Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 27, 2003
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
"We have seen the Lord! We have seen the Lord!"
We continue in our search for understanding of the full meaning of Easter over these next weeks in preparation for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And today the church takes us back to two dramatic scenes from John's Gospel, and to an idealized picture of the results in the life of the early Christina community.
When they deal with the story in today's Gospel it's quite common for homilists to focus on the figure of Thomas and emphasize the weakness of his faith. It's so common that we have an expression in ordinary English, don't we: we say someone is a doubting Thomas. It's used by many people -- I'm sure a lot of them haven't the foggiest idea where it comes from.
But, as significant as the interior life of Thomas may be, I don't think that's the most important story going on here. I'd suggest that this is a story of evangelization. Why?
Just think about what's going on here. John is at some pains to tell us that the doors were looked for fear of the Jews. He goes back to that idea twice. But he never explains why they were together in the first place.
Remember, the last time we saw these men was in the garden when they were shocked to see the high priest and guards coming to arrest Jesus. They had scattered in terror. The natural thing to do in that situation would be to get away from one another. Not to gather and set themselves up as a target. (We had a very recent example of this in the last couple of weeks: Saddam Hussein's cohort certainly saw that their best hope when things were falling apart was to cut their losses and run. Every man for himself.
But something else is going on here. I'm sure we can scarcely fathom what it must have been like for them to see all their hopes, their whole world, come crashing down. They were lost. And beyond that they were ashamed. Jesus had predicted to them exactly what they were about to do, and they had all protested vehemently. Maybe the others, Lord, but not me! I'm with you to the end.
They didn't understand Jesus after all that time together. They couldn't understand, because the resurrection hadn't taken place yet. But something had changed in them over those years of wandering the roads of Galilee with him. They were different. They might not understand it all but they knew they were meant to stay together. They belonged to each other.
We frequently say the church was born on Pentecost, and there's much truth in that. But when you think about it, it was being shaped and formed in those early years of companionship with Jesus. A seed had been planted.
And so that first scene takes place on Easter Sunday. He says a simple, direct, profound message. "Peace be with you." Luke has him saying, "Don't be afraid!" And there is his breathing the Spirit upon them -- he uses the same word that the author Genesis had used way back in the beginning when God breathed life into Adam. John is telling us this is a new creation, something brand new, never experienced before. And naturally they are filled with joy. The end.
But there is a second scene before the following Sunday. They go out to tell Thomas the good news. They were evangelizing an Apostle!
It's interesting that there are many great pieces of art depicting Easter Sunday night, and the scene where Jesus confronts Thomas -- but I have never seen a painting of this meeting in the middle of the week. Was it Monday/ or Tuesday? When? The important thing is that they sought out Thomas. He had been cut off, isolated. You can almost imagine the dialogue. "Oh give me a break! He's alive? We all saw him up on that hill. We heard how they took him down and buried him in the tomb." Somehow they got Thomas to at least come back with them, to see. In fear.
Jesus comes to us as church, as gathered, together, not as isolated individuals. We need each other in the journey of faith. Faith is not some goody given to an individual to hug to himself or herself apart from the community.
That's what our Baptism is all about, and that's why the church baptizes the catechumens at the Easter vigil. When you and I were young the focus in Baptism was on freeing from the devil, taking away original sin. But during Vatican II the church went back to the original sources and re-discovered the central reality that this person was being joined to a holy people.
I can't help recalling a phone call I got one time when I was teaching in New York. I didn't know the woman on the phone, and she didn't know me. She had gotten my name out of the phone book. She said, "Can you baptize my child?" I said, "Well, do you belong to some Christian community?" "No." After some back and forth I asked her, "Just what do you think you're doing when you bring your child for Baptism?" "I don't know, I just heard it's a good thing to do...." A good thing to do -- like going down to see the Purple People bridge or the new ballpark, or like using Tide instead of All....
Ultimately this event isn't just about some single 'doubting Thomas', it's about a community of faith. A body, which proclaims "we have seen the Lord!" That's what so many of the adults coming to the church in the RCIA program tell us: I came because I had seen this community of good people, praying and caring for the needy and welcoming all without any limitations.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us the effect that had on people: "no one claimed anything as his own. Everything was held in common." If that was true of their material goods, it is because it was in the first instance true of the gift of their faith. They were a different people because they told the Good News to one another, the story of Jesus' continued presence and action in the world.
You and I can easily identify with Thomas in this story. We know what it's like when things are dark and painful and God seems distant or non-existent. When we don't see the signs we had demanded.
Today's liturgy invites us also to identify with the Apostles, to know that we are called to proclaim the Good News, to support the faith of one another by telling where we have seen darkness yield to light, where we have seen our sisters of brothers performing great acts of love and compassion without thought of themselves, where death was transformed into life. Remember, it is Thomas who eventually makes the most profound proclamation of faith in all of Scripture: My Lord and my God.
You and I have been joined irrevocably through Baptism; we are responsible for one another. We are one body. The church is not the pope; it's not the bishops; it's not the priests. It's us -- to the extent that we allow ourselves to be captured by the Good News and show by our lives that "We have seen the Lord!"