Homily for 2nd Sunday of Easter 2018 (B)
Some years ago, at an international meeting of Jesuits, there was a measure of tension in one of the discussions between those whose stress was on the Cross, and those whose stress was on the Resurrection. Eventually someone stood up in exasperation and said: “You guys might not like the resurrected Jesus, but he’s the only one we’ve got.”
Today’s Gospel reading tells us just who we have got, tells us that our responses to Jesus can be found in the earliest of his followers, and reminds us that the gift of new life that Jesus gives is a new life with a reality now and here – it’s not just a story in the past or a promise of new life in the future.
In John’s Gospel, this is the first encounter between Jesus and his disciples. On the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus meets – who? His loyal friends? Those who stood by him? Those who put their lives on the line? Those whose protestations of love and loyalty had been lived out at the time he needed them most?
No! These were the people who had abandoned him – with the exceptions of those whose love for Jesus brought them to the cross with him (and all save one of those were women). These were the people who had not stood by him, who had not been faithful, who had not lived up to their protestations of trust and faith and commitment and love.
How does Jesus respond to their betrayal? By giving them peace, and choosing them, sending them into the world even as he was sent by the Father. By empowering them to forgive sins in the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Think about it: after all that time together I betrayed you; I ran away; I broke up with you absolutely and completely; I left you to deal with pain and humiliation all by yourself; I hid, and denied even knowing you.
And now you make me a messenger, a sign of your promise and love? That can sound too much like being told, after we wake up from a nightmare, that it was all just a bad dream. That’s all very well for the pious, and for those whose lives have not become what ours have become, and for those who don’t live in the world that we live in. “There, there… it’s all gone… it never really happened.”
But Thomas has a different reaction. “Unless I see the holes, unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” Surely this is spurning what is being offered with such graciousness – Thomas being ungracious and impetuous again?
Thomas asks for a sign. If we think about how Jesus reacts in the rest of the Gospels to those who ask for signs, we can imagine some of the others present nudging Thomas and saying something along the lines of “that is not a good idea – don’t you remember what he said about a wicked and perverse generation?”
Thomas asks for a sign, and Jesus offers him the sign he asks for. It is the nature of the sign itself which makes this request different. Thomas doesn’t want to see “signs and wonders.” Thomas doesn’t want to see marvels. Thomas wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus: he wants to know – not just in his head but in his real experience – the reality of the hurt that was done to Jesus. And Jesus responds to his wanting, and invites him not just to see but to touch.
Thomas has gone down through history as “doubting Thomas.” Perhaps we might like to see ourselves as among those other disciples, Peter and Mary Magdalene, James and Mary the mother of James. But Thomas is there in the Gospel because at some point we are right there with him, too. We need to know that it was real, because we need to know that what we experience and what we do in our lives is real. And so with Thomas we need to touch the Lord – we need to feel the scars, run our fingers over them and know that they are real, that it wasn’t all just a dream.
If we look for “signs and wonders” we are looking in the wrong place. If we are looking for glory untouched by pain, we are looking in the wrong place. Today’s gospel tells us where to find Jesus: in the hurting and suffering within us and among us and around us, and in the gift of forgiveness. Today’s Gospel proclaims these two aspects of God’s love in Jesus: the willingness to bear any suffering because of love without compare, and the willingness to forgive without limit or calculation.
For St. Augustine, it is our need to know the truth of our forgiveness that determines the way in which Jesus is present after his resurrection:
“Now we may ask,” he says, “could not the Risen Lord have risen with a body from which all marks of wounds had been erased? No doubt he could have; but he knew that his disciples bore within their hearts a wound so deep that the only way to cure it was to retain the scars of his own wounds in his body.”
The forgiveness which is the love of God is not a pretence – “Let’s pretend this never happened.” God does not forgive by treating us as though we were other than we are. The contemporary American novelist David Payne says through one of his characters:
What love is to me is just two human beings beholding each other fully, not in judgement, but with the eyes of faith.
God beholds me fully, beholds you fully, not in judgement but with the eyes of love. God sees us as we are, with the scars that mark us and the scars with which we have marked others, and loves us. God invites us – God longs for us – to behold Jesus fully, with the scars that mark him, and to love him.
It is the crucified Jesus who is the risen Jesus (and he is the only one we’ve got). It is the scarred Jesus who gives the gift of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness to us setting us free and sending us out to be forgiveness for others. For Augustine, that is necessary, because we, too, bear within our hearts those wounds so deep.
Behind today’s gospel reading, which is one of the “beginning stories” of the Church, is another beginning story. In the Book of Genesis, God breathes on what he has fashioned from the clay of the earth, and a life begins – Adam, the first of us. And in today’s Gospel John uses that same word, the same Greek word as in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, when he says that Jesus breathes on the disciples. And a new life begins, and at the heart of this new life is forgiveness: the bringing of God’s forgiveness to men and women; the living-out of that message of forgiveness by a life of forgiveness; the creation of a community of men and women which is a community of forgiveness.
God is the one who makes things new. God breathes life into what has never had life. God breathes new life into what has died. God breathes new beginnings into the dead places of our lives, so that the resurrection – the gift of new life – is a fact of life here and now. Where God’s forgiveness has touched our lives, where we have allowed our gracious God to touch our scars, then in the giving and receiving of forgiveness that can be part of the fabric of our lives we are signs of that love of God now, and here, in Manchester, in the year of Our Lord 2018.
The resurrected Jesus, the scarred and resurrected Jesus, is the only one we’ve got. And that is why we are an Easter people. That is why “Alleluia” is our song.
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