials”. Not long after the Gospel was written, a writer of John’s tradition penned the 1st Letter of John, a passage of which is today’s Epistle., wherein the writer speaks of another split which has riven John’s community. Dissenters within the Christian community have compromised the truth which Jesus handed down: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us...by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.” When people or groups lose hope and become fearful, Christian confession weakens. Confusion, doubt and misunderstanding creep in and soon faith is shaken, even lost.
In the midst of such an atmosphere of hopelessness and fear, in the Gospel, Jesus suddenly appears with the disciples on the first day of the week, even though the doors had been locked. “Shalom = Peace be to you!”, he says. They see that it’s really him because he shows them his hands and his side. Though there’s also some hard-to-name difference, they’re nevertheless reassured that it’s Jesus and they rejoice, their sagging spirits replaced with smiles.
Jesus repeats his wish of peace, and tells the disciples that even as the Father has already sent him and continues sending him, so Jesus is now sending them. The word Apostle means “one who is sent; an emissary”. Jesus actualizes his prayer with an important visible action. Breathing on them, he says: “Receive Holy Spirit”, the Hebrew of which literally means holy breath. In essence, the Risen Lord sets God’s creative power into action, releases it, within the community of his faith-full followers. This isn’t in order to achieve some sort of spiritual pyrotechnics, such as fantastic miracles or babbling in tongues, but to carry forward in their lives and associations with others Jesus the Word, his message, his compassion and forgiveness, his servanthood.
Throughout his Gospel and letters, John views sin as unfaithfulness, unbelief. The Risen Lord here empowers his community of disciples, through the Father’s life-giving Spirit, to isolate, repel and negate all that is sin and evil. Easter is Jesus‘ resurrection, his glorification as God’s Son, and the giving of the Spirit all rolled into one. This understanding finally enables the community of faith to shed its fear and doubt, and to realize that it’s never abandoned or alone. The Risen One comes and stands with them, always.
“A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought.” (Frederick Buechner) Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples the night Jesus came to them. Thomas appears twice previously in John’s Gospel: once in Chapter 11 where he’s referred to as “the twin”, and again in Chapter 14 when, at the Last Supper, he says to Jesus: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
Only in 1945, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi writings in Egypt did scholars become aware of a series of references to Thomas the Apostle, which Jesus’ followers would’ve heard about or with which they’d have been familiar. This was a collection of 52 writings, including a well-preserved early Christian, non-canonical sayings-gospel, called the Gospel of Thomas, as well as several other books. In that Gospel Thomas is called Didymos Judas Thomas, didymos being the Greek for twin. He’s pictured as a mystic seer, in contrast to his depiction in John’s Gospel. In the commissioning scene in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus challenges the disciples to tell him what he’s like, comparing him to something. Peter exclaims: “like a just angel”; Matthew responds: “like a wise philospher”. Thomas says: “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.” Jesus then takes Thomas and withdraws, and speaks three sayings to him. When Thomas returns, his friends ask him: “What did Jesus say to you?” He answers: “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.” In this Gospel, Thomas is a hero and the others seem less knowledgeable, but in John’s Gospel, it’s a literal-minded Thomas who seems not to understand. Given this as a background, it would be under- standable that, within John’s community, his followers might have looked skeptically and with some scorn at the claims of Thomas‘ followers.
When the other disciples tell Thomas that they’ve seen the Lord, Thomas reacts somewhat negatively and harshly: “Unless I see the mark of the nails...and put my finger in the mark of the nails...never will I believe!” Thomas personifies the lack of faith of some 1st century Christians. He needs to see, to prove, to have it all nailed down first.
A week later, John recounts, Thomas is with them as Jesus makes a return appearance, again declaring “Peace!” He gets right down to business, inviting Thomas to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t be faithless, but believing and faithful.” Thomas is dumbfounded. John doesn’t record whether Thomas ever acted on Jesus‘ invitation. Once the Risen Jesus had come and stood in front of him, all Thomas could do was to acknowledge the reality in words echoing Psalm 34:23 (“...arise to my defense, my God and my Lord!), as well as echoing the historian, Suetonius, who tells us how the emperor Domitian, who ruled during the time-frame of John’s Gospel, required that he be called, viz., “our Lord and God”. Voicing his faith in an ultimate confession, Thomas stammers: “Yes, it’s Jesus and he is God!”
Jesus‘ next question to Thomas, and a good reality check for you and me, is kind of like:
“Really?...have you believed just because you saw me?” He challenges us to examine our faith. The late Anglican Franciscan and biblical scholar, Barnabas Lindars, observes: “Being absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter night, Thomas was virtually in the position of the Christian who has not seen the risen Jesus, and he should not have needed a further appearance in order to come to faith.” “Blessed are those,” says Jesus, who haven’t seen...” and yet have faith that Jesus isn’t absent, that he’s always with us, always coming and standing before us in order that we can have faith.
John concludes with words which originally, before editing took place, concluded the whole Gospel. John says that he’s narrated these signs, only a few of many, many signs which Jesus did, “so that you may continue to believe”, to set your heart on, and to stake your life on, the Risen One who gives you and the whole Church light, love and life through a release of Holy Spirit as he comes and stands among us.
Spiritual writer, Frederick Buechner, who I might proudly add is also an Associate of our Order of Julian of Norwich, says: “...if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
“...this is the victory which overcomes the world, our faith.” (John 5:4)