April 23, 2017 The 2nd Sunday of Easter
(Divine Mercy Sunday)
Gospel Reading: John 20:19-31
"Do not be unbelieving, but believe!" (John 20:27)
Part I: Introduction
Well, spring is upon us in full force! Recent rains have filled our local reservoirs here in Connecticut, clearing our area of a "severe drought" classification. Lawns are now green, flowers are starting to bloom, and leaves are beginning to appear on the trees. If you will, nature seems to be moving from "death" to "life"!
It is fitting then, to be celebrating the Easter season now. For Easter, too, is about moving from "death" to "life". Jesus was crucified and died on what is now called Good Friday. As Christians, we believe he rose from the tomb, to new life, on the first Easter Sunday.
Yes, this time of year is about transformation. Both nature and the Church guide our thoughts toward leaving old, especially dark thoughts, beliefs, and practices behind, in favor of new ones which are more life-supporting. For example, at this time of year many people are deciding what to plant in their gardens or what flowers to use, to add more color around their homes. They ask, "Should we have it the same as last year?" Or, "Maybe we should try something different!"
Just yesterday, I saw our neighbors doing some landscaping work. They were exerting a lot of energy digging out old shrubs and creating space for new ones. Transformation is not easy! It takes effort! It takes effort in terms of getting rid of the old, and also effort in terms of actually starting the changeover and then staying with the new!
Part II: Fear and Terror on Easter Sunday Morning?
As if the pall of death from Jesus' death on Good Friday was not enough, the Gospel writers tell us the first Easter morning also featured quite a bit of fear and terror. Matthew tells us that there was a great earthquake which frightened the guards at Jesus' tomb, shaking them with such fear they "became like dead men." (Matthew 28:4) Mark tells us after the women who came to visit Jesus' tomb met an angel, they ran away, "seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16: 8) Luke tells us the women encountered two angels and were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. (Luke 24: 4-5) In today's Gospel Reading, John tells us, "the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews." (John 20: 19) When the risen Jesus first appeared to his friends, they were actually hiding behind locked doors. They were afraid.
Scripture Reflection Point: Close your eyes for a minute and picture yourself running from Jesus' tomb with Mary Magdalene and the other woman. What is going through your mind? What are you afraid of? Then imagine yourself sitting with the disciples in that locked room. What would you and they be afraid of? (Perhaps you are afraid the Jewish leaders might also want to arrest you and execute you as they had done to your leader!)
Can you face your fears? Can you even identify what you are afraid of? Is it fear of change? Fear of losing a best friend? Fear of insecurity? Fear of being alone or abandoned? Fear of arrest and a trial? Fear of facing a crowd? Fear of death? Or, fear of what to do next? What are you afraid of?
Part III: Jesus comes with Peace of Mind
Each Gospel presents or "spins" the Resurrection story in a different way. This is because when they were written, they were targeting different audiences. Matthew tells us that when the earthquake happened, the angel told the women, "Do not be afraid!" He told them that Jesus had risen, to tell the disciples, and to go to Galilee, where they would meet Jesus. And, along the way, the women met Jesus, who greeted them in person and also said to them, "Do not beafraid!" (Matthew 28: 5-10)
Mark also tells us the women met an angel who told them, "Do not be amazed!" (Mark 16:6) He also instructed the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen, and to go to Galilee, where they would meet him.
Scripture Reflection Point: Some Bible scholars suggest that we readers of Matthew and Mark's Gospels should imagine ourselves returning to Galilee with the women and the disciples. What would we discuss with them along the way? They would be looking for Jesus in Galilee. We too should look for the risen Jesus. How would we recognize him? By the way, neither Matthew nor Mark tell us what happened when the disciples got to Galilee! Is it possibly because the Gospel writers want us to now pick up the story, make it our own, and go forward?
In today's Gospel Reading, John tells us Jesus came and appeared to the disciples in that locked room where they were hiding in fear. He greeted them with words of peace. He showed them the wounds in his hands and side, and repeated his greeting, "Peace be with you!" a second time. (John 20: 19-21)
Whenever something is repeated in the Bible, it is something very important! John did this because Jesus wanted to link his Resurrection with peace. It is a peace that does not deny the suffering and death Jesus endured. Rather, it is a peace that comes to us through the wounds of Christ. The risen Christ gives us peace, as we accept and share his wounds and the cross. We must recognize, understand, accept, and embrace his wounds and his cross. Then we must make them our own! We must identify with Christ and his suffering!
We must also learn to share his non-violent resistance to evil! Even if it means experiencing persecution. And, we must be at peace with ourselves while doing this!
Scripture Reflection Point: We should pray for the Christians in the Middle East who daily experience literal persecution in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and also in China. We can also share in a much milder form of persecution if we oppose President Trump's wall on the Mexico-U.S. border. The Church widely accepts Jesus' coming through the locked door in today's Gospel Reading as meaning Christians should remove barriers between people, rather than building them! Persecution surely will come from your own political party if you are a Republican and support the Church on this issue!
The peace of Christ is not of this world. It does not come from violence and war. Or the false security of weapons. It comes from sharing in the wounds of Christ and sharing our suffering in a community of other disciples.
Scripture Reflection Point: OK, so Jesus rose from the dead to rejoice in his victory over death and to share his peace and joy with his friends, so they too, might become Easter people. Think about how humble, modest, and thoughtful Jesus was! Suppose you had been betrayed, denied, abandoned by these same friends, tortured, and then executed. Would you go back to be with those same people? Or, would you be more likely to say to God, like a child might, "Do I really have to go back to those people?" But, Jesus is a different kind of person. He did return to his old friends and brought them peace! Are we up to imitating what he did, toward the people who have wounded us?
Part IV: Our own Transformations
Now we come to the story of Thomas, aka "Doubting Thomas" in today's Gospel Reading. He initially refused to believe Jesus had risen from the dead, when told by the other disciples. Then a week later, Jesus again appeared and gave Thomas a "hands on" experience that he and his Resurrection were indeed for real! (John 20: 24-29) He saw the risen Jesus and physically was able to touch his wounds. He then believed!
Anyone who has begun a new way of life can appreciate how challenging it is to leave the old ways of thinking and acting behind. Consider two people who are newly-weds. The life that went with being single is over! Now they have to figure out how to live together and share everything: finances, the bathroom, meal times, ... . From being a recovering alcoholic to becoming a priest, people who transform their lives experience what Greeks call "metanoia".
Metanoia involves a complete change of one's way of thinking. There is no room in the new way of life for old ways of thinking. Coming back to today's Gospel Reading, before Good Friday, people thought when you died, your dead body was placed in a grave, and that was the end of you. But with Jesus rising from the dead on Easter Sunday, a whole new way of thinking came into being - metanoia!
With his Resurrection, Jesus not only won a victory over physical death, but a victory over death's grip on our minds as well! A victory over spiritual death. Jesus shared this victory not by putting on awesome public spectacles ( e.g Hey everybody! Look at me! I'm not dead anymore!) Rather, he sent his disciples out to forgive sins and preach repentance (metanoia).
Christian disciples in every generation must overcome the natural inclination to be like Thomas. We must live the "locked room" Resurrection experience with the risen Christ and go in peace to forgive those who have hurt us, and to teach others to do the same. This is one of the reasons the Church calls today "Divine Mercy" Sunday. Showing mercy is showing forgiveness. The Gospels were written so that we might come to believe, as Thomas did. (John 20:27) (See the painting above.)
Scripture Reflection Point: Examine your own life. What is there in your life that needs an "Extreme Makeover" ? (Metanoia)? Who do you know that might need an exchange of forgiveness with you?
The Church teaches that the Resurrection of Jesus does not only mean that eternal life awaits us after we die. It also teaches that life can come out of death and that resurrection is a pattern that we can see all around us if we have the eyes to notice it! Jesus taught, "If a grain of wheat does not fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat. But, if it dies, it produces much fruit." (John 12:24) This biblical image not only is demonstrated by Jesus and the Easter story. It also illustrates the human condition. Life not shared is wasted. When we are down and out (like a mini-Good Friday), we can call on God's Spirit to raise us up again!
Even though our world is filled with violence, terror, and fear, we can always find stories in which the human spirit triumphs (with the Holy Spirit's help). Stories where men and women risk their own lives in order to save others. Yes, the Resurrection of Jesus confirms our trust that life indeed comes after death and that life comes out of death! The promise of eternal life awaiting us at the end of our journey through this life, and the promises of new life to be experienced when we die to our selfishness are present all the time for a person living a life with love. Jesus has risen and gone before us! There is no longer a need to fear the future!
God bless you! Have a great week! And don't forget to practice forgiveness! Peace be with you!
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Church of the Nativity
"The Incredulity of St. Thomas"
Painting by Caravaggio (1601-1602)