Bishop Hugh’s sermon delivered 2nd Sunday of Easter during online Mass streamed from St Joseph’s Parish House, Aberdeen.
“Jesus came and stood among them.”
Fortunately, neither grave stones nor closed doors are an obstacle to the risen Christ.
“He came and stood among them.” And because the liturgy overrides time and space, we can say, “He comes and stands among us.” He can even use the virtual.
At the Easter Vigil Gospel (St. Matthew this year), Jesus only appears at the end, and fleetingly, to the few faithful women. At the Easter Day Gospel, he doesn’t appear at all. First Mary Magdalen discovers the empty tomb, then Peter and the beloved disciple. There is no appearance.
Today the 8th day of Easter, we are treated to two appearances: one on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, and one eight days later, equivalently today. Today is a second Easter day, allowing us to catch up, as it were. If Easter has seemed to pass us by, if we missed it like Thomas, here is our second chance. And there is something special about these two appearances. On most other occasions, Jesus appears to individuals or to twos or threes, or once to a septet. It happens in a garden, or on a road, or later by a shore. He can be hard to recognize, he’s sometimes abrupt: “don’t hang on to me – off you go to the disciples”.
But these two appearances are different.
“He came and stood among them.” He appears even though the doors are closed. He stands in the middle of them, says the Greek, in their midst – to show he was one of them, says St Thomas Aquinas. There is something warm here, but it’s formal too. This is an appearance to the disciples as a gathered group, as the original Christian community, the first Church. It is probably happening in the Upper Room, where he had instituted the Eucharist, washed their feet, said so many deep things. He greets them, presents himself, shows his wounds. He breathes on them, conveys the Holy Spirit, and sends them on their mission to forgive (or retain) sins. Something solemn is afoot.
“He came and stood among them.”
We can put ourselves in the Upper Room, in the presence of Jesus risen from the dead.
And what happens?
Three times, he says, “Peace be with you.” Three times because disciples are often short on peace. In the Jewish setting, this greeting means: “May everything good be yours, may everything be good for you.” But because it is said by Jesus, it’s more than “may”; it’s more than a wish. The greeting does what it says. He fulfils the promise of the Last Supper: peace is my bequest to you. It reminds me of the three-fold repetition in Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”. He is implicitly assuring them their sins are forgiven, and that he has conquered both sin and death. I’m reminded of a story from a cancer ward in an Irish hospital. Two young priests were being treated. They would say the Divine Office together. Once, the one of them who would die, was in such pain, that he couldn’t go on. He closed his eyes for 20 minutes and went completely pale. When he opened his eyes again, it was clear he was still in pain. But he just said to his companion, “Paul, I know the peace that Christ gives.”
“Jesus came and stood among them…and he showed them his hands and his side.”
The Resurrection didn’t cancel what had gone before. It is deeper than that. The risen Christ includes his human past. He literally incorporates it. It is written into him, part of him forever. None of the goodness, none of the love, no fruit of the suffering is lost, nothing of his nature or nurture, his inheritance, his experience. Pain is no more, he is “glorified”, but he still has his wounds. And he shows them. This is not a small thing. It has large lessons for us. And it brings us to another feature of today: Thomas.
Earlier in the Gospel of John, there’s a moment when Jesus says he will be going towards Jerusalem. Thomas comments, “Let’s go too, to die with him” (Jn 11:16). The words reveal the man. There’s attachment to Jesus, there, and bravery. Realism; I almost said pessimism. Something rather Scottish actually. Looking on the bright side is not his strong point. He’s of the glass half empty school. He can’t see a happy ending for Jesus. And, after the Resurrection, he can’t join in the breathless enthusiasm of the other disciples. He’s an empiricist. He wants tangible evidence. “Come on”, they say; “we saw him.” But he shakes his lowered head, probably annoyed by their happiness, stubbornly repeating,“No, I won’t believe.” Somewhere St Gregory the Great says that Jesus’ wounds healed the wound in Thomas, the wound of his unbelief. At the risk of being speculative, it’s hard not to feel that, for whatever reasons, because of whatever experiences, he was a wounded man. He couldn’t trust others. He couldn’t get beyond his own disillusioned take on how life turns out. Perhaps he had seen too many hopes dashed or good causes trashed. And the Passion had proved him right, and his own inglorious, fugitive part in it as well.
“Eight days later…Jesus came and stood among them… [Thomas], put your finger here…give me your hand…Doubt no longer, but believe.” “By his wounds, we are healed.” By his wounds, Thomas was healed of his wound: of his sadness, of his sense of the dark. Jesus had gone into the dark and brought light out of it. So, in the face of this, known by Jesus to the very depth, it falls to Thomas, at the end of the Gospel of John, to be the first disciple to say, “My Lord and my God”. Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. St John Chrysostom, speaking of this Gospel, says, “Reflect on the mercy of the Lord”. He came this second time just for Thomas, just to reclaim him. “He showed himself with his wounds just to save one soul”, says Chrysostom, “just one” and – rather unkindly – “the most crass of them all.” Well, if so, there’s hope for us all! Glorified wounds.
“Jesus came and stood among them.”