In Sunday’s Gospel, the risen Lord appeared to the Apostles, who were gathered together in one place. The fact that they were gathered in one place is not without significance, for it is there that the Lord chose to appear to them. One of them was not there and thus missed the blessing of seeing and experiencing the risen Lord. It might be said that Thomas, the absent Apostle, blocked his blessing.
Some people want Jesus without the Church. No can do. Jesus is found in His Church, among those who have gathered. There is surely joy to be found in a personal relationship with Jesus, but the Lord also announced a special presence whenever two or three are gathered in His name. It is essential for us to discover how Mass attendance is essential for us if we want to experience the healing and blessing of the Lord. This Gospel has a lot to say to us about the need to gather together to find the Lord’s blessing in the community of the Church, in His Word, and in the sacraments. Let’s look at today’s Gospel in five stages.
I. Fearful Fellowship – Notice how the text describes the gathering of the Apostles: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews …. These men are frightened, but they are in the right place. It is Sunday, the first day of the week, and they have gathered together. The text says nothing about what they are doing, only that they have gathered, but in a sense this is all we need to know, for this will set the stage for blessings and for the presence of the Lord.
These are men who need a blessing! The locked doors signify their fear of the Jewish authorities. One may also assume that they are discouraged, lacking in hope, and maybe even angry. They have experienced the earthquake that Jesus’ crucifixion was for them. Some of the women in their midst claim to have seen Him alive, but now it is night and they have heard of no other sightings.
Thanks be to God, they have gathered. It is not uncommon for those who have “stuff” going on in their lives to retreat, withdraw, and even hide. This is probably the worst thing that one can do. It would seem that Thomas has taken this approach, though his absence is not explained. Their gathering is an essential part of the solution to everything that afflicts them. This gathering is the place in which their new hope, new hearts, and new minds will dawn.
So it is for us, too, afflicted as we are in so many ways, troubled at some times and joyful at others. It is critical importance that we gather each Sunday, each first day of the week. In every Mass the Lord prepares blessings for us. I am powerfully aware that every Mass I celebrate, especially Sunday Mass, is a source of blessings for me. Not only does God instruct me with His Word and feed me with His Body and Blood, He also helps form me through the presence and praise of others: the people I have been privileged to serve. I don’t know where I’d be if it were not for the steady support of the people of God: their prayers, their praise, their witness, and their encouragement.
The Book of Hebrews states well the purpose and blessing of our liturgical gatherings:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:22-25).
So the Apostles are meeting together, encouraging one another. They are about to be blessed, but the blessing occurs only in the context of the gathering, so Thomas will miss it. This blessing is only for those who are there. So it is for us, too, who also have blessings waiting but only if we are present, gathered for Holy Mass. Don’t block your blessings!
II. Fabulous Fact – Then comes the blessing: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). The text from today’s Gospel says, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
Suddenly there is a completely new reality, a new hope, a new vision. Note that there is also a new serenity, a peace, a shalom. Not only do they see and come to experience an entirely new reality, they also receive an inner peace. Observe again that this is only for those who are present.
This is a basic purpose of the gathering we call the Sacred Liturgy. It is here that we are invited to encounter the living Lord, who ministers to us and offers us peace. Through His Word, we are increasingly enabled to see things in a new way, one that gives us hope, clarity, and confidence. Our lives are reordered. Inwardly, too, a greater peace is meant to come upon us as the truth of this newer vision begins to transform us, giving us a new mind and heart. Looking to the altar, I draw confidence that the Lord has prepared a table for me in the sight of my enemies and my cup is overflowing (Ps 23). The Eucharist is thus the sign of our victory and our election. As we receive the Body and the Blood of the Lord, we are gradually transformed into the very likeness of Christ.
Is this your experience of the gathering we call the Mass? Is it a transformative reality or just a tedious ritual?
As for me, I can say that I am being changed, transformed into a new man, into Christ, by this weekly—indeed daily—gathering we call the Mass. I have seen my mind and heart changed and renewed. I see things more clearly and have greater hope, joy, and serenity. I cannot imagine what my life would be like were it not for this gathering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where Jesus is present to me and says, “Shalom, peace be with you.” Over the years, I am a changed man.
Yes, the Mass works. It transforms; it gives a new mind and heart. Don’t block your blessings; be there every Sunday.
III. Forgiving Fidelity – Next comes something quite extraordinary, something that simply cannot take place within a private notion of faith. The text says, “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. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
In this remarkable moment, the Lord gives the Apostles the power to forgive sin. Note that He is not simply giving them the ability to announce that we are forgiven; He is giving them the juridical power to forgive or in certain cases to withhold/delay forgiveness. This is extraordinary! Not only has He given this authority to men (cf Matt 9:8), He has given it to the very men who abandoned Him (with the exception of John) at His crucifixion. These are men who are well aware of their shortcomings. Perhaps it is only because Jesus knows of their awareness that He can truly trust them with such power.
There are those who deny that Confession is a biblical sacrament, but here it is in today’s Gospel. There are other texts in Scripture showing Confession to be quite biblical:
- Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices (Acts 19:18).
- Is any one of you sick? He should call the presbyters of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:14-16).
Many consider it sufficient to speak to God privately about their sins, but the Scriptures instruct us away from such a solitary notion and bid us to approach the Church. The Lord gives the Apostles the authority to adjudicate and then to absolve or retain sins, but this presupposes that someone has first approached them for such absolution. St. Paul was approached by the believers in Ephesus, who made open declaration of their sins. The Book of James also places the forgiveness of sins in the context of the calling of the presbyters, the priests of the Church, and sees this as the fulfillment of this passage: declare your sins to one another … the prayer of the righteous man has great power (James 5:16).
Thus, again, there is a communal context for blessing, not merely a private one. I have written more on the biblical roots of Confession here: The Sacrament of Confession.
IV. Faltering Fellowship – We have already noted that Thomas blocked his blessing by not being present. The text says, Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas exhibits faltering fellowship in two ways:
First, he is not with the other Apostles on resurrection evening, thus he misses the blessing of seeing and experiencing the resurrection and the Lord.
Second, Thomas exhibits faltering fellowship by refusing to believe the testimony of the Church that the Lord has risen.
One of the most problematic aspects of many people’s faith is that they do not understand that the Church is an object of faith. In the Creed every Sunday we profess to believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, and to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. But we are not done yet. We go on to say that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We know and believe what we do about Jesus Christ on the basis of what the Church hands on from the Apostles. Some say, “No, I believe in what the Bible says,” but the Bible is a book of the Church. God has given it to us through the Church who, by God’s grace, collected and compiled its contents and vouches for the veracity of the Scriptures. Without the Church there would be no Bible.
Therefore, in rejecting the testimony of the Church, Thomas is breaking fellowship and refusing to believe in what the Church, established by Christ to speak in His name (e.g. Lk 24:48; Lk 10:16; Matt 18:17; Jn 14:26; 1 Tim 3:15; inter al.), teaches. We, too, falter in our fellowship with the Church if we refuse to believe the testimony of the Church in matters of faith and morals. This a privatization of faith, a rejection of fellowship, and a refusal to gather with the Church and accept what she proclaims through her Scriptures, Tradition, and the catechism.
Note that as long as Thomas is not present, he has blocked his blessings. He must return to gather with the others in order to overcome his struggle with the faith.
V. Firmer Faith – Thomas then returns to fellowship with the other Apostles. Just as we do not know the reason for his absence, his return is also unexplained. Some may wish to chalk up his absence to some insignificant factor such as being busy, or in ill health, or some other largely neutral factor, but John seldom provides us detail for no reason. Further, Thomas does refuse to believe the testimony of the others, which is not a neutral fact.
Praise God, Thomas is now back with the others and in the proper place for a blessing. Whatever his struggle with the faith, he has chosen to work it out in the context of fellowship with the Church. He has gathered with the others. Now comes the blessing.
You know the story, but the point here is that regardless of our doubts and difficulties with the faith, we need to keep gathering with the Church. In some ways faith is like a stained glass window that is best appreciated from inside the church. From the outside there may seem very little about it that is beautiful. It may even look dirty and leaden, but once one ventures inside and adjusts to the light, one can see that the window radiates beauty.
It is often this way with the faith. I have found that I could only really appreciate some of the more difficult teachings of the Church after years of fellowship and instruction by the Church, in the liturgy and in other ways. As my fellowship and communion have grown more intense, my faith has become clearer and more firm.
Now that he is inside the room, Thomas sees the Lord. When he was outside, he did not see and so he doubted. The eyes of our faith see far more than our fleshly eyes, but in order to see and experience our blessings we must gather; we must be in the Church.
Finally, it is a provocative but essential truth that Christ is found in the Church. Some want Christ without the Church. No can do. He is found in the gathering of the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly of those called out. Any aspects of His presence that are found outside the Church are mere glimpses, shadows emanating from the Church. He must be sought where He is found, among sinners in His Church. The Church is His Body and His Bride. It is here that He is found. “Feeling” His presence while alone on some mountaintop can never compare to hearing the priest say, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
Thomas found Him, but only when he gathered with the others. It is Christ’s will to gather us and unite us (Jn 17:21). Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor (The love of Christ has gathered us in one).