Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:12-16 | Revelations 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19 | John 20:19-31
God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose blood they have been redeemed. We ask this through Christ our Lord, amen.
The focus of this first Sunday after Easter is divine mercy. Another word for that is love. A more appropriate word for my words that I want you to listen to is that these gifts that redemption won for us are somehow given to us through a mystery of God’s presence within us. So I want you to think of mercy as unmerited love in the form of God’s presence in you, imperfect, sinful, struggling, trying. That’s the mystery.
Every year we go through the paschal mystery, and there’s the three things that stand out so powerfully that — the Eucharist, establishing this mysterious ritual that is the heart, I think to what it means to be a Catholic. We have this unique way of understanding the Lord’s Supper that is different than other Christian denominations. They’re not all different, but most are, and we give it an amazing amount of power and strength and attention called the real presence of Jesus in this host, in this wine, this nourishing food, this mysterious forgiving drink. It separates — I won’t say separates, but it unifies what sin tries to separate. Then we focus on his death, and the most amazing response he has to the whole thing was it comes to an end. There’s this overwhelming sense that he’s saying, “Look, I don’t know what to do other than to say, ‘Father, don’t hold any of this against any of these people. Forgive them. Forgive them. Don’t let this act they’re doing separate them from me.’” And then he rises, and when he rises, it’s not just that he’s alive again, but it’s the promise he makes while he’s alive again. And that is, “I’m going to live inside of you. As real as you see me right now after my death, walking, talking, touching you, talking to you, it’s going to happen to you, inside of you.”
That’s the mystery, and that’s what this ritual called Eucharist is all about, making this reality present. And the most interesting thing about this reality that is present, it is definitely something that changes our life, but more importantly, it is something that, when it becomes part of us, we become instruments of changing other people’s lives. I love that thought — you’ve heard me say it over and over again — that the real work that God has chosen to do is not directly between himself and each individual, but rather he works with each individual so that we can work with each other. The real healing, the real transformation, the process of evolution and coming further and further into the truth is witnessed by people who are filled with God rather than God directly appearing to people one after another, because it would make no sense for him to appear to us if he’s in us. It’s interesting that the God in us is, yes, for us, but it’s also for everyone around us. And when God is in someone else, that God is there for us. So it’s almost like he makes each of us the healer for the other instead of directly healing us, if that makes sense, but let’s go back to this set of readings, because they’re very, very rich.
The first image I want you to feel from this first reading is that this thing that happened at the death of Jesus and his resurrection and his final ascension had this profound effect on these followers, these believers, and the effects were always signs and wonders, signs and wonders. In fact, when you think about the scriptures and the way they’re written and how we’re asked to believe in this presence of a divine essence inside of us, the way we’re asked to trust in it is part of the way in which it manifests itself. It has to be believed in. This presence of this God inside of you and inside of me, the paschal mystery makes it so clear. This is not something you earn or you work for, like the Old Testament seemed to encourage us in a world that was binary, a world that had both divine in it, and then it was kind of at odds with the material world, the sinful world. In this kind of split that was there, we were always struggling against the negative forces around us it called sin. We kept working at it, and we kept failing at it. But it seemed always it was our task to do something right to please God so that God would come to us. That’s still in us. We still have some quality, some — I don't know if I’d call it a quality — a human part of our nature that feels unworthy of a God to come into us when we’re not purified, not clean. That’s the shadow of religion, the shadow of the Old Testament. It’s the shadow of a lot of religions still today, this dichotomy between God and the material world, as if they don’t blend together. They blend perfectly together.
When I’m talking about the natural world, I’m not talking about a sinful, destructive force. I’m really talking about the humanity that he has given to you and me. Humanity is not in opposition to divinity. They’re made for each other. They’re different, but they’re so complimentary that it’s almost impossible to think of one being what it is without the other. I’m not saying God needs our humanity to be God. No, but to do the work that he wants to do in the plan he set up — I’m not saying he’s limited to anything other than what he chooses, what he plans, but it seems to me that God has decided that he wants to use you and me to be able to accomplish his work in the world. And as we are used, the more we are used, the more we become more integrated in this mysterious connection between divinity and humanity. You can’t be fully human without divinity. Divinity won’t be fully effective in the plan that he has made it to follow without humanity. It’s amazing.
So we have signs and wonders, signs and wonders, and when you think about that, what is different about humanity when divinity enters into it? Well, look at that story. These men were, at one point in their life, completely disbelieving anything that they couldn’t understand. They couldn’t grasp fully even what Jesus was teaching. It was too radically different than the way they were trained, and then something happened, not slowly, not organically like, “Okay, we’ll ponder this, and we’ll work on this, and we’ll work on our discipline, and we’ll try to get better and better. Then eventually we get to be really amazingly like Christ.” No, they became like Christ instantly, and they were doing the same thing that he was doing when he walked the earth. They were affecting change in people just by their presence, not by a long serious of teachings, but by their presence they were doing what Jesus was doing with his presence when he was in the world. So it’s clear you’re seeing this miracle of what I would call incarnation, divinity in humanity, and we still have such a hard time believing it, that he actually dwells in me. But that’s the story. That’s the ritual we go through. When we receive him in Eucharist, we receive his presence, and when that presence is in us, it’s his grace, we call it. That grace then does the work, and we are the carrier of the work. Without our acceptance of it, our belief in it, because it’s a gift — it can’t be earned, but if we accept it and believe in it, then that’s our work part. That’s what we do. I will be used by you. I will.
So in the second reading, we have this strong statement of John the evangelist having this vision of Jesus standing right there with him and saying, “I was dead, but now I’m alive. Now I’m in you.” So John had this sense from this vision of God really saying, “I was dead. I’m now alive, but I’m alive in you.” He’s meditating on his work to teach and to preach, and it’s like this was a vision he had that showed John, once again, that this miracle that he’s preaching and teaching is not like the Old Testament where it’s about disciplining our will and overcoming our weaknesses and then becoming pure and good enough for God to come into us. No, it’s believing he comes into us exactly as we are. So you can see how important belief is, trusting in not the reality of this alone but that it happens to anybody that chooses to allow it to happen to them. This is not some kind of super gift that is given to holy people. I know the Vatican Council had such a strong thing to say about holiness. It wasn’t something that one earned through a very strict, rigid set of rules and laws and went through a life of renunciation. That somehow connects to a world view that is a dichotomy. It’s binary. It’s like, well, there’s the bad world and the good world. There’s the material world. It’s all bad. The spiritual world is all good, so the two don’t really mix together. So if you give up, like they do in a monastery — they go there to be holy, and they give up marriage, and they give up money. Those are two strong drives that can get people in trouble in terms of their selfish nature. I’m not saying that’s all wrong or all bad in any way, shape or form, but if you take it too much like that’s the only way you become holy, then these stories don’t make any sense.
Thomas, who doubted for so long, he was going around miraculously healing people, changing their lives by presence. Wow. When you think about it, when we do believe in this — and this is the thing, I think, the genius of Christianity is. When you believe in the miracle of God’s presence in you and you carry that to other people and your presence brings it to them — just like when people walk up and receive the Eucharist, it’s like I receive this mystery. I believe in this mystery, and then it takes root in us again. It’s not like it wasn’t there before, but somehow mysteriously it strengthened. But it would only work if you understand that that is given to you not to make you holy but to carry that presence to the people around you, to be Eucharist to people. That’s the beauty of this sacrament of God’s presence. You receive it so you can give it to other people, and you see the classic image of people in the Catholic Church. They’re all going to communion very devoutly. Then they get in the parking lot, and they start screaming and yelling at each other, back to the usual, and the anger and the frustration we have in the parking lot is human. It’s our humanity. It’s okay, in a way, but that doesn’t identify us. That doesn’t say then that I’m a non-believer, therefore a non-communicator of the grace of God that has been given to me to be given to someone else. It’s mostly that we just don’t realize it. We don’t understand the full scope of this incredible Eucharistic miracle, this miracle of God’s presence, this way in which ritual enhances, the way it’s constantly calling us to believe in it, and the wonderful thing about this, when you think about it, think about how it frees you from any kind of ego-centric reaction to your ability to be able to do things for people. It’s not you. Yeah, it’s you, but it’s not just you. To separate yourself from the presence of God is as silly as simply saying, “I can work without my body. I can work without my spirit, just my body.” The two are absolutely connected. What we say to each other, how we act around each other is one thing. Who we are around each other is everything. People don’t love how we look, how a lover looks. They love something about them that is their essence, and their essence, when it’s filled with divinity, is not other worldly. It is just richer and more complete and more honest, authentic, real and beautiful
The musical setting of that prayer of St. Teresa captures so much of what I long for you to feel and know and experience. The mystery of God working through you, through me, being a source of healing and health and wholeness, it’s almost too easy. It’s almost too good to be true, but it is true, and it does work. And it is God’s plan, and all it takes is belief, strong conviction, belief. So my prayer for you now is just that anything that blocks you from that surrender, that, in a way, loss of control, because you’re not the one that makes people better — you’re an instrument that God uses for him to make them better. It’s not easy. I like to make things better and control things and all that, like I’m sure you do, but that’s not where it is. That’s not where the power is. So I just pray God will free us from any of that excessive self-fullness, if that’s a word, and bring us into the selflessness of his presence. Amen.