Apr 23, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Easter / Sunday of Divine Mercy (A)

1st Reading – Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves
to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,
to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone,
and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.
They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart,
praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.
And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The Acts of the Apostles was written by Saint Luke toward the end of the first captivity of Saint Paul in Rome, about 62 A.D.  St. Luke also authored the third gospel.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, sometimes lovingly referred to as the fifth gospel, relates: (1) the history of the early Church in Jerusalem and Antioch, (2) the history of Saint Peter until the year A.D. 42, when he left Jerusalem; and (3) the history of Saint Paul until his captivity in Rome in the Year A.D. 61.

Our reading today takes place immediately after Peter’s stirring address on the day of Pentecost when 3,000 were baptized. This is the first of three summary passages (Acts 4:32-37; 5:12-16) which outline the chief characteristics of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles

The authoritative teaching of the apostles, teaching that formed the basis of what ultimately became the new testament.  It included the teaching of Jesus as well as cherished yet interpreted accounts of the wonders he performed.  It also included explaining to the disciples the Christian meaning of sacred Scripture and the ancient Israelite tradition, which Christians believed was brought to fulfillment in Jesus.

An example of this kind of teaching can be seen in Peter’s speech on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) and that of Stephen before the council of Jewish leaders (Acts 7:1-50).

and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.

Other translations have “fellowship” in place of “communal life.” The Greek word kionōnia is used by Luke only here but is used 13 times in Saint Paul’s writings.

In the New Testamant, “breaking of the bread” is a technical term for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  Most likely this service took place in the homes of Christians (house church).  Later texts suggest its format followed a Jewish model, but its content centered around the memorial of the death of Jesus.

This description of the very early Christian Church demonstrates the four elements of catechesis: the teaching of the apostles, the communal life, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. These four classical divisions of catechesis are reflected in the four major parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church today.

Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.

The wonders and signs were primarily cures (Acts 3:1-10).  This miraculous activity filled both the early Christians and bystanders with awe, the conventional human response of human beings who have witnessed the extraordinary power of God.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.

The sharing referred to here was voluntary and not a permanent communistic or socialistic kind of system. The more well-to-do Christians freely provided for those in need, but many retained their own possessions.  An example is Lydia (Acts 16:14-15).  Ananias and Sapphira were punished because they lied to the Holy Spirit, not because they withheld the proceeds of the sale of their property (Acts 5:1-6).

Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area

It is clear from this passage that the early Christians did not consider themselves as separated from the larger Jewish community, for they regularly participated in temple prayer (Acts 3:11, 5:12). This was probably because they believed they were the true Israel, in whose midst were being fulfilled the promises made to their ancestors, so there was no reason to cease participation.  For a while it was quite natural for them to maintain certain external aspects of the religion of their forefathers.

and to breaking bread in their homes. 

The reference to celebrating the Eucharist “in their homes” reminds us that they did not have a building specially reserved for liturgical functions — they met in private homes. For financial reasons and out of concern for safety, it was not until the third century that buildings designed for liturgical purposes began to be erected.

They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Many commentators agree that this was likely an idealized picture of the early Christian community — a depiction of the primitive Church more in its eschatological fulfillment than as it probably really was.  Other passages from Acts provide a very different picture of the community, one with flaws and real struggles.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 1:3-9

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
who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith,
to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while
you may have to suffer through various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith,
more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire,
may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This first letter of Peter was written from Rome very probably around A.D. 63-64, given that it contains no references to the persecution unleashed by Nero after July 64. The letter is addressed to the Christians of Asia Minor, who were Gentiles evangelized mainly by Saint Paul.

In this letter, Saint Peter seeks to console and strengthen the faith of Christians who are experiencing difficult times; this is quite in keeping with his role as head of the Church. This letter will provide our second readings all through the Easter season, and is a faithful reflection of the catechesis of apostolic times.

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

The first part of today’s reading (v. 3-5) is doxological: a hymn of praise to God for the wonderful things he has done in the lives of believers.  This form of prayer or blessing was a common in Jewish tradition (see Genesis 9:26).

Although most translations speak of “new birth,” as here, the Greek verb anagennáō actually refers to the function of the father in the process of procreation, suggesting that this new existence might be better described as being begotten anew rather than born anew.  The author may have chosen this rather awkward expression so that the new life of which he spoke would not be confused with the newness promised by the mystery religions of the time.

through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

The doxology is Christological: Jesus is the mediator of the salvation that comes from God.

to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you

Notice the family covenant imagery: the promises made to Israel are seen as fulfilled in the Christian Church.

In the Old Testament, inheritance is primarily the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 15:4). As opposed to the land, the New Covenant inheritance is imperishable; it is eternal life in the heavenly kingdom.

“An incorruptible inheritance must be an infinite one, since everything finite is corruptible. The inheritance of the first Adam was corrupted by sin, but the inheritance of the second Adam can never be touched by the stain of sin.” [Saint Hilary of Arles (ca. A.D. 428), Commentary on 1 Peter]

“Our inheritance is imperishable because it is a heavenly life which neither age nor illness nor death nor plague can touch. It is undefiled because no unclean person can enter into it. It is unfading, because the heavenly blessings are such that even after long enjoyment of them the blessed never grow tired, whereas those who live in earthly luxury eventually have their fill of it and turn away from it.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 416), On 1 Peter]

who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith,

“Faith” has a wide range of meanings in 1st Peter. Here, it means that trust in God is essential for salvation. For those who have this faith, the security of their inheritance is like a land with strong military protection — it is guarded by God’s power.

to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.

Salvation is eschatological in nature: it looks to the future for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,

After the doxology, the passage shifts our attention to the suffering that Christians must endure while still in this life.

All enjoy and rejoice in the new life given through the resurrection of Jesus.  However, this salvation was purchased through the death of Jesus, and it requires suffering on the part of those who have been begotten anew as well.

so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The faith of believers is tested, refined, and ultimately strengthened, so that when the end time comes, they stand ready to accept their inheritance.

“Just as gold is tried by fire and becomes useful, so also you who live in the world are tried in it. So then, you who remain in it and pass through the flames will be purified. For just as gold casts off its dross, so also you will cast off all sorrow and tribulation, becoming pure and useful for the building of the tower.” [Hermas (ca. A.D. 140), The Shepherd, Visions 3,1]

Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,

Christians live lives of faith, believing in Christ even when they do not see him.

you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

As the glory of Christ’s resurrection was preceded by his sufferings and death, the new life of faith that it bestows will be subjected to many trials while achieving its goal: the glory of the fullness of salvation at the coming of Christ.  The idea of joy is not in the suffering itself but in the new birth and in the blessings it promises.

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.

Having celebrated Jesus’ resurrection last week at Easter, we now hear of his first appearances to the apostles after that event.

On the evening of that first day of the week,

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 disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

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).

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

Shalom. This is also a promised gift in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”.

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. “Apostle” means “one who is sent”.

And when he had said this, he breathed on them

An outward sign instituted by Christ. When God breathed on the clay, he breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:8). Here, Jesus is breathing life into his creation, the Church — a creative/re-creative act consistent with the Easter themes of new birth and a new life in Christ.

and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.

Receipt of the Holy Spirit is a grace, a grace which gives supernatural life. The Baltimore Catechism defines a sacrament as “An outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” This is a sacrament in one verse.

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 the 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.

The sacred mysteries. All three readings for this Sunday invite us into the sacred mysteries of the season. Most of us are like Thomas, who looking for some tangible evidence of the resurrection.  We may not be as straightforward in our demands as he was, but we are frequently no less resolute.  We do not find it any easier to live by faith than he did.  We are no more willing to listen to the good news that comes from others than he was.  However, as obstinate as he first appeared, he was open to the power of the resurrection, and he ultimately entered into the depths of its mystery.  Thomas is the model of those who come to the sacred mysteries through the words of others.

We find the same situation in the reading from Acts. The fledgling Christian community grew in number as a result of the teaching of the apostles. So it has always been down through the ages.  Although we were not eyewitnesses of the actual events, we are the ones called through the teaching of others to witness to the power of the resurrection in our day.  Regardless of how often we hear this Easter message proclaimed, we will never plumb the depths of its mystery.  The mystagogical catechesis found in the letter of Peter invites all of us to stand beside Thomas, proclaiming with him the humble prayer: My Lord and my God!

Tangible proof.  We search for tangible proof of the resurrection, and we are told to live by faith.  Remarkably, when we do live by faith, we discover tangible proof.  This proof is found in the Christian community itself: here we find people devoted to the teaching of the apostles, living a communal life, breaking bread together, and praying.  Here we find people sharing their possessions with others and living in peace.  Here with find people dedicating their lives to the work of reconciliation in families, among races and nations.  Here we find people involved in works of justice as well as charity.  Here we find people feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, comforting those in sorrow.  Here we find people devoted to issues of life and health and well-being.  These are all tangible proofs of the resurrection.

Jesus extends his wounded hands to us as he did to Thomas, and the community is invited to touch his wounds as we touch the wounds of our world. Today these wounds can been seen in the victims of war or racial violence, in those suffering debilitating illness, in those ostracized from society, in the vulnerable who are abused, in the disadvantaged who are exploited.  The tangible proof of the resurrection can be seen in the way the community reaches out to others in care and support.

The cost.  Although the blessings we derive from the resurrection are clearly a gift from God, they are nonetheless a costly gift.  They have been won through the blood of Christ, and we may have to pay dearly for having received them.  Our faith may be tested by fire.  Our commitment to the well-being of others may meet with rejection and opposition.  Anyone who has set out to correct social ills knows this is not only a thankless job, but at times it can also be dangerous.  Yet even these trials can be seen as tangible proof of the resurrection, for they remind us that the glorious wounds of Christ are still wounds.  It was only through suffering that new life sprang forth.

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