Second Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:32-35; 1 Jn 5:1-6; Jn 20:19-31 ]

In our first reading we are told that “The community of believers was of one heart and one mind… they had everything in common.” They were a community because “the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus…” and they were favored. The story to which the apostles bore witness formed them as a community and community and story together formed the character of the members. We are immediately struck by the difference between this after-the-resurrection community described in Acts and those same people depicted in the gospel: they are hiding out. What happened to them?

The gospel tells us. Christ came to them and gave them two gifts, the first of which was faith; he gave them faith as a community, i.e. “one mind and one heart.” It happened like this: He eased through their defense of a locked door and gave them peace. He had promised he would do this; in Jn. 16:33 he said, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” The religious authorities show us their way of living with conscience: they are having their own struggles with conscience provoked by Jesus of Nazareth. Their solution is not to hide, but to execute or exclude what bothers conscience. “It was out of envy that they handed him over.”

What is the difference between the peace the world gives and the peace which Jesus gives? Why did his peace move them from fearful men underground to a joyful community of sharers?

The peace that the world gives is the peace that comes from division and exclusion. “Us vs. them.” Its effectiveness relies on our not being aware of it or at least denying it. “Them” are identified, vilified, and peace comes about when they are executed or just excluded. In other words, we grasp our identity—our self-understanding—as “us“, as the good guys, over-against someone else. We form a community around it. This peace is based on mere social conformity; we “follow the crowd.” It was in seeking the peace that the world gives that the crowd, led by envious religious leaders, cried out for the crucifixion of Jesus. As Caiaphas has said, “It is better for one man to die instead of the people than for the whole nation to perish.”

The peace of Christ is problematic for us. It is received gratuitously. “Received” means that it is not grasped and permanently controlled by us. It does not rest on finding someone to blame. It is not even desired out of envy. With the peace of Christ our identity is given to us by living this way of life that is non-rivalrous, non-envious, and non-grasping. It is instead self-giving in imitation of the self-giving victim, Jesus Christ. So it is not surprising that those who were given the peace of Christ—who consented to receive it—were of “one mind and one heart” and shared everything. The move from the hide-out to the “community of believers” began when Jesus appeared and gave them the peace he had promised and then the second gift, forgiveness. First he forgave, and then they repented. They were now a community of forgiven men who were to pass it on. Now that they had his peace—an unmerited, gratuitously given sense of place in the world—there was nothing that the world outside could take from them. They were at peace with the world, though not on its terms. There was no reason to begrudge anything temporal that might be taken. The world did not hold their sense of belonging, of security, and of meaning. What the world doesn’t hold, it can’t withhold.

The Christian accepts something he knows he doesn’t deserve; is given something it is literally impossible to pay for.

St. Bernard once taught his monks, “When a man is content with the testimony of his own conscience, he does not care to shine with the glory of another’s praise.” Today’s readings from the Acts and from John illustrate this well.

In our first reading we are told that “The community of believers was of one heart and one mind…” they had everything “in common.” They were a community because “the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus…” and they were favored.

The story to which the apostles bore witness formed them as a community, and community and story together formed the character of the members. We are immediately struck by the difference between the community described in Acts and those same people depicted in the gospel: they are hiding out in a room with the doors locked. That room is conscience.

The Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudiium et Spes, calls conscience our “secret core, our sanctuary.” The disciples show this in their way of living with conscience: they are hiding in their room, their sanctuary. They are hiding out because of Pride: they don’t want others to see in them what they see in themselves. The locked doors were perhaps the images of likableness and acceptability that Pride tries to present to others to win their affirmation and silence conscience.

The Old Testament used the word “heart” for conscience. St. Augustine and Cardinal John Henry Newman described conscience as an “Inner Voice.” Jesus penetrated the locked door of their sanctuary, and his inner voice—remarkably free of resentment—did not rebuke them, but instead said “Peace be with you.” Peace was exactly what their consciences needed! Jesus had anticipated that, because earlier John tells us that he had promised them this peace: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world…I do not give peace as the world gives it. Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In other words, do not let your consciences be troubled. What is the difference between the peace of Christ and the peace that the world gives?

We have seen it in the ways of living with conscience. The peace that the world gives is exemplified in the pride that the religious leaders showed in how they dealt with Jesus. It is self-acquired righteousness. It is based on division and exclusion. It is based on “Us vs. them” thinking. It is grasped and held as one’s own, permanent possession. Most importantly, it requires social conformity or “following the crowd.

The peace that Christ gives is based on self-donation. In humility, it is received rather than grasped. Most importantly it is lived out in imitation of the self-giving victim, Jesus Christ. This is important because the word “con-science” means “to know together with.” Who we “know together with” is crucial. Initially, when the disciples abandoned him, they knew together with the crowd. The crowd formed their consciences. Now they had Jesus in their inner room, their secret core. He forgave their earlier alliance with the crowd. He forgave by saying “peace.” This is not a good wish, but a statement of fact: he is delivering on the promise.

He is saying “Peace is with you; peace is yours.” By his presence he revealed their mistaken tendency to follow the crowd and replaced it with the faith needed to follow him…and to follow him as a community, i.e. as Church.

The result is a new way of living with conscience: a “community of believers” gathered around this story and favored with the peace of Christ. As a community of forgiven men and women they are given a mission to pass on the forgiveness. Being of “one heart and one mind” they “know together with” Christ and with a community centered on him: the Church.

A Jewish New Testament scholar, Pinchas Lapide, explains why, even though he is not a Christian, he believes in the resurrection: “When this scared…band of the apostles…who betrayed and denied their master and then failed him miserably, then could be changed overnight into a confident mission society …able to work with more success after Easter than before…, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”

So this is Divine Mercy; this is how Jesus moved them from men hiding out to a forgiven community of believing and sharing: he broke down their pride by making them accept something they knew they didn’t deserve; by giving them something that it was literally impossible to pay for. There is no more subtle or dangerous pride in the world than the pride of being righteous apart from God’s help.

Second Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:32-35, 1 Jn 1:1-2:2, Jn 20:19-31 ]

A father and his young son were traveling along highway 52 in Southern Minnesota. Between the small towns of Canton and Harmony they passed by several horses and buggies of Amish couples moving along the shoulder of the road. The boy asked his father, “Why don’t they drive cars?” He said, “Because they don’t believe in cars.” Mystified, his son replied, “But can’t they see them?” You don’t have to believe in what you can see.

Thomas refused to believe the other apostles when they proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus. He wanted to see it for himself. Tradition kindly calls him “Doubting Thomas.” But it was more than doubt. It was denial, willful disbelief, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails I will not believe.” The failure of the other apostles to persuade Thomas captures the difficulties many Christians experience today when someone they love does not believe. Karl Rahner writes, “How many of us live … divided …in what is most intimate and ultimate. If these were people towards whom we were otherwise indifferent, …. then everything would be so much easier to bear. … But these are persons who are related to us, whom we love, to whom we are bound with a thousand ties of blood, of shared feelings, of life and destiny..1 Like Thomas, sometimes those we love grow up with faith, but then lose it along the way.

For Thomas, called Didymus, the twin, faith came easily at first. He began well, responding immediately to the call of discipleship, following Jesus joyfully. But there is a total silence about his twin that may reveal a difference in beliefs. Other brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, were united in following Jesus. But not Thomas and his twin. Did he feel anguish when one he loved did not become a disciple of Jesus? Christ said there would be divisions because of him. The unbelief of family members is heartbreaking for those who believe. And sometimes it weakens one’s own faith.

If Thomas did not have the mutual support of his twin, at least he had the companionship and example of the other apostles, that is until Judas betrayed Jesus. Division within families is hard enough. But when a fellow disciple, someone who shares the same convictions, values and hopes, falls away it puts our own faith to the test. Judas was a friend who broke bread with the other apostles every day. He was committed to following Jesus, and yet he betrayed the Lord. Everyone was shaken by the treachery of Judas.

That was bad enough, but Thomas suffered an even greater disillusionment, his own fall. At one time he trusted in his fidelity, his courage, his willingness to sacrifice everything for Jesus. He even said, “Let us also go [to Jerusalem], that we may die with him(Jn 11:16). But when the hour came, Thomas fled headlong through the trees in the darkness of night at Gethsemane to escape being arrested with Jesus. That night what he believed came crashing down around him.

It is a devastated Thomas who entered the upper room after the crucifixion. His self-respect was gone, his conscience was wounded and raw, his heart was darken. Jesus was dead and God was absent. He was totally unprepared when the other ten apostles joyfully proclaimed that Jesus was alive and they had seen him. How often we try without success to bring someone close to us to share our faith. Yet, not even ten fervent apostles were able to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Greek text says they kept telling him, over and over. But Thomas was adamant in his disbelief. There is even a tone of anger and resentment in his response. He says, “Unless I put my finger into the wounds I will not believe.” The Greek word is Balo. It means to thrust or throw his finger. It’s not a gentle at all, but violent. Thomas is the first person to dissent angrily from a fundamental belief, that the Lord has risen. And no one could change his mind.

Down the centuries many people have shared his name and disbelief. Thomas Jefferson rewrote the Gospels cutting out anything miraculous. The Jefferson Bible ends with these words: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” Period! No resurrection. And Thomas Edison, in his book titled The Great Thoughts, writes, “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell…” He invented the light bulb, but he was blind to what is most important. Is there then no hope for those who do not believe?

St. Bernard writes, “Christ has come to water the dry places, to illuminate the gloomy spots, and to enflame with warmth those who are cold. He has quickened my sleeping soul.” Mary Magdalene was lifted out of her gloom when Jesus spoke her name; the two disciples at Emmaus were quickened by Jesus when they recognized him in the breaking of the bread; and Thomas was enflamed with love when Jesus showed him his wounds. In a world divided between belief and disbelief, it is always the encounter with divine mercy that saves us. No matter how much someone we love is entrenched in disbelief, our hope does not rest primarily on our own powers of persuasion, but in asking Christ to quicken the sleeping soul.

Faith is the conviction of things not seen. Thomas did not have to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, he saw the risen Jesus, as surely as Amish couples can see cars passing their buggies. But once quickened by his encounter with the divine mercy of Jesus, he began to believe in what he could not see, the divinity of Christ. And so he was the first to say, “My Lord and my God.” And when he said that, I wonder if he threw back his head and let a great joyous burst of happy laughter rise from his chest as the weight of all that is evil fell away from him and he realized the marvelous things God has done.