Apr 11, 2015

2nd Sunday - "Blessed are those who have not seen"

If one were to assume that the Christian community considered in our first reading this Divine Mercy Sunday was a typical description of present day parish life, I would beg to differ.  Is the community life described in which “believers were of one heart and one mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” the way it was or perhaps an idealized hope? 

However, at the risk of portraying parish and Christian life in general as somehow far from the ideal, in truth our present day community of believers is indeed generous and kind, faith-filled and committed, compassionate and welcoming.  We do feed the hungry and care for those who are sick.  We do educate and form Christian consciences.  We do worship the Lord as one and show reverence for our sacramental and prayer life.  Yet, we do all of this as fragile, doubting, liberal, conservative, traditional, young, old, middle aged, rich, poor, middle class, highly educated, professional and average.  As extraverts, introverts, as teachers, musicians, health care workers, counselors, therapists, “blue collar” and “white collar” workers or a combination of both, as male, female, black, white, brown, yellow, thus bringing both “Jew and Gentile” together. You get the point. Somehow, though, it all really does work.  

The idyllic description of the early Christian community no doubt is rooted in true experience but we know well that unity and uniformity are two different things. Normal divisions and differences of opinion should never be tolerated but gently challenged and healed. If that is so, what does keep us united as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic? Our faith in the risen Lord Jesus.  But is only believing enough? The resurrection stories are not scientific analysis or an explanation of how there may be extraordinary exceptions to the measureable laws of nature.

Our Gospel story, heard every year on this Sunday after Easter, is a powerful reminder that faith which demands proof as it did in the case of Thomas the absent Apostle, must go beyond merely what our hands have touched. Jesus’ mercy is extended to his Apostles, hidden in fear for good reason, as he suddenly appears to them in his risen form.  He says, “Peace be with you (Shalom).” He breathes on them and says “receive the Holy Spirit.” He entrusts them with the power to forgive sin in his name.  This is not a Jesus resentful of their abandonment or Peter’s three time denial but the Lord who brings new life. This is mercy as only God can extend.

Yet, the absence of Thomas begs the question of the early Church, the early Christian communities no matter how peaceful they may have at first (more likely on occasion) may have been, and the ultimate question of our Easter season and our culture of technology and science today: How is it possible to believe in the risen Lord if you have not seen him? The story is simply too unnatural (dead do not come back to life) and delusional at its worst. Yet, their hope in promise kept it alive.

What did the Apostles discuss on the day after Jesus’ death?  I would imagine, after the initial shock wore off, that a variety of opinions were expressed on what to do now, on who Jesus claimed his was, on the meaning of his promised resurrection, and certainly how they felt about each other: e.g. Peter and Judas in particular. But we do know that they were somewhat paralyzed by fear and confusion.  They were hidden away.

In the midst of this muddle Jesus returns because their future as witnesses par excel lance,

MUST be based in the tangible encounter with the risen Lord.  So, Thomas’ legendary doubt was totally understandable and excusable. Unless I touch him I will not believe.  Can you hear Thomas saying in essence, “I really want to believe this but how can I unless I see as you did?”

Once again, Jesus returns and shows Thomas what he needs, the wounds of his suffering and passion.  In a beautiful moment of recognition, while Thomas thought he needed to see it all, simply the Lord’s appearance before him, moves Thomas to proclaim the truth of our faith: “My Lord and my God.  Did Thomas touch Jesus wounds in his hands and side?  We assume he did but the Gospel does not indicate that.  Jesus invited him to do so but did he?  I personally feel he was so overwhelmed he may have not because seeing Jesus became enough proof.  Either way, Thomas could not deny who he saw and heard now before him. And that brings us to today.  

The occasion is a lesson in the true meaning of faith – how the early Christians and consequently all of us since have come to believe.  Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” Jesus states.  That is faith.  So we are either crazy, delusional fools, seduced by twenty centuries of history and tradition, living on unfounded and meaningless hope or we are followers of Jesus the risen Lord who comes to us in his Word and Sacrament every day and in particular every time we gather with our perfect and less than perfect brothers and sisters to say, “I believe in one God . . .”

We see him in the faith of each other, we touch him through generous compassion, we hear him in sacraments of healing and merciful forgiveness, we taste him in the Holy Eucharist, we are made one with him in vocations of selfless love and service, we sense him in prayer and worship. 

What more proof do we need? 

God of everlasting mercy
who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast
kindle the faith of the people you have made your own,
increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed,
that all may grasp and rightly understand
to what font they have been reborn,
by whose Blood they have been redeemed. 

(Collect: Roman Missal)