Brief Synopsis of the Readings: Our first reading comes from the New Testament Acts of the Apostles. This book chronicles the earliest days after Jesus’ resurrection and we will be reading from this book for most of the Easter Season. Today we are given a glimpse into those days. They lived in community, shared everything, and performed miracles. They worshipped in the Temple but also met in their houses for the breaking of the bread. Every day their numbers grew. John’s Gospel closely followed last week’s. Here the disciples are gathered, but on of the (Thomas) was not there. Jesus appeared to them, breathed on them, and announced they have the power to forgive sins. When they found Thomas they told him what happened, but Thomas refused to believe it “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my hand into his side.” Eight days later they gathered and Thomas was with them. Jesus then appeared and invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Thomas the state: “My Lord and my God.” Jesus then praised those who believe who haven’t seen.
Do you remember your reaction when you first heard that Jesus rose from the dead? Almost certainly not. Many of us grew up as Christians and the life of Jesus was told to us before we had any idea who Jesus was (or ourselves for that matter). And even those who didn’t grow up as Christians recognized that Christians believed in someone who died and rose from the dead.
And 2,000 years after these events it is (let’s face it) easy to miss the impossibility of this event. Last week we read about how Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John saw the empty tomb and assumed someone had stolen Jesus’ body. Only on second thought did they come to the understanding that Jesus had spoken of his resurrection several times and they didn’t fully understand what he meant. And there’s reason for that. From our origins as humans we’ve wondered about our creation and our creator. Pagans held that there were several gods and we could choose who to worship. Some also believed that gods sometimes came to earth; the Greek god Zeus was said to have fathered children with goddesses and mortal women. Jews recognized a single creator who created the universe and us. As I’ve spoken about before, Jews looked forward to the coming of the Messiah but they expected a human who was chosen and empowered by God.
The story of Jesus gives us an entirely new playbook. Not only was this person both fully divine and fully human, he rose from the dead. Not only had this never been done before, it had never been conceived before. And when Jesus foreshadowed his death and resurrection, his disciples probably just ignored it. As we saw last week, Mary, Peter, and John originally thought someone had stolen Jesus’ body.
That’s where we begin today. Shortly after seeing the empty tomb some (but not all) the disciples were gathered. John tells us that “they locked the doors for fear of the Jews” and that demands some context. We live in a time that has raised victimhood nearly to sacramental levels. Not to put too fine a point on this, but large swaths of our society find perverse superiority in claiming that others are at fault for what we don’t have. And for centuries Christians have pointed to this and other passages in John’s Gospel and incorrectly claimed that the Jews killed Christ. But this Gospel was written at a specific time to a specific audience. Last week I spoke about how Jesus’ early followers expected, or at least hoped, that all Jews would embrace Jesus as the Messiah, and many didn’t. But both Jews and followers of Jesus continued to live and worship together. Eventually, around the year 85, Jesus’ disciples were expelled, and this is around the time John wrote his Gospel. This wasn’t a good time for either group as the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans about a decade before, but it gives some context for enmity between the two groups. It was never meant to justify anti-Semitism.
In any case, we can only imagine the scene “in the evening of that same day.” Alas, we don’t know exactly who was there, only that Thomas was not. I think they were all trying to make sense of these unbelievable events: they followed a man who claimed to be the Messiah, he was arrested and executed by the Romans, and three days later the tomb was empty. We have no details about the conversation in the room but it’s safe to say that there was not uniform agreement over what happened. And then Jesus appeared. And they saw and believed. I can think of no words that could describe the euphoria, the relief, the emotion of that moment.
But that’s not the end of the story. I’m certain our friend (and my namesake) Thomas regretted that he was not there. He didn’t have the opportunity to share that experience, he was only told about it. Years ago I was reading a book by a learned rabbi. He was asked about Jesus’ resurrection and why he didn’t believe it was true. He said this: “I think the followers of Jesus were so devastated by his death that they dreamed of his resurrection and convinced themselves and each other that it was true.”
Perhaps that’s where Thomas was. He certainly wanted to believe but it’s almost as if he dared not. He wanted to be the saint that we now revere (though is cursed to spend all eternity known as the “doubting Thomas”). He wanted it all to be true, but simply hearing about it wasn’t enough.
I think he did what many of us would do. In grammer school we were told about the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Our brain gains understanding of the world through these five portals, but they are not all the same. Those gathered saw Jesus with their eyes (they were, in modern parlance, eyewitnesses) and believed, but for Thomas sound was not enough. It wasn’t enough to hear about Jesus, and it wasn’t enough for Thomas to even see Jesus. He demanded touch. Thomas demanded that he touch the places where the nails were pounded into Jesus. Ironically, when Jesus did appear to Thomas and offer his wounds, Thomas reverted back to sight and proclaimed “My Lord and my God.”
And what of us? After praising Thomas, Jesus blessed those who have not seen and yet believed. He’s talking about us. We have not seen Jesus, and yet we still believe. Why do we?
Those who witnessed the resurrected Jesus are known as the Apostles. As much gratitude as they may have had they also recognized they had the responsibility to pass along their experience. They knew that those who came after them would never have what they had: the resurrected Jesus in their eyes. But they were able to tell the story of Jesus in a way that their descendants would believe.
Today we celebrate their success. The first people who told me about Jesus were my parents. When I was in first grade they enrolled me in CCD (that’s Catholic for Sunday School) where I was taught by other adults in the church. I didn’t go to Catholic School until my 3rd year of college.
I like to think that these readings call us to believe the unbelieveable and then teach it. The concept of a God who becomes human, subjects himself to death, rises from the dead, and redeems the entire world makes no sense.
And yet our senses tells us it’s true.