Apr 19, 2020: 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 Saint Paul’s first captivity in Rome, about 62 AD.  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 42 AD, when he left Jerusalem; and
  3. the history of Saint Paul until his captivity in Rome in 61 AD.

Our reading today takes place immediately after Peter’s stirring address on the day of Pentecost, when three thousand new followers were baptized. Here we see the early church living out the commission that Jesus gave his disciples in today’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles

This teaching is the authoritative teaching of the apostles, which formed the basis of what ultimately became the New Testament.  It included the teaching of Jesus as well as cherished 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 thirteen times in Saint Paul’s writings.

In the New Testament, “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 (i.e., 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 their response to Jesus’ ministry and example: 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), which confirmed the presence of the Holy Spirit within the church.  These miraculous acts filled both the early Christians and bystanders with awe, the conventional 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).

Some point to the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira as evidence to the contrary; however, they 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). In that exchange, Peter makes it clear to Ananias that he was free to do as he wished with his property.

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

It is clear that the early Christians did not consider themselves as separated from the larger Jewish community, for they regularly participated in temple prayer (see also 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. 

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.

And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

More evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Note that it is the Lord who adds to their number. The risen Christ, present through this Spirit, present bodily through those who have been baptized into Christ, present in the “breaking of the bread,” is growing the Church.

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.

Today we begin a six-week study of Peter’s first letter, which is addressed to Christian communities located in five provinces of Asia Minor. It was written from Rome, probably around 63-64 AD, given that it contains no references to the persecution unleashed by Nero after July 64.

In this letter, Saint Peter seeks to console and strengthen the faith of Christians who are experiencing difficult times, a task 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 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. 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 Peter’s first letter. 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.

Like us, the audience of this letter is living in an “in-between time”: they are already baptized, but the full reality of their promised salvation has not yet been fulfilled.

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, just as the glory of Christ’s resurrection was preceded by his sufferings and death, the new life of faith that it bestows is to be subjected to many trials while achieving its goal.

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.

The 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.

Today we read the second post-resurrection appearance story in John’s gospel. The first post-resurrection appearance is to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18).

On the evening of that first day of the week,

The first Easter Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead. 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, the disciples feared for their lives.

Jesus came and stood in their midst

The locked doors underscore the mysterious character of Jesus’ risen body: it is not impeded by material obstacles.

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

“Shalom.”  In John’s gospel, Jesus’ first word to the disciples after his resurrection is a wish of peace. While it was a common greeting of the time, it is also a prayer for the eschatological blessings of health, prosperity, and all good things.

This is quite a contrast to what Jesus is pictured as saying to the disciples in his first appearance in Mark’s account: “Later as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised” (Mark 16:14).

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

By calling attention to the wounds of crucifixion in his hands and side, Jesus shows the disciples he is not a figment of their imaginations or some kind of ghost from the netherworld. And it isn’t just Christ’s spirit that was resurrected, his tortured body is also present.

He is the same man who was crucified, but now he has risen.

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

This is important because at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “So you are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

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

Shalom. The message of peace is emphasized by repetition.

This is also a promised gift in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”. Those who believe in the risen Christ receive the gift of peace of heart.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

He is commissioning them with the same authority with which he was given.

“Apostle” means “one who is sent”.

And when he had said this, he breathed on them

There is a beautiful play on the Hebrew word ruah which is the same for “breath”, “wind”, and “spirit”.

This description of Jesus breathing on the apostles is one of John’s many allusions to the Book of Genesis. When God created man in the garden, God “formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Genesis is a story of creating the material world. John’s Gospel is the story of God’s re-creation, of God’s establishing a new spiritual order through Jesus Christ.

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.

In John’s gospel, the coming of the Holy Spirit occurs at this first appearance, rather than fifty days later as it does in Acts (Acts 2:1-13).

This is a sacrament in one verse: an outward sign (breathing on them) instituted by Christ (he who did the breathing) to give grace (conferring the Holy Spirit).

Note the trinitarian nature of this account: the commission is from God, given by Jesus, and endowed with the Holy Spirit.

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

This language describes the activity of a judge, who decides whether a defendant is bound to the consequences of the charges or loosed from them.  Most likely, the authority here given to the disciples is much broader than this.  The phrase “bind and loose” (or forgive) is similar to “flesh and blood,” or “left and right.”  Each expression names the opposite pole, but together they are meant to include everything between them as well.  These are ways of describing totality: “flesh and blood” refers to the whole body, “left and right” includes the entire horizon, “bind and loose” suggests complete authority.

With the bestowal of the Spirit, the disciples are authorized to continue the mission of Jesus.

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,

This passage actually provides two resurrection appearances. Thomas, who was absent from the first event, but central to the second, forms a kind of hinge between the accounts.

Note how 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. In a way, the faith required of him is more demanding than 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.”

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

By giving this invitation to Thomas, Jesus is telling him not only that the disciples had told the truth when they said that they had seen the Lord, but that the Lord was present with the disciples even when they could not see him. How else would the Lord have known Thomas’ reaction?

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 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.

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.

Thomas has come to full belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, a belief that was as strong as his former disbelief.

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 in 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 we 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 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s