Second Sunday of Easter – Lectio divina on Jn 20,19-31
The gospel focuses our attention on what happened on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It lays great emphasis on the difficulty the disciples had in coming to believe that he was really alive. We should not be scandalized but encouraged by this. The first preachers of Christ’s resurrection were also the first who failed to believe. It is amazing the effort Christ had to make to convince them that he was risen. We can see ourselves in the poor image the disciples gave of themselves. We can identify with their fears and their obstinacy. It might be helpful for us also to identify with their subsequent joy and faith. Remembering what happened at the dawn of that day is the only way we have to make their experience our own. The Risen Lord, today as then, is ready to overcome our resistance and convince us that he really is alive. This is the good news of the Gospel.
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
I Read: understand what the text is saying and focus on how it says it.
This passage gives an account of two meetings of the Risen Lord with his disciples. Both took place in Jerusalem but not on the same day, and they do not serve the same purpose. What happened on the evening of resurrection day (20,19-23) follows the pattern of other accounts of the Lord’s appearances – the unexpected presence of Jesus, joyful recognition by those who saw him, and a universal mission. The second appearance one week later (20,24-29), develops a recurring motif – those who have not had a personal encounter with the Risen Lord find it difficult to believe. The community of believers and the individual believer were born in the same way, through an encounter with the Lord Jesus. When the Risen Lord appears to a group and confers on it a universal mission, the Church is born. When he makes himself known to a disciple and overcomes his incredulity, he transforms him into a believer.
The first account is therefore the ‘birth certificate’ of the Christian community. The Risen Lord confers his power, his Spirit, and his mission, the forgiveness of sins, on the group of disciples that he has chosen as his witnesses. The second account, on the other hand, dramatizes the individual journey to faith in the resurrection, of one who was not convinced by the testimony of his colleagues, but had to see and touch the Risen Lord for himself. It would have been better if he had believed solely on the preaching of the apostles.
The first account is limited to a mere outline, but it is the more important. The Risen Jesus finds the group locked in the house and full of fear. The death of Jesus has filled his followers with anxiety. There is clearly an apologetic motive – these terrified men would not have become courageous preachers if they had not had a real encounter with the Lord Jesus. The unexpected presence of Jesus in their midst restores their joy. The one sent by God, restored to life and now returned to the Father, entrusts a mission to his followers and sends them out (20,21: as the Father sent me, so am I sending you). The sending is an act of investiture and a sign of trust. The handing on of the task from Christ to his Christians makes them new men. They receive from the Risen Lord his life-giving breath and a mission which makes them new. The conviction that the resurrection experience is the origin of and the reason behind the Christian mission is to be found in the whole gospel tradition (Mk 16,15-16; Mt 28,19-20; Lk 24,47; Acts 1,8). It is typical of John that he sees the mission of the Church as one of universal forgiveness of sins. The Christian community is the only place in the world where sin has no future.
The second episode is developed in more detail. It describes how a disciple arrives personally at faith in the resurrection. In this way John wanted to show that it was not the testimony of the disciples (20,25) but the Risen One in person who guided his witnesses to faith in him. He also shows, at the same time, that those who come later will not require a special intervention in order to believe. The testimony of the apostles will suffice. Thomas, one of the twelve (11,6; 14,5), personifies the inability of the first disciples to accept the fact that Jesus had risen. This episode also highlights the difficulty facing the second generation of Christians who would have to believe without proof. Thomas was not with the others when Jesus came (20,24). His insistence on touching and seeing, on feeling with his own hands, in order to identify and believe (20,25; 4,48. Lk 24,37), is linked to the way he understood the final resurrection of our bodies. He did not see it as impossible, but he laid down conditions before he could believe. In reality, Thomas did not ask for anything more than what Jesus had granted the other disciples (20,20; 20,18.25). But it is one thing to receive the gift and quite another thing to demand it. Jesus gave him what he asked for in order to believe (20,27) but he made no concession in his response. The further believers are removed from the events of the resurrection, the greater opportunity they have to be happy believers. That warning and that promise are directed to all who hear the gospel. It is possible to believe without touching and without proof. And this is the faith that makes us happy.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The account elaborates a historical fact, which often passes unnoticed. The first witnesses of the resurrection were also the first who did not believe in it. The Risen Jesus had to make a real effort to lead them to the evidence. For us who follow Jesus today, twenty centuries later, and find it hard to believe that Jesus is alive, this is a reason for consolation. But it is also a challenge. Our present difficulties are not a sufficient obstacle to prevent us preaching the Risen Christ. Besides, we should not forget that Jesus blessed those who believed without relying on proof of the resurrection. Seeing is not better than believing. This is encouraging for people who have very little evidence to support their life of faith. Nor should we be surprised that someone, like Thomas, who does not take part in the life of the community, should have greater difficulty in coming to believe. The life of the community makes the life of faith easier. Disciples who want to be believers should share their faith and their doubts in common. The community is the place of encounter with the living Jesus. It is there that doubts are taken into consideration and help is given to overcome them.
The disciples, full of fear, remained closed in the house and closed in their world. It was there, where fear had led them, that the Risen Lord appeared to them. And the first thing Jesus did was to give them peace. We should notice that Jesus did not reprove them for their lack of courage and their incredulity. He had already appeared alive that day to several disciples and yet these continued to believe that he was dead. Instead of scolding them, Jesus brought peace to his disciples. He brought back joy to the faces of those who saw him, and new light into the lives of those who knew that he was alive. Fear was transformed into joy, cowardice into peace. They could not deny the evidence before their eyes, and so they were able to overcome their fear. They regained joy, a joy they would never lose, because nobody and nothing, not even death, could steal the Lord from them now. He had come back from death, death on a cross, in a form that was very visible, restoring their peace and courage with his presence.
Today we, the disciples of the Risen Lord, are still closed in our fears, and defending ourselves from an environment that is increasingly hostile to our faith. We are closed in on ourselves, in the privacy of our own lives, because we do not regard even our families as a safe refuge from the militant unbelief that surrounds us. Today’s gospel reassures us that fear of the world will not win, forcing us to privatize our faith. We will live our faith with peace and joy because we know that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Christ is as much alive today as he was in the past. How can we fail to conquer our fears if we can be certain that Jesus has conquered death? Who or what will cause us to fear, when we believe in the Risen Christ? Peace and joy are the first way to live our faith in the resurrection. There is no other way. Anyone who lives his faith in Christ, without inner serenity and with overpowering sadness, does not really believe in Jesus’ resurrection. When the Risen Lord appeared to his frightened disciples, he brought them peace and gave them joy in living.
This is the only way a believer can give testimony. A ghost does not give orders. The sight of a ghost causes fear, not joy. To go on nurturing our fears while we profess faith in the resurrection would be the equivalent of transforming Jesus into a ghost, and ourselves into failed persons. This was certainly not what happened to the people who saw Jesus alive. They received from him his spirit and he gave them a mission, to become peacemakers of the world through universal forgiveness, a mission which is as impossible today as it was then. The disciples who saw the Risen Lord were totally transformed. The Lord’s breath now occupied the place where previously fear had reigned. With hearts full of the new spirit of Jesus they become enthusiastic missionaries of universal forgiveness. These were the very men who up to then were living in fear of not being forgiven – by the world, by the Jews and the enemies of Jesus – because they continued to believe in Jesus. The breath of the Risen Lord comes to all who believe that he is alive. His Spirit fills their lives, overcoming fear and doubt, and their lives become an offering of forgiveness to all people. Instead of thinking that others should forgive them for their faith in Christ, Christians live in order to forgive the world that does not yet believe in the Risen Lord.
Every baptized person lives in order to proclaim that Christ is alive. Every Christian feels obliged to offer pardon and peace. It is not enough that we regain our own peace and joy. If we are unwilling or unable to pass on the gift of pardon and peace, we can never be sure that we have really received it ourselves. If we do not pass on the gift we have received, we will end up losing it. The Risen Jesus gave peace to those who were to bring peace to the world. He drove away their fear by showing them that he was alive. He did not grant them peace while they were still closed in their fears and in the house. He gave them orders to bring peace to the world, not with arms but with his Spirit, and no special wisdom other than the knowledge that they were sent by him. Jesus did not convince his disciples with any argument of reason, nor did he join them in their seclusion. He sent them out with his Spirit and with pardon for the world.
How is it that we who call ourselves good Christians are the people who are least inclined to forgive, the first to demand “justice “ against others, the last to forget, the quickest to take offence, the slowest to forgive and the ones who find it hardest to forget? It is dreadful to see the best among us incapable of forgiving and forgetting offences received. How can we become peacemakers of the world if we cannot make peace in our own hearts or in our personal relationships? Anyone who is a witness of the Risen Lord knows that he is not in the world to be pardoned but to pardon. We will never succeed in conquering our fears and coming out of our seclusion until we recognise the Spirit of Jesus in us, and obey his command to forgive. Then we will lose our fear of the world and regain the joy of living as disciples of the Risen Lord. To know that Jesus is alive is to know that the world is our field of mission and our task is to bring peace.
All this would be much easier if we were able to live our faith in common. Remember, Thomas, the disciple who had most difficulty in believing in the resurrection, was the one who had not seen the Risen Lord because he was not with the others. The one who was not with the rest of the disciples, maybe because he was afraid to share his fears with them, was the one who remained most incredulous. Herein lies a law of Christian living – it is difficult to recognise Christ if we do not share our lives with other Christians. But we can be even happier than the apostles who saw the Risen Jesus, if we believe that he is alive. We are indeed blessed, for we can believe that he is alive without having touched him, and acknowledge him as our Lord and God without having seen him.