Lectionary commentary: second Sunday of Easter, year A
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 2:42-47
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 118:2-4. 13-15. 22-24. R/. v. 1
A reading from the letter from the first letter of St. Peter, 1:3-9
A reading from the Gospel according to John, 20:19-31
During the days of Easter, days that take us through Ascension to Pentecost Sunday, the Lectionary strains to nourish our hearts and minds with thoughts of resurrection. In truth, the Gospel accounts of what happened as the first Easter day dawned are confusing. The earlier the Gospel, the scantier the information.
A Brief Look: Mark
Mark, the first of our Gospels to be written, provides an account of devote women setting out to anoint the body of the crucified Jesus. They are confronted by a young man who reported that “he has risen” and bid the women to “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee”. But, seized by trembling and astonishment”, the women flee the scene and said nothing to anyone. Here endeth the Gospel according to Saint Mark.
Matthew, clearly indebted to Mark but ploughing his own furrow, is more expansive. He records that the men appointed to guard the tomb became as dead men when the earth quaked and an angel appeared. The women are bidden to hasten to tell his disciples that “he has risen from the dead” and “he is going before you to Galilee”. The women depart from the tomb “with fear and great joy” to tell his disciples. But they are met and greeted by Jesus and they worship him. Jesus repeats the message of the angel” “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me”. The worshipping and doubtful disciples go to Galilee and receive the commission to make disciples of all nations. Throughout Matthew’s report there is a repeated emphasis on Galilee.
Luke adds to our confusion. Having received a helpful reminder of the teaching of Jesus from “the two men in dazzling apparel”, the women report to “the apostles”. But “they did not believe them”. Peter runs to the tomb, sees the burial cloths, and “went home marvelling at what had happened”. A somewhat enigmatic conclusion.
Then Luke provides the wonderful story of what happened on the way to Emmaus and around the table where bread was broken. However, when Cleopas and his companion (his wife?) excitedly return to tell the tale in Jerusalem, their enthusiasm (and ours) is blunted as they are told that “the Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon”. Unhelpfully, Luke, the great storyteller, neglects to provide an account of this notable appearance to Simon. Notice that Peter has turned into Simon.
More challenging to the careful reader is that the Risen Lord, expressly tells “the eleven and all the rest” to “stay in the city” (Jerusalem) “until you are clothed with power from on high”. And, strangest of all, we have an ascension where “he departed from them and was carried up into heaven”. The waiting period is filled with prayer and joy:
And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the Temple blessing God”.
All of which offers careful Gospel readers no insight to prepare them for the idiosyncratic accounts laid before us in the Gospel according to John. The stories in the final pages of the Fourth (and last) Gospel are dramatic, full of exquisite detail, rich in amazing characters (think of Mary Magdalene, Thomas the Twin, and Simon, son of John, the one whose love is subject to much scrutiny), and, as we shall see below, come to readers and hearers with very considerable theological weight. To add to our confusion, the Risen Lord appears in Jerusalem and in Galilee.
Psalm 118: a Psalm of Clarification
Our Lectionary jumps from Gospel to Gospel, unable to provide continuity, for there is no continuity between our Gospel accounts. Pity the preacher who tries to stitch the incidents in each of the four Gospels into a coherent storyline.
However, all s not lost. There is a singularly helpful inclusion in our Lectionary of these Easter days that must not go unnoticed. It is the use of Psalm 118 as the Responsorial Psalm, repeatedly offered to us to urge that we go behind the scenes as it were and discover what God is about in these blessed days.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 2:42-47 All devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The word of the Lord.
We have jumped backwards from chapter 10 of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles (our first reading last week) to chapter 2, thus disregarding the order of events constructed by the author. The Lectionary seems determined to present impressions or snapshots of what emerged as Luke unfolds his version of the development of Jesus communities in Jerusalem from Pentecost Day and beyond. What readers and hearers of Luke’s story must appreciate is that what he presents is what, in his view, happened after Pentecost Day. However in our Lectionary we have these events presented as occurring after the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, readers and hearers will make allowances and adjust their perspective. This is all the more important when Luke pauses to present pictures of the early Christian communities as he understood them. He does not always offer the processes by which what emerged came to be. Sometimes the Lectionary slips in its own “helpful” additions to “clarify” the text of St. Luke. This happens in today’s reading in the Jerusalem Bible version of the text. This often puts the reading into a prospective that does not help in trying to understand what Luke is about.
First, our reading today makes no reference to the context. Luke presents the detailed address of St. Peter on Pentecost Day to “the men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:14). His preaching was not universally accepted but,
… those who received his word were baptised, and there were added that day about three hundred souls. And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
Peter had taken “what was uttered through the prophet Joel” and elaborated on how, in the last days, (for Peter the days following Pentecost) God will “pour out my Spirit on all flesh”. This is what Luke’s Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles, read as two volumes of one book, are about. The Spirit that had oversight over the people of Israel, the Spirit that infused the utterances of the prophets, the Spirit of the Lord that rested on Jesus, is the same Spirit that creates, sustains, and constantly leads the community of Christian churches to be what God intends. The Gospel of Luke is not an historical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Acts of the Apostles is not a history of the Early Church. This one volume is about the world God’s Holy Spirit in God’s creation. Luke’s writings are prophetic, that is to say, they are intended so to guide the churches that they will forever and forever become the arena of God’s Holy and prophetical Spirit. It is from this perspective that we must seek to understand how the Spirit speaks to the churches in every age. Each reading from Luke in this Easter period is a challenge to the churches to examine whether what impels them is the Holy Spirit or merely a preservation of the past. Each reading from Gospel and Acts is a challenge to the churches to be prophetical. Luke does not invite those who hear his voice to live in the past but to discern the call of the Spirit to proclaim to the nations the love and mercy of God.
For the moment it is worth noting that Luke operates like any of his fellow contemporary Greek historians. He relates activities and events and then he puts speeches in the mouths of his characters to provide his interpretation of what he has just narrated. In turn, he then (usually) outlines the consequences of what has been done and said. These are often expectations of what he insists ought to be the outcome of both the activities recorded and the interpretation offered in the speeches. This may seem complicated but it will prove to be of great value in understanding what Luke is about in both his writings. We will have occasion to benefit from this understanding of Luke’s methods as we meet him in our Easter Gospels.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 118:2-4. 13-15. 22-24. R/. v. 1
R/. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Alleluia, Alleluia ,Alleluia.
Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.” R/.
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous. R/.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it. R/.
Psalm 118 provides many of our Sunday Masses in Eastertime with a Responsorial Psalm. So often do its words enrich our song that it is hardly an exaggeration to describe it as our Easter Song. Each quotation is slightly different from the others. None, of course, employs the whole of Psalm 118 but what we sing is enough to teach us why we have an Easter to celebrate, to proclaim, and to live.
What we learn is that all that has happened, all that comes to humanity because of what has happened, have been done by God. If we have learned to give thanks, to be grateful for gifts received, then our thanks must be given to God, to the Lord who is good. All that has been done, all that has been won, come from the heart of the one whose steadfast love endures forever. Of course we sing, Christ the Lord is risen today! Of course, Jesus is Lord of the Dance! But step back. Step back to the origin of all our wellbeing, all our faith, all our hope, and all our promises. Everything is rooted and grounded in the steadfast love that endures forever.
Our Easter Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 118, tells all we know and all we need to know. The beginning and end of humanity is love, not condemnation, not punishment, not exile, not abandonment, not settling of scores, not exacting the last penny, not hell, not purgatory. All we need is love and love is all we get - from the one whose steadfast love endures forever. The constant words to the women around the empty tomb echo for all eternity:
Do no be afraid!
A Reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
The word of the Lord.
An extended introduction to the First Letter of Peter may not be strictly required to explain today’s second reading. However, a naïve assumption that the Apostle Peter, the first of the Twelve to be chosen by Jesus, and the power (according to St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles) of the first Christian mission in Jerusalem, wrote this letter will lead one astray. A paragraph or two may add to confusion but it will be educated confusion.
As early as around 300 A.D. a bishop and an historian named Eusebius, produced a work called History of the Church. He indicated that there were a number of writings in the New Testament that were “general”, in the sense that it was not clear for whom they were intended and by whom they were written. These “general” or “catholic” indicated that these writings were addressed to the Church at large and, as such were widely used throughout the churches. He included Second Peter in this anonymous group. But he seems to have been convinced that St. Peter was the author of the first letter attached to his name. This conviction is now almost universally abandoned. First Peter, it is agreed, was not written by Saint Peter, the first of the Twelve to be chosen by Jesus. If for no other reason, the excellence of the Greek in which the letter is written, the extensive vocabulary and the frequency of quotations from the Greek Septuagint do not suggest that the letter was written by a Galilean fisherman.
However, there is general agreement that the letter came from Rome and was sent to Christians in the east of the Roman province of Asia Minor. As the letter says in its first sentence, its recipients were the “elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”. There is a Jewish flavour to the Christianity reflected in First Peter and this would be in accord with the conservative elements that were, it seems, espoused by St. Peter (in Acts and in Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians). In short, Christians in Rome who espoused a Jewish understanding of Christian faith wrote to their brothers and sisters in the east. The recipients were not exclusively or even mostly Jews. They were people who, whatever their background, Jew or Gentile, espoused a significantly Jewish understanding of faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever their background, these folk who were hitherto “no people” are “now God’s people” (First Peter 2:10) and “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”.
What we have is a letter from Jewish orientated Christians in Rome, inheritors of the faith of St. Peter, to Christians of a similar hue in eastern Asia Minor, offering solidarity and good counsel to brothers and sisters, who like the senders, were, because of the faith, on the margins of society.
Every Christian community, if it is true to its foundations in God and our Lord Christ Jesus, inevitably lives on the margins, not absorbed by the passing cultures of worldly fashions. Christians are called to see creation through God’s eyes and this is never compatible with the ways of the world. In this sense, every little church is at one with “the living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious” (First Peter 2:4).
Born to hope
The reading from First Peter today is an extraordinary paragraph of rejoicing in the realisation that what God has done is to fill the world with hope. It is a glorious portrait of what God’s mercy has given to the world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In delivering the Son from the realm of the dead, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given hope to all humanity.
Those who believe live for a little grieved by various trials but the future does not belong to pain and distress. For what has been revealed in the Father’s deliverance of the Son is an inexpressible glory, “the salvation of your souls”, that is, the re-creation of our whole humanity into the image of God.
In what is an extravagantly long single Greek sentence (verses 3 to 9), the author balances the joy of what is to come with the distress and pain of the present time. Indeed, it is necessary to endure suffering (verse 6) for in that imitation of the suffering of Christ there resides the sure and certain hope of a future “with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory”.
Today’s reading has in the past been regarded as a hymn. Few, if any, would hold to that opinion today. But it is a paragraph that fills those who believe with the joy of God’s strategy. For Christians can see God’s love in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. They can see, too, that their trials and tribulations are instrumental in placing the challenge of the gospel firmly before the world.
A reading from the Gospel according to John, 20:19-31
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The Gospel of the Lord.
The Gospel according to John is different from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. From the first sentence to the last, John stands apart. Mark begins with Jesus of Nazareth, baptised by John, openly proclaiming the gospel of God in Galilee (Mark 1:14). Matthew and Luke begin with the announcement of a conception and birth, that of Jesus and, in Luke’s case, that of John. John’s Gosepl begins before the dawning of time in the deep mists of eternity. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke Jesus speaks about God, about the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks mainly about himself. Even the death is different. For whereas the crucifixion in Mark, Matthew, and Luke is the work of treacherous friends and sworn enemies, the cross in John is that Gospel’s greatest sign. The “raising up” on the cross to the glory of the Father is at the very heart of all we read in that glorious text.
There is another difference that confronts preachers who seek to speak the word from the four lectionaries currently serving Christian Churches. There are three years, one each devoted to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is no year of John, merely selections from that Gospel, interspersed with the other three. Thus John has no independent voice; rather that Gospel is used as a complement to the others, not as an independent voice or existence. It is harsh but true: John’s Gospel has been reduced to a prop and is never cast to appear centre stage.
All this is true. Yet all of chapters 20 and 21, from the first day of the week when Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb to the rather saccharine last sentence (John 21:25) are scattered throughout the Sundays of Easter. The impact of these chapters is thus seriously diminished but not, thank God, beyond recovery.
The Easter Sunday Mass of the Day bids us hear the visit of Mary to the tomb and all that happens there as she meets her beloved teacher. The remaining excerpts from John’s resurrection stories concern the disciples and what happens when Jesus comes among them. There is general agreement among scholars that chapter 21 is an addition to John’s Gospel (and written by someone other that the author(s) of all that had gone before). But, like most of chapter 20, it concerns itself with the disciples and with instruction of concerning their future discipleship and so there is unity of a kind, even if it is hardly scintillatingly dramatic.
Behind locked doors
The stories of appearances of Jesus that follow the meeting with Mary Magdalene have a recognisable common structure. This may be recognised in how each story is developed. Three questions are posed in each event:
What did Jesus take away? What did Jesus give? What sign is in each story?
It is important to be aware of the setting of each of the incidents. The first appearance of Jesus to the disciples takes place in an atmosphere of fear. There are locked doors. Within are disciples of Jesus overcome with “fear of the Jews”. Though doors are locked, “Jesus came and stood among them”. His first words removed fear:
Peace be with you.
Peace instantly replaces fear and “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord”. To confirm the transformation from fear to glad tranquillity, Jesus repeats,
Peace be with you.
Peace breaks into John’s Gospel in chapter 14 when Jesus is engaged in his final and extensive teaching of his disciples. Having washed their feet and explained the meaning of that extraordinary act of love, there was much to explain. But while enlightenment must be left to the Holy Spirit, there is, in his final words, a promise:
Peace I leave you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give do I give to you.
The final words of the long address (John 14:1 to 16:33) to his bewildered disciples are these:
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
The gift of peace is not simply the removal of fear. It is the sure and certain conviction that the peace given by Jesus and sustained by the Holy Spirit is peace with and from God. It is peace that cannot be undone and cannot be gainsaid by the dark ways of the world.
However the peace that God in Jesus gives is not a safe haven from the ways of the world. To be in God’s peace is to share in God’s responsibility for the world. Disciples have to become people who are sent:
As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.
Of course disciples are not sent naked into the world. They are not called to be Jesus in the world without divine strength:
Receive the Holy Spirit.
With God’s peace comes responsibility. Disciples must be messengers of forgiveness.
To sum up,
What then is taken away is fear.
What is given is peace.
The sign is the transformation of locked doors.
Forgiveness: given and withheld
For the last two thousand years Christians of every hue have discussed the matter of forgiveness as enjoined on the disciples. There is no agreement as to what Jesus meant. To be sure, that Christian churches must proclaim God’s forgiveness is hardly open to doubt. It is the meaning of withholding forgiveness that causes discussion, shedding more heat than light. While an extensive account of the debates is not appropriate here I would suggest the following factors that ought to be considered.
First, in the text of John’s Gospel Jesus is speaking to frightened disciples who have been transformed by God-given peace. There are no apostles in John’s Gospel (the word never occurs there). Disciples are those whose feet have been washed, whose fear has been overcome, and whose lives are delivered into peace. That is to say, all who are aligned to the enterprise of Jesus in the world must do as Jesus did (and does) in the name and power of the Father. The word “forgive” occurs nowhere in John’s Gospel except in this sentence. But if we listen to what Jesus says, if we observe what he does, we will come to know what disciples must do if they are to give to the world the peace that has been given them. To those who believed in him Jesus said,
If you abide in my word, you are my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
The word of Jesus is true and its destiny is to set people free, to undo fear and to make peace. Indeed, the man sent by God whose name was John (John 1:6) bore witness:
Behold! the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
The business of Jesus, the business of disciples, is to unburden the world of its sin, to expose sin to God’s light, to recognise its destructive force, and to invite the world to be born again into eternal life, not in the hereafter, but in the now of our lives (see John 3:1-15).
But do not stop when you have read as far as 3:15. Meditate on what comes next:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
We must begin here: God so loved the world. God’s light in the world exposes the darkness of the world. To prefer that darkness to light is to fly in the face of the truth that sets human beings free.
Perhaps the words of Matthew’s prayer of the Lord may help us to understand:
Forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us.
Forgiveness is powerless where there is no understanding of what it means to be forgiven. To be forgiven is to experience God; to forgive is to act with the graciousness of God.
Perhaps the locked doors may furnish a clue. The risen Jesus passes through the locked doors. They are locked yet he passes through. They have locked in fear. But fear cannot resist the peace that Jesus gives. The only thing that can withstand that peace is a locked heart, a closed door, and the fear that is afraid of the responsibility of forgiveness.
Thomas the Twin
Thomas, one of the Twelve, is full of doubt and without faith. He is so full of doubt that he must see the nails, must place his fingers into the mark of the nails and into his side as well. Otherwise, says Thomas, “I will never believe”.
Don’t miss a little detail: “the doors were locked”. Peace is not made in a day. Even eight days after meeting the Lord the doors were locked. The disciples need and receive another empowerment of peace. Again, what Jesus brings to the locked room is peace: Peace be with you!
Will this gift of peace make its way into the shut heart of Thomas? The Lord invites him to inspect his hands and side. What Jesus takes away is disbelief: “I will never believe!” (John 20:25).
The image is of the wounds carried into resurrection by Jesus. What was achieved in the breaking of that body is not left in the past but is carried into eternity by the one Thomas now recognises as “My Lord and my God”. Blessed are those who have not had the privilege granted Thomas and who believe on hearing the word of the Gospel proclaimed.
Thomas’s exclamation of “My Lord and my God” is the climax of the Gospel according to John. The Gospel ends with this confession of faith that stands not only for the conversion of Thomas to the truth. It stands as a summary and conclusion of all that has gone before. In the Gospel’s opening sentence readers and hearers learned that the Word was with God, indeed, the Word was God. Now this Word has become flesh. But it is torn flesh. It is wounded flesh. The Word was God, to be sure. But it is the Word who has been crucified and who stands before the world with a broken body, a body whose hands and side forever witness to the truth: there is no greater love than that which lays down life for friends (see John 15:13).
What we have is,
Doubt dispersed. Faith created.
The Last Word
This magnificent ending, unlike the uninspiring ending at John 21:22, emphasizes that everything in John’s Gospel is a sign, not just the seven signs from Cana to Bethany. Everything that Jesus did, says John, is a sign. Every word spoken, every deed done proclaim that the Word that dwelt amongst us is Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, and that the gift he brings to all who believed in his name (1:12), and to all believing still, is life. Truly, of his fullness we have all received.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.