“THOMAS WAS NOT WITH THEM ...”
April 23rd, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A. Acts 2:42-47;
John 20: 29-31.
AIM: To help the hearers better appreciate the communal dimension of faith.
“Thomas, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.” Where was he? We don’t know. One Easter, a few years ago, a man struggling with alcoholism suggested to me that Thomas may have been so devastated by Jesus’ crucifixion that he went on a week-long drinking binge. That’s not impossible.
While Thomas may have been looking for Jesus on his own, Jesus himself was appearing to the apostles “on the evening of that first day of the week”, as we have just heard in our gospel reading. The first day of the week was Sunday. For Jesus, as for all his friends, the climax of the week was not Sunday, but the day before, the Sabbath. The third of the Ten Commandments ordered God’s people to keep the Sabbath holy, by resting from unnecessary work. In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict writes: “It is clear that only an event of extraordinary impact could have led to the abandonment of the Sabbath and its replacement by the first day of the week. Only an event that marked souls indelibly could bring about such a profound realignment in the religious culture of the week.” (p. 259) That was why the earliest Christians designated Sunday as “the Lord’s day.” It was the day, his friends recognized, on which the risen Lord came to be with his people, gathered to hear the word of God, and to receive the bread of life.
On the evening of that first Lord’s day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas was absent. He did not see Jesus until he joined the other apostles a week later. Then he uttered what many scripture scholars believe may have been the last words spoken by any of Jesus’ disciples in the original version of
John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!” The words come
at the end of chapter 20. Scripture scholars believe that chapter 21, which
follows, is an appendix, added to the original version later, possibly by
Thomas’s experience has an important lesson for us. We normally encounter Jesus not one-on-one, but when we gather with our brothers and sisters in the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church. Purely personal encounters with the Lord — such as that enjoyed by Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection, by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that afternoon, or by the apostle Paul outside
— are exceptions, not the norm. And
when they do occur, such one-on-one encounters are never just for the
individual, to give that person a great spiritual experience. Down through
history Jesus comes to specially chosen souls so that they can go to others as
his witnesses, empowered by him to say: “I have seen the
Who are the Thomases in our world today, seeking the Lord on their own? There are many – people who are sincerely seeking the Lord, but who prefer to do so apart from the worshiping and believing community. Religion, they say, is personal and private. In that they are right — but only half right. The religion of Jesus Christ is personal. But it is not private. People who neglect the communal dimension of our faith are constructing a private religion of their own, and a private church. They need to learn the lesson Thomas learned: that the Lord comes first and foremost when we are gathered together with our fellow believers.
Our Christian and Catholic faith is not a private me-and-God affair. Jesus teaches us this in the one prayer he gave us. It begins not “My Father,” but “Our Father.” We pray as members of a community. We need each other. We believe not as isolated individuals, but as members of the family into which we were reborn in baptism: the Catholic Church. That is how the apostle Thomas came to faith in the risen Lord: when he rejoined his fellow apostles.
Nor is faith something we can summon up on our own. It is a gift. And the Lord uses his Church to give us this gift. It is in the Church, moreover, that our faith is nourished. Here is how the Catechism explains it: “Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others.”
And the Catechism continues: “Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in their faith.” [No. 166]
Let me close with a personal statement of faith. If I am a believing Christian today, and happy to be a priest – indeed not just happy, but overjoyed – it is because I grew up from earliest childhood in a world, and an atmosphere, in which private prayer and public worship were as normal and natural a part of everyday life as eating and sleeping. Faith in Jesus Christ was given to me long before I could understand the words which express our faith: the creed and the other formularies of faith which the Church gives us.
What a blessing that was! But the Lord gave me more. At age twelve he put into my heart the desire to be a priest. There was no gestation period, no thinking it over, no “discernment.” One day it was not there. The next day it appeared, as a fully formed and settled decision which I never afterward questioned. I told my classmates about it. So from age twelve I have been called Father. As I passed through my teens, I thought, each time I served Mass: “One day I’ll stand there. I’ll say those words. I’ll wear those vestments.”
It was thirteen years before I could do that. I made the required retreat before ordination, and went to confession. After I had poured out the sorry tale of my sins, the priest, a holy monk, said to me, before giving me absolution: “You’re taking a tremendous gamble, offering yourself to God as a priest. And the Lord is taking an even bigger gamble, accepting you.” That was just over sixty-three years ago. But I’ve never forgotten it. As I look back over those years, I realize that I have failed the Lord times without number. But the Lord has never failed me: not one single day, not one single hour or minute.
And so I ask you now to do what I have done. Look into your own heart, and look back over your life. Then see if you cannot say the same: “I have failed the Lord time and again. But the Lord has never failed me: not one single day, not one single hour or minute.”