The readings for April 23, 2017, Second Sunday of Easter, Cycle A, are
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:3-9; and John 20:19-31.
There are three parts in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. The first part takes place on the evening of the first day of the week (Sunday), on the same day as Jesus’ resurrection. It was a busy day. Jesus had appeared to Mary of Magdala. He commissioned her to announce his resurrection, “Go to my brethren, and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Thus Mary Magdalene becomes the Apostle to the Apostles. She fulfills her commission. We know nothing about her future role in Christianity, despite the imaginative “gospels” that circulated in later centuries. (Where history was silent, Christian imagination took over.) Such is the introductory background to the first part of today’s Gospel.
The frightened disciples of Jesus had gathered somewhere in a room. Suddenly Jesus stood among them, although the doors were securely locked. In this way the author of the Gospel demonstrates that the resurrected body of Jesus is no longer an ordinary body. St. Paul calls the resurrected body a “spiritual body.” It seems at least some laws of physics no longer apply. Jesus greets them with his Shalom, “Peace be with you!” When Jesus bestows Shalom we may compare it to our seven sacraments. They bestow or work or bring about what they signify. Thus Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, “My peace I give to you,” but “not as the world gives do I give to you.” Speaking to his still frightened disciples, Jesus recalls his own commission from the Father, “As the Father has sent me…,” then passes on that commission to them, “So do I send you.” After this he empowers them with the Holy Spirit. Since this first part of today’s Gospel is also the Gospel for Pentecost Sunday, further comment waits until then.
The second part of today’s Gospel is introduced with a headline, “Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not present when Jesus appeared the first time.” Disciples of Jesus who had been present at Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” The Gospel of John now proceeds to create the proverbial Doubting Thomas. He announces arrogantly, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the nail marks in his hands, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe!
Now the second post-resurrection appearance to the disciples. What happens? Jesus again stood suddenly among them and granted them his Shalom. Jesus turns to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand and place it in my side.” Jesus continues, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas accepted Jesus’ invitation. Instead Thomas becomes a model for every Christian subject to doubts about faith in Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” The encounter ends with Jesus’ blessing on future Christians. Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.” John composes his Gospel in the nineties of the first Christian century. There would have been very few Christians still alive who had seen Jesus. John adds this blessing or beatitude as a consolation to Christians of all generations to come.
The third part of today’s Gospel reading, the end of chapter 20, seems to have been the original ending of the Gospel of John. Chapter 21 is an appendix to the Gospel. The first part of John’s Gospel, chapters 1-12, is called “The Book of Signs.” John selected seven miracles of Jesus to include in that part of his Gospel.
Of these seven signs John writes that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, signs that are not included (written) in this book (his Gospel). “But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” John does not say that these signs prove that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God. They “prove” it only if one accepts them in faith. We do not get the same invitation which Jesus gave to Thomas to see and to feel his wounds. Instead we reach out from our own darkness toward the light which is Jesus, placing our fingers and hands spiritually into the hands of the “spiritual body” which is the risen Jesus. Faith is a gift, not a result of experimental proof. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me pulls him in,” John 6:44.