We have arrived at the Second Sunday of Easter. It is also known as the Sunday within the Octave of Easter and has more recently been called Mercy Sunday. The way in which the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Lord’s Resurrection points to the fact that it is without doubt the lynchpin of our faith. As St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.” If we don’t believe that Jesus is risen or has been raised from the dead, then nothing about our faith makes any sense.
During the first week of the Easter Season, the Church concentrates on the so-called “appearance” stories, a series of Gospel passages that speak of how the apostles and disciples of Jesus realized that Jesus was in their presence at various times and in various places. Most of these stories come to us from the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John; however, St. Mark and St. Matthew also mention that Jesus appeared to the apostles and disciples on several occasions. The stories usually include a reference to the fact that Jesus was not immediately recognized by them. So for instance, Mary Magdalene thinks that Jesus is a gardener until he speaks her name. Cleopas and his wife walk all the way to Emmaus before they recognize Jesus as he sits down to table with them and breaks bread with them. When Jesus appears to the apostles in the upper room, at first they think they are seeing a ghost. Each of these stories tells us that it took some time for the early Christian community to come to the realization that Jesus was indeed still alive in their midst. They did not immediately believe. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, the very first of the Gospels to be written, tells us that the women were so frightened by what they say and heard at the empty tomb that they ran away and told nothing to anyone. If that had been the end of the story, you and I would not be here in this place of worship today. However, as time passed, those first Christians gradually came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he was still present in their midst.
All of the readings for this Sunday point to the development of that faith – the faith that tells us that not only is Jesus alive, but assures us that he lives among us.
Throughout the Easter Season, we set aside the Hebrew Scriptures from which we usually get the first reading for our Sunday worship, and read instead from the Acts of the Apostles, written by St. Luke. This book of the Bible has been called by some “St. Luke’s Second Gospel.” Indeed, the construction of this book is a parallel text. Many of the miracles and many of the words of Jesus which we read about in the Gospel are repeated by the apostles in Acts. So for instance, Luke tells us that Jesus used to teach in the porticos of the Temple. In Acts, we hear that the apostles also taught in the porticos of the Temple. In Luke’s Gospel, we hear that a woman with a hemorrhage was cured as she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe as he passed by her. In today’s reading from Acts, we hear that many signs and wonders were worked at the hands of the apostles.
Another second function of the Book of Acts tells us how the community lived out its conviction of faith. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke enumerates four elements of that lifestyle: devotion to the teaching of the apostles, communal life, celebration of the Eucharist or the breaking of the bread, while still participating in the prayers of the synagogue and Temple. The second reading for today’s liturgy, and throughout the C Cycle of the Lectionary, the second reading for all the Sunday’s of Easter, comes to us from the Book of Revelation. This book was written much later in the apostolic era. There is evidence that part of it was written before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (around 70 A.D.), but there is also evidence that part of it was written after that event as well. Today we hear of that mystical figure who is called John and who has been exiled on the island of Patmos. He has been exiled because of his faith.
The second reading during the A Cycle of the Lectionary is from the First Letter of St. Peter which many scholars have identified as a Baptismal homily or a Baptismal liturgy. In that reading, the sacred writer reminds the Christian community that the faith that led them to baptism is the faith that will aid them when they are confronted with the inevitable suffering that will come because of their beliefs.
The final reading should be very familiar to us. We hear it every year on the Second Sunday of Easter. It is the story from the Gospel of John of two different appearance stories. The lynchpin of these stories is the character of Thomas. Unfortunately, we have come to call him “doubting Thomas.”
St. John’s Gospel was the last of the four Gospels to be written and accepted by the community. It is different from the other three in that it states that its purpose is NOT to give us another biography of Jesus as the other three do. The sacred writer tells us that this Gospel is written so “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” The very first words of the Gospel tell us what this writer believes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” After penning these words, he continues in his purpose – to bring us to belief in the Word made flesh.
In the twentieth chapter of this Gospel Jesus appears to the disciples and invites them to preach the Good News of forgiveness. However, the evangelist is a little concerned for those who will not see Jesus in the flesh. Millions will come to faith in Jesus simply by hearing the story. That’s the point of this story of fingers in wound marks and hands in pierced sides. “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” That’s you and me, brother and sisters. Thomas speaks for all of us when he, and only he, states unequivocally, “My Lord and my God.” He is the only apostle who verbally affirms his faith. He is no doubter. He is a believer. He stands in this Gospel and represents those of us who have come to believe that Jesus is still in our midst. In fact, I have come to the conviction that Thomas did not doubt the apostles’ fantastic story because it was fantastic. I believe he doubted it because they were still in the upper room even though Jesus had “sent them” to preach forgiveness of sins. His words to them are his way of saying, “If Jesus stood among you and did what you say he did, why are you still here? Why are you still afraid and standing behind locked doors?”
This Sunday, then, is a time for us to examine our own faith in Jesus. How do we live it out? Are we devoted to the teachings of the apostles? Do we live a common life that breaks the barriers of race, of gender, of ethnicity, of religious faith and of other differences among us? Do we accept the suffering that comes as part of our human nature, following in the example of Jesus who suffered for us all? And finally, are we so convinced of our faith that we are about the business of preaching the forgiveness that is ours in the Holy Spirit which has come upon us, or are we still locked behind closed doors, too afraid to let our faith be visible in this broken world? Are we merciful, or do we simply want to experience the mercy of God for ourselves. In other words, do we really believe that Jesus is alive and among us?
We are drawing near to the table of the Lord once again today to eat his body and drink his blood. Doubts about the Resurrection are part of our human nature, especially if the effects of this meal are not visible in our lives, especially if we fail to become what we eat.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator