The people who have not seen yet believe

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Here at last is the Church, the other side of the Passion, now in resurrection time. In our Gospel (John 20:19-31) we, along with the disciples, experience this completely unexpected event: Jesus returned to full bodily life from the dead. The one they had seen suffer and die; the one they knew to have been buried and from whose trial they had fled in fear and denial, thinking his and their great mission was over; was quite inexplicably back.

It is how Jesus reacts that is significant, for you will remember the disciples had all run away and left him. There is no rebuke or criticism, but rather his twice repeated Peace be with you. Eirene in Greek pertaining to those things which bring peace, calm and order, something surely most necessary for their disordered and fear-ridden senses. Then he does something which our translation into English fails to capture; he breathes the Holy Spirit on them for the forgiveness and retaining of sin. The Greek here also uses a rare word. Jesus breathes on them as the Spirit does in the Genesis 1 account of the activity of God at the dawn of creation and the making of all that there is. I think we are meant to see a return to the pristine state of creation in the beginning, as we are all made new by the death and resurrection of Christ. The past is put aside, struck out, and we are now seen from God’s point of view, with all of our God given potential laid out before us. We in Jesus are a new creation, no longer to be ridden by doubts and fears, but made to be the resurrection people.

We can see this giving of the Holy Spirit in a number of ways, including that of the making of the Church and the power given to the apostles. What strikes me is what a small and curiously understated event this appears to be, for it is immediately followed by the plunge back into the fear and disbelief of Thomas and his eventual conviction of the truth of the resurrection. Perhaps this account represents not just the reaction of a single disciple, but the situation of the body of the Church, as it has always struggled with the truth of the awkwardness and sheer incomprehensibility of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Perhaps St John was aware of the difficulties we would always have, as we live in two worlds, that of the redeemed, and that of daily life amidst its struggles with doubt and sin.

This surely is the story of the continuing Church as we see in Acts and the Petrine Letters. The picture in Acts (2:42-47) is very positive. It shows the infant Christian community faithful to the Lord’s Eucharistic teaching as the primary way in which they/we always meet him. It is resplendent with the record of the miracles of the apostles, and ‘The deep impression on everyone’ which they made as a tool for conversion. Indeed it reflects the pre 70 AD situation in Palestine, as the nascent Christian group continued to worship in the Temple; though it makes clear that the Eucharist took place in their own homes. It speaks of their communal life together. One might even say from this small section that everything was sorted and going frightfully well, unless that is you read on in Acts and discover that things were actually very different. Indeed, by the time Luke was actually writing in the 80’s, the situation was very different. From 66-70 the vicious Jewish War raged in Palestine, and the Christians who took no part in it became irrevocably separated from Judaism. In other places Luke would write of the persecution of Christians, and as we know from the story of Paul, this began very early in the Christian story. Perhaps then this story simply speaks of the victory of Christ, and points to what true Christian life is meant to be, a giving of oneself to others, a sharing, after the model of Christ. It does not reflect on what the actual state of the church was like.

When we come to 1 Peter (1:3-9) the picture is one of greater realism. The Petrine letters probably come from the early 2nd Century, from Turkey, and thus from a world which would for centuries be familiar to many converts to Christianity. It is the world we all live in – life beyond the resurrection and ascension. ‘You did not see him, yet you love him; and still without seeing him, you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe; and are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls.’

The Roman governor of the area, Pliny, wrote to Trajan his Emperor about the problems caused by Christians in the area, and what his policy towards them was, and how he had punished those who refused to worship the pagan gods by death, even torturing women deacons who were slaves for information about this new faith which had attracted people in the towns, villages and countryside. Clearly these Christians were really suffering for their conviction that Jesus was their Saviour and Redeemer in whose image they would find eternal life, ‘Even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of  trials….your faith will have been tested and proved like gold.’

These then were the men and women who believed ‘even’ without having seen the Risen Lord, converts from paganism to whom the message of the Christian life made such a difference that they were prepared to put all their faith in his promises and die, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They truly understood that in Christ Jesus, in the story of his life and death and resurrection, we have an eternal inheritance, life in eternity with God, the capacity to live after Jesus’ image, with his grace and compassion; and for this they were prepared to defy the power of Rome and put aside all the myriad benefits of belonging to the Empire that it brought them. These Christians of Bithynia, Pontus, Asia and Cappadocia were like us, children of the Christian message of hope and fervent expectation, people who live in Jesus even though they had never seen him in the flesh. What they share with us too is the presence of the risen and glorified Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, as we and they fulfilled his command to ‘Do this in anamnesis of me.’

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