Apr 28, 2019: 2nd Sunday of Easter / Sunday of Divine Mercy (C)

Introduction

On April 30, 2000, His Holiness John Paul II declared that “the 2nd Sunday of Easter henceforth throughout the Church will also be called Divine Mercy Sunday.”  On this day, the faithful are called to reflect more personally on the graces won through the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, their hearts may be more fully aware of the mercy of God for them personally and for the sake of the world.

1st Reading – Acts 5:12-16

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.
Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets
and laid them on cots and mats
so that when Peter came by,
at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.
A large number of people from the towns
in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered,
bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits,
and they were all cured.

One of the distinctive features of the 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.

In today’s first reading, we hear that the apostles have begun to minister to the
people in the same way that Jesus had. They have found that they are empowered by
the Holy Spirit to bring wholeness (health) to people in the name of Jesus.

Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles.

“Signs and wonders” is a way of describing the mighty works of God (Exodus 7:3; Psalms 135:9; Acts 2:22,43; 4:30).  Here, it refers to the miracles the apostles were able to accomplish through the divine power bestowed on them by Jesus (Luke 9:1).

They were all together in Solomon’s portico.

“Solomon’s porch,” a colonnaded area on the eastern side of the Court of Gentiles, at the Temple.  The Temple is identified as a place of meeting for the apostles in Acts 2:46.

None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them. Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them.

The great accomplishments of the early Christians certainly struck fear in the hearts of some, while at the same time they attracted others.  Fear and admiration can and do exist side by side, especially when the power of God is evident.

Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.

The fact that some did not think it necessary for Peter to touch the afflicted ones in order to cure them is striking, for even Jesus normally healed through touch.  The two exceptions are the woman who was cured by touching Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:44), and the cure from a distance of the Roman centurion’s slave (Luke 7:1-7).

The Greek word for “fall on” (episkiázō) is the same that appears in the stories of the Annunciation (Luke 1:35, the power of the Most High will overshadow you) and the transfiguration (Luke 9:34, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them).  In all these instances, it is the mystery of God that overshadows and the power of God that effects wondrous things.

A large number of people from the towns in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered, bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.

People at this time described both physical and emotional distress as being afflicted by an unclean spirit; to cast out that spirit was to cure the person.

Not that all were cured.  No one is excluded from the grace of God.

2nd Reading – Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19

I, John, your brother, who share with you 
the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus,
found myself on the island called Patmos
because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.
I was caught up in spirit on the Lord’s day
and heard behind me a voice as loud as a trumpet, which said,
“Write on a scroll what you see.”
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me,
and when I turned, I saw seven gold lampstands
and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man,
wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest.

When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead.
He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid.
I am the first and the last, the one who lives.
Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.
I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.
Write down, therefore, what you have seen,
and what is happening, and what will happen afterwards.”

The Book of Revelation is the only prophetic book in the New Testament.  Today’s reading consists of a report of a commissioning vision that the speaker, who gives his name as John, received at an earlier time.

I, John, your brother,

Like those to whom he is writing, he identifies himself as a Christian.

who share with you the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus,

He is a companion of his readers in the suffering they endure for the sake of their faith.

found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.

A dimension of John’s suffering is his apparent banishment to the penal colony on Patmos.  This rocky island 16 square miles, situated some 50 miles southwest of Ephesus, was settled by political enemies of the Roman government.  Since adherence to civil religion was considered the duty of every good citizen, preaching the gospel and testifying to faith in Jesus would have been considered a political breach that warranted severe punishment.

I was caught up in spirit on the Lord’s day

“The Lord’s day” probably refers to the day of the week (Sunday), rather than to the eschatological Day of the Lord.

and heard behind me a voice as loud as a trumpet, which said, “Write on a scroll what you see.”

The experience was primarily visual, as we will see, but a loud voice calls his attention and directs his actions.

Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and when I turned, I saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man,

The lampstands are reminiscent of the golden lampstand with seven lamps from the vision of the prophet Zechariah (Zech 4:2), and the phrase “one like a son of man” recalls the figure from Daniel 7:13 who comes on the clouds.

wearing an ankle-length robe,

This is the official dress of the High Priest (Exodus 28:4; 29:5; Wisdom 18:24; Zechariah 3:4).

with a gold sash around his chest.

Shows kingship (Exodus 28:4; 1 Maccabees 10:89; 11:58; Daniel 10:5).

In all, the vision is of Christ as priest-king.

When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead.

John is gripped with fear.  It was an Old Testament belief that for sinful human beings to see God was to die (Exodus 19:21; 33:20; Judges 6:22-23).

He touched me with his right hand 

The right hand was generally used to brandish a sword or other weapon; the extension of the right hand specifically is a sign that there is nothing to fear.

and said, “Do not be afraid.

The standard declaration of reassurance (Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10).

I am the first and the last,

The Christ figure in the vision identifies himself with three characterizations that find their origin in ancient Israelite tradition.

“The first and the last” is an epithet originally claimed by the God of Israel in Isaiah 44:6… I am the first and I am the last; there is no God but me (see also Isaiah 48:12).

the one who lives.

As the first cause of all creation, God alone is the truly living one, the source of all life Psalm 42:1.

Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.

Clearly a reference to the resurrection of Christ.  He has been raised from the dead, never to die again; death is no longer master over him (Romans 6:9).

I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.

Having conquered death, Christ now has authority over (holds the keys to) death and the netherworld.  In the new order, theophany (the revelation of God) is specifically christophany (the revelation of Christ).

Write down, therefore, what you have seen, and what is happening, and what will happen afterwards.

The vision is not merely for the seer.  Both at the beginning and the end of the experience, John is told to write down what he sees, both now and what will be revealed to him in the future.  The vision is clearly meant for the churches, not just for one individual.

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 in 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, in 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 their 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 he 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 the 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 saint 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 gospel seem too amazing, the demands too extreme.  Those who preach the gospel 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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