The church today is full of doubt and mistrust. We are rightly shocked and embarrassed that betrayal, and heinous abuse can come from those who minister in Christ’s name. For whatever reason, many here this morning have very good reasons to find trust difficult.
Today’s Gospel invites our reflection on two themes, trust and forgiveness. Its most memorable character is “Doubting Thomas,” who has become something of a poster child for skeptics. It is easy to caricature him as weak in faith, suffering from some sort of character flaw. Or you might see him as a bull-headed know-it-all, who won’t trust the experience of the other disciples and demands proof, his kind of proof. I expect that Thomas must have felt left out. Envious of what the other disciples had experienced, and deeply disappointed that he was not there when it happened, he needed his own experience of the Risen Lord. When Jesus appeared to them a second time, nothing in his manner suggests that Thomas’ demand was childish or unreasonable. Jesus goes right to Thomas, responding directly to his need: “put your finger here…put your hand in my side.” He validates Thomas’ doubting even as he heals it.
Like Thomas, we too want an experience of the risen Lord. Like Thomas, we struggle hard to connect what we believe, or want to believe, with how we actually live. Like Thomas, we can find it hard to trust that the Lord is here, really here, for us. We may even be absolutely convinced in our heads that God exists, that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, and all the rest of it, but still, if we are honest, we can admit that it is sometimes very hard to translate that profession of faith into trust. There is a mysterious chemistry at work here: without faith, trust will never happen. But without trust, our faith in the resurrected Lord cannot be fully life-giving. His risen life must get to us at the most fundamental level, where fear is alive and all too well. Jesus seems to have had a great capacity for inspiring trust in others. Inviting Peter to walk on water, winning the confidence of the Samaritan woman who had every reason to fear a Jewish teacher, lovingly accepting Mary Magdalene’s need to show her love by washing his feet, and today, turning to Thomas and knowing the simple words and actions Thomas needed to be whole again. All of us need a Lord like that.
So far I have been speaking as if trust is an issue between us and God. We all know that our struggles with trust are very concrete. Though as infants and small children we have no choice but to trust, as we become more aware of our environment and the people in it we learn that there are some people we cannot or should not trust. Everyone here this morning has known what it is like to be let down by someone you love, or neglected, or betrayed. Every one of us has known conflict or jealousy in our relationships with others. We have developed reflexes of distrust about politics and civic life. The church today is full of doubt and mistrust. We are rightly shocked and embarrassed that betrayal, and heinous abuse can come from those who minister in Christ’s name. For whatever reason, many here this morning have very good reasons to find trust difficult. But my friends, if we do not find a way back, we will be more like the living dead than disciples of Jesus Christ, who is risen and alive.
The move to real trust, to the kind of confidence that frees us from fear of either past or future, can be a tremendous challenge. But it is precisely the step we are called to take this Easter. What else is newness of life but gradual extrication from the hundred psychic ropes that bind and inhibit us? When Jesus walked out of his tomb, he left behind the wrappings of death; he invites us to do the same.
For Jesus, new life took the very concrete form of the gift of forgiveness. He had to forgive Peter for betraying him, and the other disciples for running away. In forgiving them, he breathed on them the spirit of new life and made them his agents of forgiveness. They became able to forgive others because they themselves had known forgiveness of the most radical kind. But note: to forgive is NOT to forget. Forgiveness does not sanitize or shrink-wrap the memory of wrongs that have been done. When we forgive, our love for the other person transforms the memory of hurt, but the memory never entirely goes away. Like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the pain becomes part of something much larger than itself, and becomes a door into Christ’s gift of new life. We minister this sacrament of forgiveness to one another daily, in small ways and great. Saint Benedict asked his monks to pray the Lord’s Prayer twice a day “because thorns of contention are likely to spring up” (RB 13.12-13). And don’t they ever.
Forgiveness is one of the toughest choices we can face in life. Jesus gave his disciples the power to forgive, but he also pointed out the alternative: if we don’t forgive, we leave the other person tied up until we do, and that psychic binding can pass from generation to generation. We see it in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, wherever. But to forgive something great is the most poignant, difficult, and effective proof there can be that Christ is alive in this world. And it is a miracle that we can work right here and now. On the night before he died, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another. When he appeared to them a few days later, after his suffering and death, he told them what that love really means: “whatever sins you forgive are forgiven.” Let’s do it.
A Homily by Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB
Second Sunday of Easter
7 April 2002
Readings: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Pet. 1:3-9; John 20:19-31