Divine Mercy Sunday – Jesus Is with His Church

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1603

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1603

Then [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.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
(John 20:27–28)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Gospel
Divine Mercy Sunday
John 20:19–31
April 16, 2023

Our Gospels for the Easter season tell the stories of our Lord’s Resurrection and the new life which it offers. They are beautiful, demanding but so deep that they should be read with new eyes every year. They contain many themes and use many literary devices so any brief examination, however valuable, will be superficial. Today we will begin with why there are two endings to the Gospel of John.

The first ending is John 20:30-31. This will be read this weekend.

Now Jesus did many other signs
in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

(Jn 20:30-31)

Yet chapter 21 follows immediately with

After this, Jesus revealed himself again
to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias

(Jn 21:1)

And this concludes with

There are also many other things that Jesus did,
but if these were to be described individually,
I do not think the whole world would contain
the books that would be written.

(Jn 21:25)

This ending clearly reflects the first and indeed there is no manuscript which does not contain both. The repetition is intentional and very cleverly makes an important point. The concerns of chapter 20 are answered in Chapter 21 and the author wants to show that coming to this realization was difficult and time consuming.

We must first look at who the author was. We saw when we examined the 1st letter of John two years ago that the writings attributed to St. John took over a generation to complete and were the work of several hands. More detail can be found here. Very briefly: a witness to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus whom we refer to as both the Beloved Disciple and John formed a community based on his recollections. These were organized and dramatized by a follower who has been called the Evangelist. This “first draft” has been reconstructed and are stories of a Jewish follower of Jesus. For that reason, they were not always understood correctly by John’s non-Jewish audience. A later leader, now called the Presbyter (elder) wrote to the communities of the beloved disciple. These letters are very clear, sometimes extraordinarily beautiful but at other times quite violent. The Gospel might seem serene but there was much discord brewing beneath the surface.

When the dust settled a final editor—the Redactor—included these new insights and clarifications to the Gospel. His technique was not to rearrange sections but to add to them. Therefore, there are two endings that together emphasize a single point: Jesus is with his Church.

We begin today after Mary Magdalene has told the disciples that she has seen Jesus. It is now Sunday and although the disciples are in a locked room,

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”

(Jn 20:19)

The greeting is significant. He previously told them:

Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you….
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid”

(John 14:27)

Now he has come to them in their fear and given them the peace that truly does drive out fear, that is a sign of being a new creation. They respond with joy the sign of experiencing the presence of God.

He then shows them that what he has done for them is to be shared with everyone.

Jesus said to them again,
“Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them
and said to them,
“Receive the holy Spirit Jesus

(Jn 20:21–22)

We saw previously that he breathed on Mary his mother and the beloved disciple while he was on the cross, this formed he church. Here he gives the body of the church life as he did with Adam.

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being

(Ge 2:7)

He then created the Garden of Eden
and gave Adam the task of caring for it.

(Gen 2:15)

Here Jesus gives them the task their garden to cultivate:

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

(Jn 20:23)

The task of the living church is to set people free. Moses led the people from bondage in Egypt, Christians are to follow Jesus and lead people from bondage to sin.

This requires that all Christians recognize that Jesus truly is with them.

Now we come to Thomas. He, like us, was not present in the upper room. He finds the news too good to be true so he doubts and will not believe until he physically explores Jesus’ wounds. Jesus returns a week later and offers Thomas the opportunity to do so. Thomas refuses and exclaims “My Lord and my God.” (20:28) This connects the end of the gospel with the beginning which began with “and the word was God.” (1:1)

Jesus then blesses future generations, hopefully us with:

“Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

(Jn 20:29)

When the evangelist completed his “first draft” this may have seemed like the final word. Yet it was not. Neither he nor the Beloved Disciple asked themselves how the church was to be structured. They seem to have believed that only faith and goodwill were necessary. Sadly and inevitably this was proven wrong.

This was the content of the letters of John the Presbyter or Correspondent. The original members of the community were Jews and they understood that Jesus had a body although a risen one. As more Greeks joined the church—as we see in the communities of St. Paul—they did not have the immediate background to understand this and so made Jesus “a ghost in a machine”, gutted the resurrection of its meaning and so spiritualized the church that it had no structure.

The final editor was aware of the consequences and stated the problem and solution in the final chapter.

Peter tells the apostles that he wishes to go fishing. Other disciples agree to go but they catch nothing the entire evening. At dawn, Jesus tells them to try again and they took in “one hundred and 53 large fish” an overwhelming number but they did not rip the net. The most obvious point is that the apostles are fishers of men, and the church is open to all. We should, however, look deeper and see the interplay between John and Peter.

It is Peter who is clearly in charge, but it is John who knows that “it is the Lord.” This pattern has been repeated several times. After Jesus has told the disciples that one of them would betray him, Peter must ask John to discover who he meant (Jn 13:23-25). When Mary Magdalene told Peter and John that the body of the Lord was missing from the tomb, they ran to it. John arrived first, showed deference to Peter by waiting for him and allowed Peter to enter before him. Like Mary, Peter did not understand that the Lord had risen, but John “saw and believed” (Jn 20:8).

Many scholars believe that the letters of John show that the community was deeply divided. One of the issues was about a structure. A majority seems to have felt that the spirit would guide everyone individually, but all true believers would end up in the same place. Others believed that Jesus had set Peter as the head of the church and the means of unity and thus they needed to join with him. They could still hold that John was the most beloved and insightful disciple, but Peter was the leader and only in union with him was the Christian life possible.

Yet Peter had denied Jesus three times and needed to repent and be rehabilitated. Thus, we see Jesus as him three times if he, Peter loved him more than the others. Each time he exclaimed that he did, and he was told to feed or tend his sheep. This is very carefully chosen. The 10th chapter of John’s gospel tells the story of the good shepherd. The beloved disciple and the evangelist envisioned only one shepherd Jesus.

I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me,

(Jn 10:14)

Different sections of this chapter are read on the 5th Sunday of Easter every year. They all emphasize that only Jesus is the good shepherd. This year we will hear that Jesus alone is the gate to the sheepfold. (10:7-9 ) Jesus is the good shepherd because

A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

(John 10:11)

Peter will be able to tend and feed the flock only because he too is willing to give up his own life:

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you and lead you
where you do not want to go.”

(Jn 21:18)

This of course shows us Peter’s death on this cross. By his martyrdom he will become a good shepherd like Jesus.

It is important to note that, although the larger Johannine community did not follow Peter, it quickly disappeared from history.

The sign of John is the eagle. The most majestic of birds, but we find in the very structure of this Gospel the clear teaching of the church that only if we are bound to Peter can we soar with John.