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Homily notes: Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday) Year B, 8 April 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  02 April 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: Acts 4:32-35.

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 117(118):2-4, 15-18, 22-24.

Second reading: 1 John 5:1-6.

Gospel: John 20:19-31.

Link to readings.

Commentary

It is understandable that the Church should celebrate the octave of Easter by reading each year the episode in the Fourth Gospel where the risen Lord appears to Thomas “eight days later” (20:19-31).

This is preceded, appropriately enough, by a First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (4:32-35) describing the life of the disciples in the very early days of the Church. A key sign of the Spirit’s presence among the faithful is detachment from material possession. The assertion, “None of their members was ever in want,” echoes a prescription in Deuteronomy 15:4 in connection with the celebration of the seventh or sabbatical year: a year when all outstanding debts had to be remitted so that the burden of debt would not pile up and continue to be ever more oppressive upon the poor. The gift of freedom and love created by the Spirit enabled the community of believers in Jerusalem to truly live out this liberating command of the Lord.

The sharing of material goods denoted by “having all things in common” was destined to last in Christianity only in the monastic tradition. But beyond the material sense, we should be aware of an axiom pervasive in Greco-Roman society that “friends have all things in common”. What is being indicated, then, is that the early disciples were a community of friends. They shared friendship with the Lord Jesus and because of that they were friends with each other.

The Second Reading from the First Letter of John (5:1-6) features one of those passages in the letter where it is not all that easy to see which way the logic is running. The main point seems to be that loving God, the Father who has “begotten” us in Christ entails loving our fellow believers. As also begotten by God, they are our “siblings” within the one family of God.

Gospel (John 20:19-31): Thomas is one of the most clearly defined characters in the Fourth Gospel. Born loser, realist, pessimist, he has missed out on the Easter night appearance of Jesus. He won’t believe in the resurrection simply on the other disciples’ claim ‘we have seen the Lord’. He lays down his explicit, highly ‘physical’ conditions.

With the divine “courtesy” that is characteristic of the risen Lord in all the appearance stories of the gospels, Jesus is prepared, eight days later, to meet Thomas’ conditions exactly. Before the risen Lord in person, however, Thomas abandons them and makes the most exalted act of faith contained in the gospel: “My Lord and my God!”. The confession takes us back to the Prologue: “... the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1); “No one has ever seen God; it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). At this climactic moment of the gospel it is Thomas, the late-comer, the obtuse one, the doubter, who proclaims the full identity of Jesus.

But that is not the end. Jesus adds a comment that brings us into the picture too. Thomas has believed because, like Mary Magdalene (20:16) and the other disciples present in the room, he has seen the risen Jesus. Others—succeeding generations of believers—will not see Jesus. Unlike Thomas, they have to believe simply on the report handed down in the Church’s preaching: “We have seen the Lord”. On them—on us, that is—Jesus pronounces a blessing: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. Why “blessed”? Because from them/from us a faith greater than that of Thomas and the others will be required: the greater the faith the more scope for the power of God.

So the first “edition” of John’s Gospel (chapters 1-20) ends with this solemn assurance that believers of all subsequent generations are in no way at a disadvantage compared to the original disciples who saw and heard and touched the Lord. The written gospel imparts to us all the knowledge necessary for a life-giving encounter with the risen Lord.

In several respects one may regret the recent taking over of this Second Sunday of Easter with its sublime Gospel by the designation of it as “Divine Mercy Sunday”. On the other hand, there is a link between the two in that it is the appearance to Thomas that most particularly brings out that the risen Lord still bears on his body the wounds of his vulnerable love. We might recall what we heard on Good Friday from the the Letter to the Hebrews

it is not as if we had a high priest incapable of feeling our weakness with us.
… Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help (4:15-16).

 

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media

 

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