Scripture notes – 2nd Sunday of Easter – Year B – 7th April 2024: ‘Divine Mercy’ Sunday

The liturgy continues to celebrate the Resurrection, with various biblical accounts of the appearances of Jesus, unexpected, mysterious, but bringing peace and love. This Sunday is ‘Divine Mercy’ Sunday; and in a year when an unprecedented number in our country are suffering greater financial hardship, the first reading is a powerful declaration of what ‘mercy’ can mean in a community context.

The readings are available online here.

Acts 4:32-35
Luke, the evangelist who is also the author of Acts, presents his understanding of what the ideal Christian community looks like, in the form of the earliest community after Pentecost. By now the community would number in the thousands, by his own account in the previous passages of Acts. As their outward focus, they emphasise the importance of Jesus’ rising as their ‘testimony’ or ‘witness’. Within the community, they are focused on caring for each other so that no one goes without, and sharing to a remarkable degree which later larger Christian communities would struggle with. (Indeed, Luke immediately goes on to depict God striking dead Ananias and Sapphira for lying and holding back some of their property! [Acts 5:1-11.])

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. Phrases such as ‘I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done’,  ‘He has not given me over to death’ clearly resonate with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and echo Easter themes.

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, which many scholars believe was written to a community in conflict, this 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. The opening sentence is targeted at the ‘false teachers’ – if they do not believe in Jesus’ divine sonship, they themselves are not children of God; and if they truly loved God they would love his Son. Here after Easter, the sentence addresses the key import of Jesus’ resurrection in establishing his divine sonship.

The second verse follows beautifully from the first reading of Acts: here is speaks in an elevated way of loving one another; just as we saw in Acts what this means in practice – caring for each other’s needs. The writer of this letter adds that loving God is the foundation for loving each other; and loving God is found in fidelity to his commandments. As Jesus made clear in his earthly life, love of God and neighbour are the greatest of the commandments. And John’s depiction of Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper shows him saying ‘if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.’

This letter picks up also on the same discourse, when Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper that he has overcome the world. Now the writer tells the early Christians that they too ‘overcome the world’ by believing Jesus is the Son of God. – ‘The world’ in John is always negative; and it does not mean the beautiful planet Earth that God created; but the social ‘world’ of aggression, temptation, sin, rejection. In the context of the letter, this is again addressing the issue of false teaching about the nature of Jesus. In our church cycle of readings, it is addressing the foundation of our faith in Jesus’ divine sonship established by his resurrection.

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.

John 20:19-31

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 now replacing 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 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 ‘breath’ as an image 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 people 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. 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, gave up his demand and was simple overwhelmed by the reality of 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.

Other personal moments of ‘one to one’ with Jesus 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 for what they tell us about Jesus. That, the Evangelist thinks, may not satisfy our desire for all the historical details, but is enough for us to find our new life in relationship with Christ.

Joan Griffith/GGD

Suggestions for prayer or reflection:

    • Have you ever stopped to think what your ‘ideal Christian community’ would look like? Does it include Luke’s idea of caring for each other’s material needs, sharing possessions? Does it have features Luke does not mention?
    • What’s one thing you could do to move your community in that direction?
      What’s one thing you need someone else to do to benefit your community? Can you ask – or inspire – them to do it?
    • If you have your one-to-one moment of intimacy with newly-risen Jesus – as Thomas has here, or a few disciples had as they walked to Emmaus (next week’s Gospel) – what would you ask him, what would he answer? Or what is it he would ask or say to you?
    • What do I – or my family – or my community most need as ‘divine mercy’ or compassion? Can I pray for it to be granted, or can I also do something to enable it?