The world of Easter bunnies and fancy eggs has moved on, but the Church continues to celebrate the Resurrection with an account from the Gospel of John which has two points for our reflection.
Luke, the evangelist who is also the author of Acts, presents the ideal picture of the community of the first Christians after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. They emphasize the importance of Jesus’ rising which the disciples began to proclaim after Pentecost. The community cared for the needs of each other and made all their personal resources available as needed. ‘Holding all things in common’ does not seem as practical for the much larger worldwide church we live in, although it has been practiced by many religious groups within the church. Luke’s picture is, however, a challenge to modern Christians to be aware of the needs of those around us, and to consider how to share any abundance we are lucky enough to have. It is both an individual challenge: am I doing all I could do to respond to the nearly overwhelming needs modern world news brings to us daily? C. S. Lewis wisely said that it is ‘safer’ to ask if there is more we are called to do than what we have been doing. Secondly, to ask in our communities, are we working together doing the best we can?
Psalm 117:2-4, 15-18, 22-24
The psalm emphasizes the everlasting love of God. Some verses pick up the themes of Easter, with Christ’s ‘raising up’ and the lines that Jesus quoted about himself, with the metaphor of the stone that was rejected becoming the foundation stone of the new community of God.
1 John 5:1-6
The three Letters of John have a relation to the Gospel of John, though it is not entirely clear what this is, nor even who is the author of either book. In the body of this First Letter, the writer is concerned with divisions within the community and also with countering the views of outsiders who have different ideas of Jesus the author feels are dangerous to take on. This probably includes those who thought Jesus only had the ‘appearance’ of humanity, and was not fully human and others who did not believe he was God. Both aspects of the Incarnation are stressed here.
Also important in all the ‘Johannine’ writings – those labelled as ‘John’ – is the commandment to love one and another as God has loved us. In so doing, we ‘overcome the world’ in its hostility or indifference to the needs of others.
The ‘water and blood’ are a reminder of the moment after Jesus’ death when, the Gospel of John tells us, a soldier pierced Jesus’ side and both water and blood flowed out. Symbolically, water often relates to the Holy Spirit, and blood to Jesus’ saving death. Here there may also be a sacramental reference to baptism and the Eucharist.
This is probably the original conclusion to John’s gospel, as there are signs the last chapter in our Bibles is a later addition. It brings us in as the heirs to the power of the resurrection and leaves us with the challenge of carrying on its message of love and salvation. The action takes place on two ‘first days of the week’, which is our Sunday which now replaces the seventh day Jewish Sabbath as our day of worship. John does not explain just how Jesus ‘came and stood among them’, though clearly it was not in the normal way of our everyday world. Some interpret it as his risen body being able to penetrate solid doors, others as simply appearing there before them. The first appearance in this selection shows Jesus giving the Spirit to those assembled here, as he promised in his ‘farewell address’ in the Last Supper. As earlier in Matthew, the emphasis here is passing on the power to forgive sins. Jesus’ breathing’ on them is a dramatic enacting of the double meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit, which come from their words for ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. This is lost in English, but gives us a sense of the reality of ‘spirit’ that can’t be seen but is felt, and known by its effects.
The famous story of Thomas has given our culture the phrase ‘doubting Thomas’, but the evangelist is not so much stressing his doubt as emphasizing that all those who were not present in the actual time of Jesus’ resurrection are nevertheless by belief able to live with awareness of his presence among us. There is a drama in the scene, but without all details. Did Thomas speak his faith only after putting his hands on the wounds? This is a common interpretation in art. I prefer the idea that Thomas by encountering Jesus standing before him, give up his demand and was overwhelmed by this Presence. This leads him to acknowledge the one before him in the phrase still used in prayer: ‘My Lord and my God!’ This scene has for future generations made clear the physical reality of the resurrected Jesus – they were not seeing a ‘ghost’ or a spirit, but one with a new kind of human body. This also profoundly changes the nature of what we mean by God, from then on the ‘incarnate’ or human body of Jesus at the heart of the Trinity.
Several times in John’s stories of the Resurrection what is important is a personal encounter, ‘one-to-one’ between a disciple and the Lord. Mary Magdalene does not recognise Jesus till he calls her by name. Peter three times is given the opportunity to show the humility he learned from his three denials. And Thomas who wants some tangible ‘proof’ that he will be the judge of is led to see that what really matters is to accept Jesus for who he is. Other personal moments are found throughout this Gospel and all these show that what matters for a disciple is not to give some mental assent to ‘dogma’ but to take Jesus into the depths of their own lives. The last words remind us that all written in the Gospels can be relied on for what they tell us about Jesus. That, the Evangelist thinks, may not satisfy our desire for historical details, but is enough for us to find our new life in relationship with Christ.