07Apr 7th April, 2013. Second Sunday of Easter

The first generation Christians, according to Acts, were a dedicated community, alive with the enthusiasm at the signs of God’s presence among them. From Apocalypse we hear of a spectacular appearance of the risen Christ. And in the story of Thomas we find that even an honest sharing of doubt can be healthy for the community. Belief and doubt are natural bed-fellows. After submitting to the requested test, Jesus kindly pardons the initial doubt of the sceptical Thomas. We should never be afraid to question aspects of our faith, not to reject them but so as to understand them better.

Acts 5:12-16. The high morale of the early Christian community.

Apoc 1:9-13, 17-19. John sees risen Jesus, in the form of the glorious Son of Man.

Jn 20:19-31. The presence of Jesus dispels fear and brings peace and mission to his friends.

First Reading: Acts 5:12-16.

Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.

Second Reading: Apocalypse 1:9-13, 17-19

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.

 

Gospel: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then 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.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told 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 in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Struggling with the Faith

(by J McP, Clogher diocese)

Have you ever felt that you were struggling with your faith and just hanging in there? Have you ever had those moments of darkness or even crisis when your mind and your vision of God was blurred by clouds of doubt? Well I certainly have. I think most of us have had those dark moments, those times of struggle and doubt, when we  asked ourselves questions like “Does my husband, my wife still love me?” “Is my mother, my father going to recover?” “Will I ever be able to forgive him again?” – or to put it in even stronger terms, “Does God really give a damn anymore?”

If you have felt like that, then the message of this morning’s readings is — don’t worry about the doubts, because to have doubts, even about one’s faith, is not wrong and on many occasions those moments of crisis can actually turn out to be growth experiences in our life of faith. Maybe that’s what many of our people are now discovering during these dark days for our church, as it struggles for an identity again.

St. Thomas in our Gospel passage today echoes these moments of uncertainty, those moments that we question even our religious values. And Thomas wasn’t content to merely echo the ‘Yes’ of others; he had to give his own, personal ‘Yes’ to his belief in the risen Lord. His  attitude has a lot to say to us today, and he warns us that it isn’t good enough anymore to echo the ‘Yes’ of others, the ‘Yes’ of the Party, the ‘Yes’ of the State, the ‘Yes’ of the System or even the ‘Yes’ of the Church.

We are being called upon to give our own ‘Yes’ to what we know to be right, to what we believe God expects from us, no matter what others might say. Of course I know that from a spiritual point of view, it’s not easy being faithful to God all of the time. And when you look at the T.V. and see the ugly scars and wounds that are caused by poverty and hunger and violence, of course we are tempted to ask, ‘Where is God in all this? We can rightly feel confused in our faith in the face of such injustice and cruelty.

My faith tells me one thing, that these wounds of the world, these acts of evil, are not caused by God but by human greed, human neglect and human cruelty.  How often have I heard people who suffer tell me how much their faith helps them through those difficult times, and how much comfort they receive by meditating upon the cross, knowing how much God still loves and cares for them. Fortunately for them, like Thomas in the Gospel, they are blessed with a God who appears. But of course having faith like this never guarantees plain sailing in life, nor will it prevent us from getting knocked about. But faith will give us a bearing in life, it will enable us to live in this troubled world without getting lost or without giving into despair.

This morning God tells us that it’s OK to have those doubts, but like Thomas, may they enable us to grow in our trust, in our love and in our belief that God is always there with us, there for us, there to roll those stones away in our lives, there breaking down barriers, healing those wounded hearts, opening those locked doors, and shining that light into those dark and dangerous concerns of our lives.

 

Seeing Is Believing

(from the late Liam Swords) When something strange or tragic happens, for example, the shooting of a president or prominent public figure, people demand an explanation. There is a call for a public enquiry, usually a supreme court judge is asked to preside over this enquiry. If what happened on Easter Sunday two thousand years ago were to happen today, there would be an immediate call for such an enquiry. Should it be reported that a human being had come back from the dead, it would be headlined around the world and demands would be made for all the facts to be brought out into the open.

With the facts as reported in the gospels we could visualise the lines of such an enquiry. The witnesses who claimed to have seen and met the risen Jesus would be called and thoroughly cross-examined. First of all his death would have to be established. This should not create any problem. It was a public event and there were numerous witnesses. His death was so brutal, it was surprising that he did not die even before he did. This could be testified to by impartial witnesses like the soldiers, the man who helped to carry his cross etc. Then there was the soldier who just to make sure he died, stuck a spear into his side. There was Joseph of Arimathea who put him in the tomb and the women who wrapped his body. About his death there could be no great argument.

His return from the dead is a different story altogether. Here the witnesses would be called one by one, in the order they made their extraordinary discovery. Mary of Magdala would be the first to take the witness stand. She discovered an empty tomb. The other women would corroborate this. There could be thousands of rational explanations of that. The only implausible one is that the occupant rose from the dead. Under cross-examination they would admit they saw angels. Imagine the laughter that would cause in a modern courtroom. Mary Magdalen would be forced to admit that when she met Jesus, she didn’t recognise him. It would be easy to demolish her as a credible witness, not to mention her dubious past which would be bound to be brought up.

Peter would be sworn in next, followed by John. Peter could be easily discredited. Any expert psychiatrist could demonstrate that both he and John had been deeply traumatised the previous two days. Their lives had been shattered. They had gone into hiding, fearing they might be next. The servant-girl would be found to testify that Peter swore three limes that he didn’t know Jesus while the trial was in progress. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus spent a few hours in the company of the risen Jesus, without recognising him. So much for the main witnesses.

Finally, Thomas takes the witness stand, the one who refused to believe all the rumours that Jesus had risen from the dead. He demanded positive proof. Nothing less would do than to put his hands into the wounds. He is the witness who would best stand up in a modern court. And because of this, he has got a bad press, giving the expression “doubting Thomas” to the English language and not as a compliment. But he has earned this reputation unfairly for two reasons. Firstly, Christ submitted himself to Thomas’ test. The second reason is suggested by the last line of today’s gospel: “These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.”

From Knowledge to Faith

(from Jack McArdle) Today’s gospel is about two of the many appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. Today’s account is special, because he appears to the larger group, from which Thomas is missing, and then he appears when Thomas is present, because Thomas didn’t believe the story the others told him. Here we have Jesus looking for definite belief and conviction about the fact and truth of his resurrection.

Faith and knowledge must not be confused. I can know something in my head, and not really believe it down in my heart. I know that Jesus is God, but Satan knows that also. It is how I respond to that knowledge that can lead to faith. Faith, in a way, is in my feet, and it enables me to step out with confidence in my decisions and in my words. It comes from experiential knowledge, rather than academic knowledge, or something I learned from a textbook. Thomas was told the good news of resurrection, but he was not prepared to believe until he had experienced that fact for himself.

It is difficult for us really to know anything of God. Our terms of reference are so limited and so conditioned, and Thomas Aquinas tells us that when we speak about God, we’re likely to be more wrong than right. God is so much more than anything we could say or think about him. But God does not wish to be totally shrouded in mystery. The coming of Jesus among us, with his action-packed life and his public death was a down-to-earth statement from God. If Thomas wants to touch the Lord’s wounds, then Jesus makes it possible, and invites him to do so. A real invitation of the gospel is “Come and see!” You must experience God for yourself. If you really and genuinely want to know the risen Lord that he will meet that wish and, through the action of his Spirit within your heart, you will come to know him in a deep and personal way.

Thomas believed because he had seen. Jesus says the real test is to believe without seeing. The atheist would believe if I could provide irresistible proof, but that would not be faith. Faith is a response to love. If I am convinced of God’s love for me, either as eternal Father, or as Jesus my Saviour, then I will accept his promises, and trust him in every way. I don’t think it too strong to say that to be a Christian is to be someone who knows the risen Lord. It is the experiential knowledge of faith, rather than academic learning.

There is a postscript to today’s gospel, where the Evangelist tells us that his selection of events is just a sample from among the many events in the life of Jesus. He presents these to us in the hope that they might deepen our personal faith, and so receive the abundant life that flows from faith. The continuation of the life of Jesus is going on right here, right now, as we are gathered here. When the final chapter is written, how will our role in the events be seen? As you look within your heart, is Jesus dead or alive, for you?

 

With Shutters Down

(from Martin Hogan) We have become very security conscious during this time of austerity. Most houses are now guarded by Phone-watch or some other system; the alarm has become as basic an item as table and chairs. We also have good strong locks. Long gone, in the country as much as in the city, are the days when you could leave the key in the door. We are more fearful about our security than we used to be, and this has led to more precautions to protect ourselves. Fear of what others can do to us tends to close us in on ourselves, in the physical sense but also in other senses. We tend to be somewhat withdrawn around people we perceive to be critical. We are slow to open up to someone we think will judge us. We hesitate to share ideas and plans we might have with those who are known not to suffer fools gladly. Fear of others can hold us back and stunt our growth.

In the gospel today we find the disciples locking themselves into a room because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Even though Mary Magdalene had come to them from the empty tomb announcing, “I have seen the Lord,” this was not enough to overcome their fear. What had been done to Jesus could be done to them. Self-imposed confinement was preferable to that prospect. The turning point for the disciples came when the risen Lord himself appeared to them behind their closed doors and lifted them beyond their fear. He did this by breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, thereby filling them with the energy and the power of God, freeing them from the fear that held them back and releasing them to share in his mission in the world, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you,” he said. In the power of the Spirit they came to life and went forth from their self-imposed prison to witness publicly to the risen Lord. This is exactly the picture of the disciples that Luke gives us in the first reading today. He describes a community of believers, the church, witnessing to the Lord with great power by the quality of their living.

We can all find ourselves, as disciples, in the situation of those first disciples as described in the first reading. What Shakespeare calls, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” can wear down our commitment to following the Lord and to serving him with our gifts. Like the disciples in the gospel reading, we can come to a kind of a full stop on our faith journey. The temptation to pull down the shutters and to lock ourselves away can be strong. The tendency to self-preservation, which, in itself, is a wholesome tendency, can come to dominate our lives, and prevent us from doing what we are capable of doing with the Lord’s help. The wounds we carry from earlier efforts and initiatives can make us hesitate to put ourselves forward again. Even when someone like a Mary Magdalene comes to us full of enthusiasm and hope we are unaffected. We let them get on with it, while we hold back and stay safe. The gospel reading today suggests that the risen Lord will not leave us alone in our self-imposed confinement. If a Mary Magdalene makes no impact on us, the Lord will find another way to enter our lives and to fill us with new life and new energy for his service. Locked doors, or even locked hearts, are no obstacle to the Lord’s coming. He will find a way to enter the space where we have chosen to retreat and he will empower us to rise above what is holding us back. He does require some openness on our part; at the least some desire on our part to become what the Lord is calling us to be. The risen Lord stands ready to breathe new life into us. He never ceases to recreate us and to renew us in his love. Easter is the season when we celebrate the good news that the power of the risen Lord is stronger than whatever weakness or discouragement might afflict us.

Just as the disciples were unmoved by the hopeful enthusiasm of Mary Magdalene who announced, “I have seen the Lord,” so Thomas was unmoved by the witness of the disciples who said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas, it seems, was an even harder nut to crack than the other disciples. He is one of those people who insist on certain conditions being met before he makes a move, “Unless I see…” As he had done with the other disciples, the Lord took Thomas on Thomas” own terms. He accommodated himself to Thomas” conditions, “Put your finger here…” The gospel reading today implies that the Lord meets us wherever we are. He takes us seriously in all our fears and doubts. The Lord is prepared to stand on our ground, whatever that ground is, and from there he will speak to us a word that is suited to our own state of mind and heart. We don’t have to get ourselves to some particular place in order for the Lord to engage with us. He takes himself to where we are, wherever it is a place of fear or of doubt. We might pray this Easter season for the openness to receive the Lord’s coming into the concrete circumstances of our own lives, so that we too might say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” We might also pray that, like the Lord, we would receive others where they are, rather than where we would like them to be.