John 20 19:31
All three Readings: USCCB site
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nail marks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written 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.
This coming Sunday is an excellent example of a well-intentioned idea gone bad. I am speaking here specifically about the very recent introduction of the theme of “Divine Mercy Sunday” into the well-established Easter liturgical observance. The Easter Gospels elaborate some of the most critical truths of the Faith and provide us with insight into the Apostolic understanding of the Redemption. This Sunday’s Gospel alone contains the meat for dozens of sermons, but my fear is that many homilists will devote their sermons to Sister Faustina and the Chaplet, in imitation of John Paul II’s personal devotion. In fact, I’m going to make a little bet with myself that this happens in my parish, and if I win I’m treating myself to Hazelnut coffee and an orange scone at Panera’s next Monday.
If we stay faithful to the Roman Missal and focus upon the majestic Gospel of John, where do we even begin? This text in hand is not about a cynical disciple who happened to miss the second most important meal of his life, though superficial preaching and poor catechetics have reinforced the caricature of doubting Thomas over the years. The Johannine Resurrection narrative is an exposition of the three events that give life to the Church: Jesus’ mastery over the bonds of death, his glorious ascent to the Father’s right hand, and his bestowal of saving grace to the Church through the Holy Spirit. In Sunday’s Gospel we have presentation of all three, in the context of how the future Church would struggle to pass this salvific heritage along.
To get the full picture of this Sunday’s text, two things are essential. First, John’s Gospel is by far the last of the four canonical Gospels; estimates of its date of composition average out at about 100 A.D., which would be at least seventy years after the events it describes. Clearly John is not writing as a historian, but as a theological commentator on history, on the ways that the disciples and the earliest Church came to grips with the Easter mysteries and was continuing to deal with these mysteries at this later date. John, and his precise identity remains uncertain even today, had seen a great deal of post-Resurrection Christianity and recognized its strengths and liabilities in his own day.
The second point to bear in mind is the full flow of the narrative that precedes the Sunday Gospel. Peter and the perplexing “other disciple” have already seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is the first to actually behold the risen Jesus—but only after a protracted encounter in which she mistakes him for the gardener. The Gospel text has an edge here: “But she did not know him.” Finally recognizing him, she attempts to grasp his feet, but Jesus stops her because “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” He instructs her to tell the disciples “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The message, curiously, is addressed not to Mary Magdalene, who is standing right there, but to the original disciples then in seclusion. There is, then, something of a sign of priority about the Twelve that will play out in the upper room shortly. When Jesus next appears, he will have ascended to the Father with great significance for the disciples.
This is where we join the narrative on Sunday, Easter Sunday night by John’s reckoning. Jesus, unencumbered by locked doors, appears in their midst. Again, this text was written in a day when heresies or errors about the nature of Jesus were already well developed—some claiming he was a divine mirage, others that he was a human hoax, his body hidden by disciples. John addresses both errors: The Jesus who appears in the disciples’ midst despite locked doors is the now ascended/glorified divine Lord. In fact, the disciples rejoiced precisely because it was the Lord (a divine term in the Greek original). There is none of the hesitation of Mary Magdalene earlier in the day. By the same token, Jesus shows them his wounds in considerable detail—the Lord God is one and the same with the human crucified Jesus of Nazareth.
What is overlooked in this Gospel is not just the Ascension event of the day, but the Pentecost event to follow momentarily. We are more accustomed to think of Luke’s Pentecostal event in the Acts of the Apostles fifty days after Easter with fire and tongues, but John portrays the gift of the Spirit in the Easter night event. Jesus announces that he is “commissioning them,” an empowerment they in turn will pass on to the next generation of leaders in the Apostolic tradition. He commissions them and empowers them by breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. It is intriguing to me that Jesus defines their primary mandate of the Spirit as the forgiveness of sins. Grave “sin” at the end of the first century was a Christian synonym for exclusion from the saving Christian Church, particularly the Eucharistic bread of life. The disciples (and their successors) were thus empowered to protect the holiness of the Church, even with such extreme censure.
But as we well know, the entire cohort of the Twelve was not present. Judas met a bad end, but what about Thomas? Sometimes the genius of John is amazing. John has actually set up Thomas for this episode as a bit of a cynical or sarcastic fellow; in John 11:16, when Jesus proposes to go to Jerusalem upon Lazarus’ death, it is Thomas who chimes in, “Let us go along to die with him.” His curmudgeon-like personality aside, Thomas’s famous statement of doubt in Sunday’s Gospel is really no worse or more ill-informed than any of the other disciples. Neither Peter nor his young disciple companion showed much enthusiasm on Easter Sunday morning, and they had seen the empty tomb. Nor, for that matter, had Thomas seen the risen Christ upon his first visit, and more importantly, he had not received the gift of the Spirit.
No, Thomas plays a different role in this Gospel. He is us. He is “every man” who hears the Resurrection story for the first time. He does not believe it. Not only can he not verify it with his senses— “unless I put my fingers in the nail marks”—but he cannot comprehend it, either. It is too strange to be true, too good to be true. Just as ancient Adam is “every man” in terms to sin, Thomas is “every man” who is confronted by the essence of Jesus Christ for the first time.
Thomas would make his famous act of faith as we remember it from our own childhoods, but Jesus’ answer is actually addressed beyond Thomas to everyone who will not see the wounds with their own eyes. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed.” What a magnificent statement to a church trying to survive in 100 A.D. and beyond, when all the living witnesses of the resurrected Christ are dead, and the faith rises or falls on the credibility of the Spirit-filled successors of the apostles, the new residential bishops, in faith communities where no one at the Eucharist had living memory of Jesus in his wounded glory.
This is a fitting way for John to end his Gospel. However, still unresolved is the precise relationship between Peter and the Church, and Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Chapter 21 provides that epilogue and the early Church included all twenty-one chapters in the New Testament canon or collection.