Commentary on Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31
THE OVER-RIDING THEME of today's Mass is faith. The source of this faith is the Spirit of God and the object of that faith is both God and other people. Last week we saw the varying ways in which the Easter experience, the experience of Christ Risen, was described in different books of the Christian Testament.
In the Gospel today we find the disciples, still in shock after what they saw as the disaster of Calvary, locked behind closed doors in their "upper room". They expected, at any moment, to hear the dreaded knock on the door announcing the arrival of the police and their arrest as the accomplices of an executed criminal and subversive. Instead, they are astonished to see the person of Jesus standing right there in front of them. It is the first lesson of the post-Resurrection Jesus – “I will be with you at all times, and most of all in times of trouble.”
He greets them with a salutation. In normal circumstances, his "Shalom" would not amount to much more than ‘Hello’. But our translations rightly render it "Peace be with you". It could be translated – because there is no verb in the Greek, "Peace is with you." In either case, the message is the same: when Jesus is present, there is peace. And peace here does not mean simply the absence of conflict or noise. (As when a parent says in exasperation: "Could we have a little peace in this house?!")
The peace that only Jesus can give is a deep sense of inner harmony which no outside factors can take away. It is the peace that Jesus himself experienced after his prayer in the garden, even though the threat of death loomed as large as ever before him. It is the peace that people have been known to experience in jail or concentration camps and which others never experience when they go "to get away from it all". Peace is not in a place or in an environment; it is in the heart.
In the case of the disciples, this peace leads naturally to a deep sense of joy. They go together. And they are meant to be the prevailing mood experienced by a disciple of Jesus, no matter what is happening all around. What a pity, then, that so many Catholics "feel bad about feeling good"!
What follows seems to be in contradiction to what we have always learnt in our catechism classes. It is Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, and yet what follows can only be called a Pentecost experience. The direct work of Jesus on earth is complete. He now hands on to his disciples the mandate to continue his work. "As the Father sent me, so am I sending you." They are to be apostles, people who are sent on a mission.
To carry out that mission Jesus "breathes" on them and they are filled with the Spirit of the Father and of Jesus, a Spirit which empowers them. It is a different image from that found in the Pentecost scene in the Acts of the Apostles but the effect is the same. In John's version there is clearly a reminder of the Creation story in Genesis, when God "breathed" on the clay and it became a living human being. Here there is a new creation, what Paul will call the "new human being", a person who has been transformed by the Spirit of God dwelling within. After this the disciples will become radically changed people.
Our baptism and confirmation are the sacramental signs of that experience for us. In both cases – with the disciples of Jesus and ourselves – the results are not all produced immediately. Rather it is the beginning of a process of growth into the Spirit.
With the giving of the Spirit, Jesus also hands over complete authority to do what he did on earth. It is not simply an authority of power but an authority that liberates and gives growth. "Whose sins you shall forgive..." is not merely the institution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation but a much wider mandate to decide what are the criteria for judging membership in the Body of Christ.
If the Church, the Christian community, is the Body of Christ, the visible manifestation of God's presence in the world, then certain standards have to be set in both its internal and external relationships. It is not just a matter of laws and commandments being kept but much more the communal living out of the Spirit of the Gospel – the Spirit of truthful living, of love and compassion, of freedom and justice.
The picture of what is meant is described vividly in the picture of a Christian community described in the First Reading, which is from the Acts of the Apostles. It is, sadly, an ideal that probably has never been fully lived on a wide scale in the history of Christianity, although there have been outstanding, but all too few, exceptions. It is this vision which is behind the whole concept of vowed religious life.
On Easter Sunday there was one disciple missing – Thomas the Twin. He represents all the sceptics that have ever lived. (One of the unsolved questions of history: Was his twin a disciple, too, or even more sceptical?!) He also provides Jesus with an opportunity for comforting words to the rest of us.
On the following Sunday, while in the full flow of his bragging arrogance, Jesus again suddenly appears before them all. "Come, Thomas, feel me, touch me. I am not a ghost; I am real. Stop your doubting and believe." Totally overcome, Thomas acknowledges his hastiness. "My Lord and my God!" Of course, Thomas' statement is itself a profound act of faith. One cannot, literally, see God. But Thomas realised that this experience spoke to him with utter conviction of God present before him.
However, it is not an experience that the rest of us can expect to have – though it can happen. So, "Happy are those who have not seen [i.e. have had an experience like Thomas'] and still believe." And, as we have pointed out before, that belief is not just an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Risen Son of God but it also implies putting one's total trust in the way of life that is proposed to us by the Christian community through the Gospel message. In part it implies living out the scenario of the First Reading.
To what extent do our lives reflect this ideal?:
- The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul
- No one claimed absolute ownership over anything they had
- Everything was held in common
- The community gave continual witness to the Risen Jesus with great power
- They were all greatly respected (because of the above)
- No member was ever in want
- All incomes from land or property were put into a common fund
- The resources of the group were distributed to those in need.
Does it not have a Marxian familiarity? To each according to his need; from each according to his ability. Christianity properly lived out, far from being the "opium of the people", leads to a life of unity, sharing, justice and peace. Marxism has the vision of justice but, in its atheism, lacks the vision of love as the key to justice. Without love of those around us there can be no real faith in God; without faith in God there can be no real love of the brother and sister.
It is the creation of this new person that Jesus inaugurated when he breathed the Spirit on his disciples. Let us pray today that that Spirit may be breathed into our community and into each one of us.