by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed upon them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit”…Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20, 19-31
Today’s gospel-reading has the potential to lift us up and fill us with renewed hope, if only we can absorb its message. In asserting this, I have to admit to struggling with part of it for many years. I just could not understand how Jesus, in breathing on his disciples and commissioning them to do as he had done, could say to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 19, 22-23).
Jesus had spent his public ministry reaching out to people who had been rejected and marginalised by the religious authorities who had labelled these people as public sinners. Why then would he tell his disciples to hold on tight to peoples’ sins and, in so doing, to discard them as the religious leaders had done? I found a solution to my puzzlement in a book entitled Jesus Risen in Our Midst. It was written by Religious Sister, Sandra Schneiders IHM, a former professor at the Jesuit Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She has written more than a dozen books, many of which were on aspects of Religious Life. I had found some of them really heavy-going, so I picked up Jesus Risen in Our Midst with some hesitation. To my surprise, it gripped my attention. In explaining Jesus’ commission to the disciples (quoted above), Sandra Schneiders noted that biblical scholars translating John’s Gospel from the original Greek added the word “sin” to the second part of Jesus’ words of commissioning. Schneiders points out that Jesus did direct his disciples to forgive people’s sins, but to hold tightly to those people, NOT their sins. Isn’t it true that we Christians have often been urged to reject the sin, but not the sinner? If we were to hold fast to rejecting sinners, none of us could claim to being acceptable to Jesus, and none of us could claim to be sharers in his ministry. So, hanging on tightly to our sins and the sins of others would imply self-loathing and the rejection of others. – a total contradiction of the commission given to anyone who would be his disciple.
The almost incredible aspect of John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to and commissioning of the disciples locked away in guilt and fear is that Jesus puts into practice exactly what he commissions those disciples to go out and do. By offering them the greeting of Peace/Shalom and then repeating it, Jesus demonstrates that he is not holding on to their sins of betrayal, denial and desertion, but forgiving them utterly and without reservation, proclaiming that he wants to hold on to (retain) them.
Just in case his community failed to grasp the fact that Jesus was modelling for them the mission of forgiveness he wanted them to take on and continue, John repeated it. A week later, when Thomas had rejoined the disciples, John recounts that Jesus appeared again, greeting them with: “Peace be with you”. Jesus was reaching out to them all, yet again, in reassurance and reconciliation. Reminding them of the promise he had made to them in the course of his final meal with them:
“Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace. So, do not be distressed or fearful” (John 14, 27).
We can understand that the disciples had locked themselves away because they were afraid of being done to death as Jesus had been. We can also appreciate that they were probably filled with guilt at the manner in which they had deserted Jesus when he most needed them. But why could they not accept the testimony of Mary Magdalen who had informed them of her encounter with the Risen Jesus? She had gone directly to them, declaring: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20, 18).
It is true that, to the Jews of the time, a woman’s testimony was regarded as entirely unreliable. As a consequence, they were not allowed to be witnesses in legal proceedings. It’s also possible that all those male disciples had dismissed her words as “typical female hysteria”! In John’s telling of this story, Jesus has to repeat his greeting of peace to the ten disciples to convince them that he had risen, and that he had really forgiven them. It seems to me that the focus is put on Thomas because he had already earned a reputation for speaking out without thinking. His reaction to the other disciples repeating: “We have seen the Lord” is entirely predictable. He simply was not going to be convinced by anyone’s assertions. Maybe he, too, was struggling with believing that even Jesus could forgive the enormity of their failure as a group. Given his reputation for being outspoken, it’s entirely understandable that he could not accept that anyone so brutally tortured and done to death as Jesus was could possibly come back to life.
What then is the point of this resurrection account from John? To begin with, we have to remind ourselves that all four Gospel writers offer different accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, at times seemingly contradicting one another. Let’s remember that they were not writing historical accounts. Rather, their intention was to invite their communities to stop and reflect on their own faith in the assertion that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Nobody will ever be able to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. In the same way, none of us can prove our love for another person. We can offer words of love and tangible expressions of the love we profess, but we can never prove it.
Thomas had been told by his close friends that Jesus was alive, and that they had been talking with him. Typically, he just wasn’t going to buy their story. He wanted categorical proof. He wasn’t going to accept stories. He would not be satisfied until he met face-to-face with the resurrected Jesus whose stone-dead body had been sealed in a tomb just a few days before. What he got, however, was an encounter with the risen Jesus that threw him into such a tailspin that he dropped all his intentions of conducting an autopsy. The interaction between Thomas and Jesus is held up to us to teach us that searching for proof of Jesus’ resurrection, or, indeed, for proof of the existence of God, is utter foolishness. Rather, what we all most need is experiencing the presence of the divine in the very ordinary actions, decisions, encounters and complexities of our day-to-day lives.
I believe that Jesus breathed God’s Spirit into the disciples, Thomas included, in that upper room where they had locked themselves away from real life. I believe that same Spirit has been breathed into each of us. We know that we get glimpses of that Spirit at work in the love, generosity, compassion and forgiveness of people we encounter and, indeed in our acts of care and compassion towards others. The crucified and risen Jesus lives again in each of us. Maybe we have to get to know him a little better by first touching the scars we carry. Then, we might be able to go out and start practicing resurrection.