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 15, 2012

Homily: 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 118; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31

St. Paul wrote that between the Resurrection and the Ascension more than 500 disciples saw the risen Jesus [1 Cor 15:6]. 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, glorified and not subject to earthbound limitations, is still the flesh that grew from Mary, the flesh that died on the cross, the flesh that bears the marks of His passion.

What a compliment to our humanity: 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. Jesus is the Good News in the flesh!

In today’s Gospel we learn something about Jesus, about Thomas, but also about ourselves. Do you ever doubt? 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 wonderful book on the lives of the saints, but I was surprised to read of 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, these weren’t questions for me. They were facts, and like the words of the “Act of Faith” the good Dominican Sisters taught me, I firmly believed them.

And I still firmly believe them, 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.

As Christians we actually believe that God, who created the universe, really cares about us, that God is a God of love, a love so great it’s impossible to fully comprehend 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. And because it’s such good news, we often doubt.

Thomas, too, struggled with this. Poor Thomas. Because of this one incident, he’ll always be known as doubting Thomas. And yet, he wasn’t alone in this. 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” [Lk 24:11].
But many of the apostles doubted even after seeing Jesus. Indeed, there’s one very telling verse in Scripture. It’s at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel and describes the risen Jesus’ last moments with the apostles before he ascends to the Father.

Matthew tells us that the now-11 apostles went to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. And then we read, “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” [Mt 28:17]. Yes, they still doubted, even after weeks of encounters with the risen Christ. Yes, it would seem Thomas gets a bum rap, since the other Apostles had reacted no differently.

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, before his absence, this little group was in hiding, filled with doubts and fears. But when Thomas returned…well, you can imagine how excited they must have been. “We have seen the Lord” [Jn 20:25], they tell him.

Poor Thomas. We know what he said, “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” [Jn 20:25]. But what was he really thinking?

On Friday Diane and I went to Mt. Dora for lunch and afterwards browsed in a few of the shops. In one I noticed a small sign that read: “Jesus loves you, but I’m His favorite.”

Maybe this is what Thomas heard in the enthusiasm of the other apostles: “Yes, Thomas, Jesus loves you too, but we’re His favorites.” A bit jealous? Maybe 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 few days earlier, when Jesus decided to return to Judea and ultimately to Jerusalem even though 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” [Jn 11:16]. Of course, the reality 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 he would see the risen Jesus for himself. It must have been a rough week. 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, no doubt found himself contending with both 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” [Jn 20:28].

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. And this is why John includes this incident: so we come to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. This grace to believe, a grace never forced on us – like Thomas, we can accept or reject it with complete freedom.

How does this touch us today, we who have not seen and yet believe? You and I haven’t seen the risen Christ, but he is present with us. Jesus is here today in His Holy 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.

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 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. If the world, then, 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 Jesus shares. And that’s where our hope must always rest, not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ  – in Him 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 we see each day. And do you know what? He’s sitting right beside you.

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