Homily for Second Sunday of Easter Year A 2020
Readings: John 20:19 – 31
19 April 2020
Today’s gospel is set a week after Easter, just as we are today on what is called Low Sunday.
The disciples are in lockdown in a room, just as we are today with the virus.
The disciples are afraid, just as we are – not knowing what is coming next. In their case, it was following the crucifixion of Jesus; in our case it’s awaiting the effects of any unflattened curve.
Jesus appears to the disciples with two messages, and he gives us the same messages today.
The first message is ‘Peace be with you.’
The second message is ‘As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.’
In the midst of our fears, the Easter Jesus wishes us and gives us the gift of peace.
In our sedentary lock down, we are being commissioned; we are being sent.
Each of us is like Thomas: ‘Unless I can see the holes…..unless I can put my finger….Unless I can place my hand, I refuse to believe.’
Unlike Thomas, we will never see….we will never place our hand in the side. ‘Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
Each of us can be like Thomas proclaiming, ‘My Lord and my God’.
During the week, I attended online the funeral in Darwin of Brother Ted Merritt MSC, one of the greats, who ministered in the Northern Territory assisting remote Aboriginal communities for most of his life. Ted was 90. He was a great man. The master of the wry understatement; a tireless worker; a fearless, persistent, practical advocate for the little guy; a man of simple faith with a big heart and absolutely no pretensions. He embodied all that’s best and noble about the Australian Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who taught me in secondary school. He worked in the kitchen when I was a boy at Downlands College in Toowoomba Queensland in the ‘60s and then we saw a lot of each other at Daly River and in Darwin over the years. He served and serviced remote Aboriginal communities as pilot, accountant, mechanic and general handyman. At the funeral, the preacher told the story about the nurse at the hospice filling in the forms, asking Ted, ‘What’s been the focus of your life?’ Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered simply and directly: ‘Eternal salvation and service of the poor.’ Ted was at peace. Ted knew he had been sent on a mission in life. He was able to proclaim, ‘My Lord and My God.’
Also during this Easter Octave I received news of the death of Sr Virginia Hassan RSM on Good Friday in the USA. Virginia was one of the great educators. Unlike Brother Ted who had little formal education, she had a doctorate from Fordham University and did a lot of teaching in New York before she discovered the love of her life, teaching in some of the most desperate refugee camps in the world. I was very blessed to have the time working with her and an Australian Sister of Mercy Sr Bernie Evans RSM from Bathurst. We lived in a house together in a small Thai village Tapraya on the Cambodia border back in 1987. We worked in the large Site 2 refugee camp. I could walk from one end of that camp to the other in an hour and a half. There were more people in that camp than the whole of the Northern Territory. Everything had to be brought in by truck. The only things in abundance were air and people. Everything else was tightly rationed. Virginia was such a doer, and such a vivid thinker, and imaginative dreamer. She brought out the best in so many people in the most adverse of circumstances. She knew that education and Christ were good news, and in about equal doses! She relished the simplicity of teaching the basics with almost no resources in a refugee camp, after the bounty of teaching in New York. She loved going to the local Thai market each morning to buy lunch for her Cambodian teacher aides who had nothing in the camp. She educated some of the key people who set up government back in Cambodia when they were able to return.
Ted and Virginia were Easter people. We’ve all known Easter people. They conquer their fears. They know the gift of peace. They respond to the call and are sent. Nowadays, there are not so many people being called in the way they were as members of religious congregations in the Catholic Church. We can all be Easter people. No matter what our age, no matter what our skills or training, and no matter what our relationships or work life, each of us is called to find peace in the midst of our fears, to break out of our isolation and to go where God sends us, and to doubt no longer but believe.
There are some parts of the gospels of Matthew and John which we hear these days of Holy Week and Easter which put ‘the Jews’ in a bad light. We Christians need to accept that for centuries we uncritically read our scriptures in a way which increased the prospect of anti-Semitism rather than having us extend God’s love and forgiveness to all. In today’s gospel we hear that the disciples were locked away in the upper room ‘for fear of the Jews’. It’s as if the Jews are the enemy. Let’s remember that in this gospel of John we are also told that Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, ‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know; for salvation comes from the Jews.’ (4:22) Except for the Samaritans, Romans and a few Greeks who turn up to the festival (12:20), all the players in John’s gospel are in fact Jews. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, there were Jews who worshipped in the synagogue and those who followed the Torah. There were other Jews who had become Christian. There is tension between these different groups of Jews, particularly in John’s gospel. The British scholar, John Ashton, says in his 1991 book, Understanding the Fourth Gospel: one must ‘recognise in these hot-tempered exchanges the type of family row in which the participants face one another across the room of a house that all have shared and all call home’. They’re all Jews.
We contemporary listeners of John’s gospel are more likely to be locked away in fear of our own inner demons or uncertainties or in fear of those who are aggressively secularist and anti-religious. In these weeks or months of lockdown, perhaps we have more time to find that inner peace and that assurance that comes from faith professing Jesus as Lord.
We all continue to look for signs to affirm and prop up our faith. Let’s remember that even the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who outpaced Peter to reach the empty tomb, never saw any sign other than the cloths on the ground. Even Peter who went into the tomb never got to put his hand in the side or to touch the wounds with his fingers. All he saw was that face cloth wrapped and put to the side.
There are signs enough for us to profess faith in Jesus as Lord. Let’s pray for that gift of peace and for that sense of mission and purpose once we can leave the locked room, being able to answer the nurse’s question: ‘what has your life been about?’ How good would it be to be able to answer simply, ‘Eternal salvation and service of my fellow man.’ And perhaps we might add, ‘sustaining the planet’. Today is Low Sunday, the last day of the Octave of Easter. We celebrate without the hoop-la of Easter Sunday. We enjoy the assurance that the Lord is risen and that this makes all the difference as we conquer our fears and take on the world.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).