Our Gospel passage today relates two occasions when the disciples experience the risen Jesus among them. The first takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday, when Jesus had made himself known to Mary Magdalene. The setting has a negative tone, that of fear on the part of the disciples, fear which turns to joy as Jesus’ promise that they would see him again is fulfilled.
One of the differences between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics is that, in John’s account, the disciples have no part in Jesus’ ministry. There are no “apostles”, only “disciples”. Jesus acts alone. Now, the risen Jesus commissions the disciples to carry on his work and bestows on them the Holy Spirit by breathing on them in a gesture reminiscent of the Lord God infusing the breath of life into the first human being. As well as bringing eternal life, the gift of the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to forgive or retain sins, which will be part of their mission.
A week later, Thomas, the disciple who represents the sceptical point of view, encounters the risen Jesus for himself. Jesus challenges him to set aside his doubts about the testimony of the others by testing the reality of Jesus’ wounds. Thomas does not actually touch Jesus’ hands and side, but makes the supreme declaration of faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”
The Gospel according to John ends with the statement often called “the Johannine Beatitude”, with Jesus saying to Thomas, and therefore to all of us, whom Thomas represents, “Happy [Blessed] are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
The main theme running through the Fourth Gospel is that of believing. In the various characters who appear in dialogue or meetings with Jesus, John presents us with different reactions to Jesus and his message. In our passage today, Jesus commissions his disciples to continue his mission of confronting people and bringing them to a point of crisis or decision as to whether they will believe or not. Jesus actually says to Thomas, “Do not be an unbelieving person, but a believing one”. In the mission of passing on the good news, a positive decision will be expressed by the person being baptised and entering a new life with the risen Jesus, with their sins forgiven. A negative choice will result in not being baptised.
The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation developed in the Church well after the writing of the Gospel accounts in response to difficult situations which affected the community as a whole. The practice of individual confession came later again. Although the forgiving or retaining of sins may suggest to us this familiar practice, we might bear in mind that the Gospel text refers to the decision of the person about accepting baptism. The disciples are not being given the power or the right to determine whether or not someone deserves to be absolved of their faults. It is the person who judges themselves by deciding to believe or not.
- The noun “faith” does not occur in the Fourth Gospel: the verb “to believe” is found nearly one hundred times:
- Belief in Jesus is, therefore, not something we “possess”, but something we “do” or “put into practice”.
The individuals who appear in the Gospel according to John, such as Thomas, represent different types of people and their reaction to Jesus and his message.
As you close your door in the evening, put yourself in the place of the disciples: be aware that the risen Lord is with you with his loving (not judgemental) presence.