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…” 1Pet.1:3ff
On Easter Sunday evening, ten Apostles were privileged to experience the after results of the greatest event 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 suddenly came into their midst, stood there before them, alive once again, truly risen from the dead. However he appeared to them not in the condition that 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.
The first thing to note is that Jesus came suddenly into their midst, and He became present in that room in a wholly new mode of human existence. He became present without their opening the door that was still locked to keep them safe from the Jewish authorities whom they feared might kill also. The Lord was simply, suddenly there, wonderfully there, mysteriously there. And they hear his first words in awe as He wishes them all shalom, peace. They are understandably, utterly incredulous, stunned by his sudden appearance, just as they had been stunned by his death. And so, to convince them that it was really Himself and that this was the same humanity that had been laid in the grave, Jesus showed them the nail marks still in his hands and feet. And with great love He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them as his first post-Resurrections gift so that they could now forgive men’s sins, the sins for which he had died and then risen from the dead.
But one apostle, Thomas, wasn’t there on Easter Sunday, 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. Still, Thomas would not accept their witness. Of course, they dared not criticize poor Thomas for his unbelief, for they themselves had refused to believe Mary Magdalene’s testimony which Jesus Himself had commissioned her to do. No, they were all slow to believe, but their very hesitancy to believe clearly demonstrates that these simple men were not the overly credulous disciples that scoffers then and today accused them of being.
These chosen men were rather hard-nosed realists, men who worked not with ideas, but with their hands, and so they naturally wanted to touch Jesus in order to prove to themselves that it was really Him and not some ghost or illusion, or projection of their troubled minds. They needed some proof that the risen Lord is truly a living man, a man of 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 himself 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 His own chosen eye witnesses. Faith is necessary for our salvation, and faith is not sight but depends upon hearing and accepting the word and witness of others, intermediaries between God and men, the prophets of old, and now the witnesses chosen by Christ, beginning with Mary Magdalene. So here at the very beginning of the new order of creation, the new world of the resurrection, the Christian’s faith had to follow upon acceptance of the truth witnessed to by those who were chosen to actually see and touch the Risen Lord.
Recall that St. John recorded that Jesus demanded faith in His word because He spoke as Mediator about supernatural things that He Himself had seen. Jesus could speak infallibly of the Father precisely because He had seen the Father, and He could speak infallibly about heaven and heavenly things because He had seen them. Indeed, He could also speak infallibly of hell because he had seen it for what it truly is. This same witness must now continue through the Apostles.
Jesus will now send His Apostles into the whole world – “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” – to build up the Kingdom, the Church that He had personally established, and they would accomplish their mission precisely by testifying to what they had seen and heard when they were with Jesus for those three years of internship and the forty days after His resurrection. All future generations will have to put their faith in the testimony of these chosen witnesses regarding Jesus’ words and His death and resurrection.
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 been handed 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 regarding what they saw him do, and what they heard Him say, and above all regarding 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, and perhaps a bit comforting, for us 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. They too clearly had to be taught a critical lesson, the lesson of having deep humility as the precondition for accepting the witness of others by faith, before they could ever demand faith of others. Thomas’ refusal to accept their witness and the rebuke of the Divine Master would be a lesson foe them and for us as well.
Those days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost – which we are reliving liturgically during the Easter Season – must have been the most wonderful days in the lives of the Apostles. These halcyon days would be their final preparation for their mission to the world and would complete their education by Christ, now that His own 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 could only witness effectively to the truth of the Resurrection by the way the Resurrection had changed their own personal lives which confirmed what they were preaching.
For instance, Peter’s first preaching on Pentecost converted thousands, and not simply by his eloquence but by the fact that they now saw before them a man who had betrayed Christ and had run away now standing there humbled and no longer fearing death. Now he was there 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 even to death by this open preaching of the risen Lord, and so 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 became utterly transformed by their Easter faith. They no longer lived as if this world were the only world or 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, and now they could contribute generously to meet the needs of others because their security was now in the Resurrection, not in their accumulation of worldly assets. Everything in their life began to bear the mark of His Resurrection. Once they believed in this new reality, in the whole new world that rose with Christ on Easter, they began to live according to that belief, and it changed their whole way of thinking and living in this world. This was the confirming witness to their proclaiming to others the truth of the resurrection of Christ, and it converted hundreds and then thousands in a short time.
Why then, we might ask, are conversions to the true faith so few today in our society, say as compared with African societies? Surely this has to be connected to a loss of true faith among Western Christians in the resurrection. We know that the Church continues to preach the truth of the Resurrection, but it may well be that the practical life of our Christian communities does not really support that proclamation as it did in the early days of the Church, or as it does in other places today.
The unbelieving world always challenges us like Thomas challenged the Lord, show us the marks in your humanity, the marks of the death you die with Christ and of 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 and its empty promises. Like Thomas, the world around us 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 our Western Church live any longer according to the Resurrection in visible ways? Jesus said to Thomas “blessed are they who have not seen but have believed.” Yes, but should not the world at least be able to see some 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; and blessed are we only if we live that faith.