Apr 12, 2015: 2nd Sunday of Easter / Sunday of Divine Mercy (B)

1st Reading – Acts 4:32-35

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.

One of the distinctive features of Easter season is the absence of the Old Testament from the first readings, which is replaced by selections from the Acts of the Apostles. During the Sundays following Easter, these readings from Acts describe the transformation that took place within the community of believers following the Resurrection.

The short passage that comprises today’s first reading is one of the best known descriptions of the early Christian community (it is actually the second summary characterizing the community; the first is Acts 2:42-47).  Although it depicts values and relationships that were highly prized by the early Christians, the picture sketched is probably more theologically idealized than it is historically accurate.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,

The first of the principal values that characterize this community is unity.  Being of one mind and heart characterizes the Greek concept of friendship.

and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.

The second principal value: the sharing of possessions.  This is

This is both a continuation of a practice that Luke described during Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:3) as well as a response to the ancient Jewish directive in Deuteronomy 15:4 It is consistent with Jesus’ teachings in Luke’s gospel (Luke 12:33, 16:9,11,13).

Note how this picture of communal harmony espouses values from both the Greek and Jewish cultures.

With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.

The third principal value: apostolic witness.

The fact that the apostles were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus made them prominent within the community.

There was no needy person among them,

This is the likely goal of the practice of sharing possessions.  This calls to mind ancient Israel’s image of the ideal end-time, when the people would finally be faithful to the law and there would be no poverty in the land.  Since the early Christians regarded themselves as the people of God living in the time of fulfillment, it is easy to understand why they would believe they were to structure the patterns of their society according to this ideal.

for those who owned property or houses would sell them,

One of the practices employed to accomplish their ideal is described.  The iterative Greek verb forms suggest that the practice was voluntary and repeated by various individuals.  It could not have been universally practiced… some members had to retain their property, so that the community had available shelter.  Other biblical narratives demonstrate the selectivity of this practice.

bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

Not only did the apostles’ role as witnesses to the resurrection give them status, it was also probably the source of their authority.  During his lifetime, Jesus commissioned them as apostles, and now they functioned within the community as his representatives, exercising authority in his place.

The mention of the proceeds from selling goods being laid at the apostles’ feet is a sign of obedience and submission.  They were the ones who decided how best to distribute the goods among the needy.  This practice also prevented individuals from giving their possessions ostentatiously.

The ideals of this community were noble.  They held out a way of life that may appear to be an ideal, yet through the grace of the resurrection, is attainable.

2nd Reading – 1 John 5:1-6

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.

This first letter of John is believed to have been written from Ephesus toward the end of the first century (A.D. 67). In essence, the letter deals with the love of God and of the brethren which are the hallmark of the Christian.

Saint Jerome tells us that when John was a very old man his only message was, “Little children, love one another.” When his disciples asked him why he was always saying the same thing, he always answered “My children, this is what the Lord commands; if we do this, nothing else is necessary.”

The passage we hear from this letter today is a testimony to trinitarian faith.  It describes God as the one who begets (the Father); it identifies Jesus as the Son of God; and it credits the Spirit as the one who testifies to the triumph of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It also sketches the way believers participate in this trinitarian reality.

Beloved: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ

This is a simply stated yet foundational christological declaration: Jesus is the Christ.  The word Christ, meaning “anointed one,” has a long history in Jewish thought.  In ancient Israel kings and priests were anointed (2 Samuel 2:4, Exodus 30:30).  Gradually these customs developed into messianic ideas (Isaiah 9:5-6, 61:1), which after the resurrection were attributed by Christians to Jesus.

is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.

A second theological theme: faith in Jesus makes believers children of God.

A form of the verb “to beget” is used three times: those who believe are “begotten by God”; God the Father is the one who begets; those “begotten by God” are to be the object of the love of others.  Here faith and love (agápē) are intimately linked.  While it is faith in Christ that brings one into the family of God, once incorporated, one is expected to love God and all those others who have also been begotten by God through faith in Jesus.

If we love the one who begets, then we must also love the begotten.

“The commandments of which John speaks are the two given by Jesus: Love God and love one another. Hold fast to this love and set your minds at rest. You need not be afraid of doing harm to anyone, for how can you harm the person you love? Love, and you cannot but do well.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 416), Homilies on the Epistle to the Parthians 10,7]

For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.

The reading moves from faith and love to obedience.  It may be that the author wanted to insist that faith and love are not merely interior dispositions but must be manifested in some external way.

The commandments to be observed are not identified but only called out as not burdensome.

And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.

Faith also reveals itself in its victory over the world.  The world (kósmos) can be understood in three ways: the totality of natural creation, the inhabited world generally, and the inhabited world subject to sin.  The context here suggests that the third meaning is intended.

Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Note that the messiahship of Jesus is now coupled with his divine sonship.

It is faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God that triumphs over evil.  It challenges anything that questions the exalted nature of Jesus and the power that flows from it.

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood.

Jesus inaugurated the reign of God and has ushered in the new age of fulfillment.  He accomplished this not merely at the time of his baptism (through water), when he received his messianic commission, but at the time of his death and resurrection (through blood), when he conquered death.

“The Son of God came not by water only, in order to cleanse us from our sins, but also with the blood of His passion, by which He consecrates the sacrament of our baptism, giving His blood for us, redeeming us by His suffering and nourishing us with His sacraments so that we might be made fit for salvation.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 710), On 1 John]

The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth.

The spirit was present at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10; John 1:32-34) and continues to witness to the work achieved through Christ by his presence in the Church.

Gospel – John 20:19-31

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 nailmarks
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.

In today’s gospel reading, we hear of Jesus’ first appearances to the apostles after the resurrection.

On the evening of that first day of the week,

This is the first Easter Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.  John wants to make it clear that this is the apostles’ first encounter with the risen Christ. Every resurrection account which is dated in the gospels occurs on a Sunday.

when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews,

After what had happened to Jesus, they feared for their lives.

Jesus came and stood in their midst

The locked doors also underscore the mysterious character of Jesus’ risen body, which is not impeded by material obstacles.

and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Shalom.”  This wish of peace, the common greeting of the day, is also a prayer for the eschatological blessings of health, prosperity, and all good things.

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 

The showing of the wounds demonstrates that the Risen One is also the Crucified One. It was not only Christ’s spirit that was resurrected, his tortured body is also present.  This answers the question of “Where have they put him?”(John 20:2).

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Apparently the disciples recognized him, because they rejoiced when they saw him.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.

Jesus introduces the bestowal of the Holy Spirit with a second salutation of “shalom.

As the Father has sent me,

Jesus was sent to reconcile people with God and had the authority to forgive sins.

so I send you.”

Sent with the full authority of God.

Note that “apostle” means “one who is sent.”

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.

In this account, this bestowal of the Holy Spirit occurs on the evening of the resurrection itself.

The image of breathing life into another is reminiscent of the creation of Adam (Genesis 2:7-8) and the restoration of Israel (Ezekiel 37:9).  This very act by the risen Lord casts him in a creative/re-creative role, one that is consistent with the Easter themes of new birth and a new life in Christ.

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

They are commissioned to go forth, to declare salvation and judgment. The commission is from God, given by Jesus, and endowed with the Holy Spirit — the trinitarian testimony is clear.

The judicial character of Christ in the matter of sin, now given to the Church to continue, was a character of Jesus which so upset the Pharisees that they sought to kill him. This is the origin of the sacrament of penance. The apostles were not given the charism of clairvoyance; they must hear the sins if they are to know which to forgive and which to retain.

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,

Two resurrection appearances are provided in this passage.  Thomas, who was absent from the first event, but central to the second, forms a kind of hinge between the accounts.

The designation of “the Twelve” remains even though one of them has defected. Matthias will be selected by lot to replace Judas in forty days (Acts 1:16ff).

was not with them when Jesus came.

Why had Thomas not gathered with the rest of the disciples? Did he not share their fear of the Jews? Or was he too afraid to be associated with them?  The reason for his absence is never given, but it does provide an occasion for another encounter with the risen Lord and the demonstration of faith that ensues.

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 nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas represents the second generation of Christians, those who are called to believe on the testimony of others.  The faith required of him is, in a way, more demanding than that required of those who actually encountered the risen Lord.

Now a week later

Again on a Sunday. The entire reckoning of time has been altered.  Where previously the conclusion of the week had religious meaning, now the focus is on the beginning of the week, on the future.

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.” 

Christ appears under the same circumstances as before — on a Sunday, despite locked doors, with a greeting of peace, calling attention to his wounds.

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.”

Though we may judge Thomas harshly for his doubt, Jesus does not.  Instead, he invites Thomas to touch him, an invitation not extended earlier to the others.

Here and in verse 20 is the only explicit evidence from the Bible that Jesus was nailed rather than tied to the cross. Luke 24:39 implies that his feet were also nailed.

Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Whether Thomas actually took Jesus up on his offer to probe the wounds is not stated, but his response is the most complete affirmation of Christ’s nature to be found on the lips of anyone in the gospel. The other disciples recognized that the one in the midst was their Lord — Thomas declared that the risen Lord was God, a profession of faith that outstrips the others.

The combination of “Lord” and “God” is found in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) to translate the name of the God of Israel; it was also a combination used as a divine designation in the Greek world.

Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

According to Jesus, as profound as was Thomas’ ultimate faith, it does not compare with the faith of those who do not enjoy the kind of experience of the Lord described here.  Thomas should be remembered not because we was absent or because he doubted but because, like us, he was called to believe on the word of others. And like Thomas, we know how difficult that is.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book.

Other than appearing in a room with locked doors, there are no “signs” in this reading. This has led some commentators to suggest that this verse was originally the conclusion to the collection of miracles used by the evangelist. In that context Jesus’ resurrection would have been understood as the final “sign” of his relationship with the Father.

But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

This final verse summarizes the purpose of the gospel as having faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God as the source of eternal life. As Jesus said in John 6:29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Connections and Themes

Easter. The themes for the Second Sunday of Easter set the tone for the entire Easter season.  They are all geared toward mystagogical catechesis, the instruction that unpacks the hidden mystery experienced in the sacraments of initiation received or renewed on Easter. The readings for this season provide us an extended meditation on the mystery of the resurrection and on our own incorporation into that resurrection through the mysteries of initiation.

Our reflections today are on the presence of the risen Lord.  Where is he to be found?  Each of the readings offers an answer to this question.  The risen Christ is to be found in the community of believers, in the preaching of the disciples, in the forgiveness of sin, and in the physical manifestation of Christ’s own wounds.

In the community.   Filled with faith in the risen Lord, believers attended to the needs of one another and in that way, effectively brought forth the end-time.  This end-time living was a tangible reality.  Even non-believers recognized that there was something marvelously different about the community, and they exclaimed in awe: these Christians, see how they love one another.  Faith in Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, transforms ordinary people into children of God.  Along with their new distinction comes a new way of living.  Children of God live lives that are pleasing to God, lives that make faith and love tangible in the world.

In the preaching of the disciples.   Thomas is the patron of those who must accept the truth of the resurrection on the word of others.  Down through the ages, this is how it has been.  There is no physical proof to which we can point, only the witness of others.  Even the empty tomb is only an empty tomb.  Evidence of the truth of the resurrection-claims is the change in life it effects, and we can all attest to this change.  Time and again, we have been touched by the power of the word of God; time and again it has brought our lives out of darkness into light, from the stranglehold of death to the birth of new life.  The preaching of the disciples has been not only instructive, it has also been transformative.

Like Thomas, we might tend to doubt when the claims of the preacher seem too amazing, the demands too extreme.  Those who preach may be no more credible than was Thomas.  Yet these are the ones to whom the message has been given.  It is the power of the tangible word of God, passed on a proclaimed by weak and limited human beings, that makes the risen Lord mystically present in the midst of the world.

In the forgiveness of sin.   On that first Easter evening, Jesus came to the frightened disciples in order to make them ministers of divine forgiveness.  His presence to them was the first instance of reconciliation.  Today this same power in the Spirit given by the risen Christ reconciles sinners with God and, thereby, with the rest of the believing community.  The words of forgiveness are the tangible agents of the mystical presence of the risen Christ.

In the wounds of Christ.   Jesus offered his wounds to be touched.  He does this yet in our day.  Believing that the community is the body of Christ, when we touch the wounds of the community we are putting our hands into the wounds of the risen Lord.  These wounds in Christ, as shocking as they may appear to be, are really glorious wounds because the risen Lord has identified with them, has made them his own.  However, as with every other example offered to us in the readings of today, we need faith to recognize the tangible presence of Christ in our midst.

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