2nd Sunday of Easter
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” 1 Pet 1:3ff
On Easter Sunday evening , ten Apostles were privileged to experience the greatest thing that ever happened, not only the greatest event in their own lives but the greatest event in all of human history. On Easter Sunday night, the Lord Jesus Christ, who had been put to death on a cross, an event that had shattered his Apostles, now came into their midst, stood there before them, alive once again, truly risen from the dead; however he appeared not as he had raised others from the dead but in a wholly new mode of existence which entered this world for the first time on Easter. Jesus came suddenly into their midst, and He did so in his wholly new mode of being, without their opening the door that was still locked to keep them safe from the outside world which they feared would kill them too. He simply was there, suddenly, wonderfully. And they in awe hear his first words wishing them all shalom, peace. They are utterly incredulous, stunned by his sudden appearance, as they were stunned by his death, and so to convince them that it was really Himself, that this is the same humanity that had been laid in the grave, Jesus showed them the nail marks in his hands and feet. And then He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them as his first gift so that they could now forgive men’s sins, the sins for which he had died and risen from the dead.
But one apostle, Thomas, wasn’t there, and we know that he persisted in his unbelief even when the other Apostles bore witness to him of what they had seen and touched with their own hands. Thomas would not accept their witness. Of course, they dared not to criticize Thomas for his unbelief, for they themselves had refused to believe Mary Magdalene’s witness when having seen him at the tomb on her second visit to find Jesus, she related the encounter to them. They were all slow to believe. Their hesitancy to believe clearly demonstrates that these men were not the credulous disciples that scoffers then and today accused them of being. These chosen men were hard nosed realists, men who worked not with ideas, but with their hands, and so they naturally wanted to touch Jesus, to prove to themselves that it was really Him, not some ghost or illusion, or projection of their troubled minds, but that He was truly a living man, living flesh and blood that they could see and touch. And so Thomas only wanted what Christ had done for them to be done for him. He wanted to touch that body to make sure it was no ghost, or illusion, just as they said they had done. He would not accept any intermediary witness; it had to be his own personal experience or nothing.
Jesus reprimanded all of these chosen men for their failure to believe the testimony of the other eye witnesses. Faith brings salvation, and faith is not sight, but depends upon the witness of others, intermediaries between God and men, the prophets of old, and now the witnesses chosen by Christ. So here at the very beginning of the new order of things, the new world of the resurrection, the new faith had to follow upon acceptance of the truth witnessed to by those who have somehow seen the Risen Lord. Jesus demanded faith in His word, says St. John, because He spoke about what He Himself had seen and witnessed to others. Jesus could speak infallibly of the Father, because He had seen the Father, speak infallibly of heaven because He had seen it, speak infallibly of hell because he had seen it. This witness must now continue through the Apostles.
Jesus is sending His Apostles into the world – “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” – to build up the Church that He had personally established, and they would accomplish this mission precisely by testifying to what they had seen and heard when they were with Jesus for those three years of internship. All future generations would have to put their faith in the testimony of the chosen witnesses regarding Jesus. None of us has ever seen or heard Jesus Himself, in the flesh, that is, in his human, historical witness to the Father and the things of God. We do not possess a single word of His that has not come down to us through the testimony of the Apostles and the Apostolic Church that they personally built up by their original witness. The Gospels and the whole New Testament are the records of their own testimony to Jesus, what they saw him do, and what they heard Him say, and above all of his saving death and resurrection. We must accept their witness in faith to have access to Jesus, to his teaching and to his grace. And so how stunning to see these same Apostles themselves hesitating to believe the eye-witnesses Jesus sent to them to witness to the truth of His resurrection and resurrected humanity. So they clearly had to be taught one more lesson, the lesson of having humility as the precondition for accepting the witness of others by faith, before they could demand faith of others. Thomas’ refusal to accept their witness and the rebuke of the Divine Master would be their lesson.
Those days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost – which we are reliving liturgically during the Easter Season – must have been the most wonderful days of the lives of the Apostles. These halcyon days would prepare them for their mission to the world and would complete their education by Christ, now that His earthly mission was completed. We know that this time was not just for an intellectual formation but involved a complete transformation of their lives. This was absolutely necessary for they would witness to the truth of the Resurrection not simply by their preaching but above all by the way the Resurrection had changed their own personal lives. Peter’s first preaching on Pentecost converted thousands, not simply by its eloquence but by the fact that they now saw a man who had betrayed Christ and had run away no longer fearing death. Here he was now preaching, testifying openly, risking everything, even life itself, to bear witness to this truth. Peter would have converted few if any to the faith that day had he simply sent them a written message from the upper room. No, here was Peter, filled with the Spirit, choosing to expose himself to death by this open preaching of the risen Lord, and now all the people could see that his whole life was truly changed by His faith in the risen Christ.
Almost immediately, then, the newly converted Christian community followed the lead of Peter and the other Apostles. Their lives too were utterly transformed by this Easter faith. They no longer lived as if this world were the only world, this life their only life. They began to devote themselves, we are told in Acts, to their instruction by the Apostles, to a truly communal life, to the Eucharist and to a life of prayer. They were now set free from fear and the insecurity of those who live for this world only to contribute generously to meet the needs of others, because their security was now in the Resurrection, not in their accumulation of assets. Everything in their life began to bear the mark of His Resurrection. Once they believed in this new reality, in the new world that rose with Christ on Easter, they began to live according to that belief, and it changed their whole way of living in this world. This was the confirming witness to their preaching of the truth of the resurrection of Christ, and it converted hundreds in a short time.
Why then, we might ask, are conversions to the true faith down today? Surely this has to be connected to a loss of true faith among Christians in the resurrection. Certainly the Church continues to preach the truth of the Resurrection, but it may well be that the practical life of the Christian community does not really support that teaching as it did in the early days of the Church. The unbelieving world always challenges us like Thomas, show us the marks in your humanity of the death you die with Christ and the life you live with Christ. If you Christians really believe in the resurrection, why do you seek your security and your happiness in the same way we unbelievers do, that is, in this world alone. Like Thomas, the world wants to probe the truth of the resurrection in us, and where can it find the truth if not in the way the Christian community that professes this truth, actually lives by this truth.
Does the Christian community live according to the resurrection or not? Jesus said blessed are they who have not seen Him but have believed. Yes, but should not the world at least be able to see the consequences of this faith in His Resurrection in the lives of us believers? Faith’s goal is our salvation, but faith without works is dead; so says St. James. Jesus told Thomas to probe his wounds; must we not be able to say to the world, probe our lives? That is what Easter faith demands; blessed are we if we live by that faith.