The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Homily: Thomas & Us

The following is my homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday). Reading: John 20:19-31

What a wonderful gospel reading this is! And how fitting for today, Divine Mercy Sunday. The passage not only tells us much about Jesus, but also tells us much about Thomas and about ourselves.

Between the Resurrection and the Ascension, St. Paul tells us that more than 500 of the disciples saw the risen Jesus. These weren’t ghostly apparitions. He sat with them, talked with them, walked with them, touched them, ate with them, even cooked a meal for them. He came to them in the flesh. His body, although glorified and not subject to our earthbound limitations, is still the flesh that grew from Mary, the flesh that died on the cross, the flesh that still bears the marks of His passion. What a wonderful compliment to our humanity: that the Son of God wanted the flesh He took from us to be His forever.

I think we sometimes forget that. We forget that right now, today, the risen Jesus is truly alive, just as we are. His body might be glorified, but it’s still a body of flesh and blood. And just as His flesh rose from the dead and was glorified, filled with God’s life, so shall yours and mine. The Risen Christ is the Good News in the flesh!

We also learn something today about Thomas…and about ourselves.

Do you ever doubt? Do you ever question your faith? Well, if you do, you’re in good company. You’re right there with the Apostles and most of the saints.

When I was a boy, my parents gave me a book on the lives of the saints. It was a wonderful book, but I can recall being surprised by the doubts and crises of faith experienced by many of these holy men and women. You see, at the age of 10, I still had a childlike faith. Such questions as the existence of a loving God, the Incarnation, the divinity of Jesus, His death and resurrection, eternal life, heaven and hell…well, none of these were questions for me. They were facts, and like the words in the “Act of Faith” that the good Dominican Sisters taught me, I firmly believed in them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still firmly believe in them today, but this doesn’t mean there haven’t been doubts and crises along the way. Faith is a gift, and doubt is a normal, very human reaction to it.

The Good News of Jesus Christ – His death and resurrection, our redemption and forgiveness, the promise of eternal life – is so good, so remarkable, that sometimes it seems almost too good to be true.

As an agnostic friend once said to me, “You mean you actually believe that this God of yours who made the universe really cares about you?”

I said, “Yes, and because He made the universe and everything in it, He’s your God too.”

He just shook his head and said, “Look, you’re just another infinitesimally small piece of matter on this insignificant speck of a planet. Assuming God exists, you can’t honestly believe that He’d become on of us and let us kill Him.”

“Yes,” I said, “I can. And that’s the good news we Christians are always talking about, that God is a God if love, of a love so great it’s impossible to fully comprehend it.”

Like my friend, Thomas, too, was struggling with these same concerns. Poor Thomas. Because of this one incident in his life, he’ll always be known as doubting Thomas. And yet, until they had actually seen the risen Jesus, the other Apostles had reacted no differently.

When Mary Magdalene and the other women told the apostles what they had seen and heard at the empty tomb, the men thought “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.”

Now, we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus first appeared in the upper room…but it really doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, he wasn’t there. Earlier, when he left, this little group was in hiding, filled with doubts and fears. But when he returned…well, you can imagine how excited they must have been. “We have seen the Lord,” they tell him.

Poor Thomas. We know how he responded: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

But what was he really thinking? Was he perhaps a bit jealous, may a little fearful? Was he thinking, “If Jesus did come, why did He come when I wasn’t here? What could this mean?” Just a week or so before this, when Jesus decided to return to Judea, and ultimately to Jerusalem, when so many were plotting against Him, it was Thomas who, full of bravado, had said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The reality, of course, had been quite different. Thomas, like the others, had abandoned Jesus. Was Thomas thinking of this?

Whatever his thoughts, it would be another week before Thomas would see the risen Jesus for himself. It must have been a rough week for Thomas. The others, their spirits rejuvenated by their encounter with Jesus, were probably telling him, “Don’t worry, Thomas. He’ll be back. You’ll see.” And Thomas, not knowing what to believe, his thoughts conflicted, full of serious doubts and wondrous possibilities.

But when Jesus appears the second time, Thomas moves instantly from doubt to genuine faith. You might say, “So what. He had his proof didn’t he?” Well, yes, he did, but proof only in the resurrection of Jesus. Thomas didn’t exclaim, “My risen Lord,” when he saw Jesus. No, Thomas’ faith takes him well beyond that and he says, “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus had been called many things -- Lord, master, rabbi, teacher, prophet, Son of Man, Son of God – but only Thomas, Thomas moved by the Holy Spirit, makes this ultimate declaration of faith in Jesus Christ.

This is the Spirit’s gift to Thomas and Thomas’ gift to us. This grace to believe, a grace that is never forced on us, and, like Thomas, we can accept or reject it with complete freedom. It wasn’t by chance that this chosen disciple was missing that first day. Or that on his return he heard, in hearing he doubted, in doubting he touched, and in touching he believed.

This was God’s Divine Mercy in action. And how wonderfully it worked! For when Thomas touched his Master’s wounded flesh he cured the wound of our disbelief…and so doubting Thomas, who actually touched, became a witness to the reality of the resurrection.

It can become so for each one of us. We’re all invited to become today’s living witnesses to the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thomas touched the wounded side of beloved Savior to heal the wounds of our own disbelief.

How does this touch us, we who have not seen and yet believe? None of us has seen the risen Christ, but he is present with us. He’s here today in His word. He’s here today where two or three are gathered in His Name. And in a most unique and special way, He’s here in the Eucharist, just as real as He was in the upper room, just as real as He was on the Cross.

The trouble is, we can’t see Him the way Thomas did. And this can test our faith. And there are times in all of our lives – fearful, terrifying, lonely times -- when we especially feel his absence. When Jesus seems to have brushed the dust of our lives off His feet. Little wonder He calls us blessed. We don’t see, we suffer, and yet we still believe. We can still drop to our knees and utter with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

But is our cry of faith enough? Jesus tells us our love for others will be a visible sign that He’s among us -- that this is how the world will recognize Him. And so, if the world doesn’t recognize Christ, it must be because the world doesn’t see Him in the lives of those who claim to believe in Him. It would seem we have our work cut out for us.

Fortunately, it’s a work that Jesus will share. And that’s where our hope must always rest, not in ourselves, but in Jesus – in Jesus who died for us, who rose for us, who lives for us, and who promised to be with us forever.

Because we believe in the Jesus Christ we have never seen, we may, with the help of God’s grace, learn to love and serve the Jesus Christs we see each day. They’re all around you.

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