Christian Faith and Christian Scepticism
(Readings: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20: 19-31)
Introduction to Mass
The gospel reading this Sunday shows the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit from Christ to encourage them and inspire them, to get rid of their fear and to empower them to carry on his mission of proclaiming God's Kingdom. The other readings, both from the New Testament, show what this entailed in practice. The first followers of Jesus formed communities which upheld the values of God's Kingdom and denied, or rejected, values and ways of living which didn't accord with the Kingdom.
To begin Mass let's think of the times we've fallen short of the standard we're called to, and let's ask God to forgive us, strengthen us and encourage us.
St. John's picture of the disciples in the period immediately after the reports of Jesus' Resurrection were circulating is a picture of a group of people who are confused and frightened and who don't understand what's going on.
While they're in this state the risen Jesus bursts in on them. He extends his peace to them - a customary greeting at that time - but also in this situation a gesture which is meant to reassure them that there's nothing to be confused or frightened about.
For Jesus, offering peace to his followers isn't the same as bringing them rest and relaxation. In fact it's the opposite. He gives them a new mission: the group of individuals who accompanied him on his own missionary travels now have to go out themselves and announce the definitive arrival of God's Kingdom. "As the Father sent me," he says, "so am I sending you".
There's a continuity between Jesus' ministry before his death on Calvary and the task his followers have to get on with after his Resurrection. The difference is that now Jesus isn't the only preacher of the Kingdom: now every one of his disciples has the job of proclaiming God's Kingdom and urging people to place their lives under God's rule.
Jesus confirms this by giving the disciples his Spirit. At the beginning of time, according to the book of Genesis, God had given life to human beings by breathing on them. St. John shows Jesus doing the same with his followers, imparting his life and Spirit to the first citizens of the new humanity. It's a deliberate parallel: to live in communion with the risen Christ is to live as part of a new creation. At the same time Christ gives his spirit to the community of his followers to encourage them and strengthen them for the practical job he's now giving them.
The incident with the apostle Thomas, who was absent when Jesus first appeared and sceptical about his friends' reports, can be taken in one way as a comfort to believers who don't see why you should have to leave your brains at the door when you come into Church. Faith in Christ shouldn't be shallow, uncritical or unthinking.
Significantly Jesus doesn't react with irritation to the detailed demands Thomas makes as a condition for believing that he has risen from the dead. He answers Thomas' questions and objections one by one, and he answers them calmly and patiently.
The faith that Jesus would like his followers to possess isn't blind, unquestioning and credulous. His response to Thomas is to put forward a notion of faith that isn't frightened of being challenged, isn't afraid of being subjected to scrutiny, a faith that's confident of being able to provide honest, intelligent, profound answers to people's spiritual searching and questioning.
And indeed the best examples of faith - the great saints and mystics who know God through prayer and prayerful meditation - have always been able to meet both honest doubts and hostile criticism with wisdom, patience and love rooted in their close acquaintance with God. This is quite different from the harsh, hectoring "certainty" of the religious bigot - whose clear-cut categories and divisions are often rooted in an underlying doubt and lack of faith.
There's another side to the coin too: the stronger our genuine faith and acquaintance with God is, the more we'll apply a sceptical attitude to the various shams and false visions of happiness with which human beings excel in deceiving themselves. Jesus words, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" refer to us: we should aspire to be people who, because we've found the meaning of existence in God, see through and reject all the inadequate, transient worldly goals that human beings set themselves. When God takes hold of us, everything else becomes secondary and unimportant.
The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, gives a practical illustration of this in the life of the earliest community of Christians. According to St. Luke, all Jesus' followers placed everything they had at the service of each other. "Everything they owned was held in common".
No doubt St Luke's picture of the Christian community is idealised and romanticised - let's not forget the problems that St. Paul addressed in many of the early Church communities! But the picture here is a sort of template of Christian community life and Christian social relations at their best. Anything less than this falls short of the perfection of God's Kingdom.
We're always tempted to claim a weary familiarity with the weaknesses of human nature to justify falling short of the vision of the Kingdom. "We've got to be realistic" is the legend inscribed on the gravestone of all our failed spiritual aspirations.
But again, when people are genuinely seized by God they never resort to such rationalisations. Their scepticism is applied not to the high standards of the gospel but to the worldly wisdom that dismisses the way of God's Kingdom right from the start.
So the lessons of the readings this Sunday are summed up by what St. John says in the second reading. In communion with Christ we naturally live according to his "commandments". Worldly motives and ambitions lose their hold on us as we grow in closeness to God, and in this sense we discover that as believers we have "overcome the world".
It's up to us to decide, as individual disciples and as the community of believers, how exactly we might follow John's instructions, and what practical actions we need to take to restore the vigour and radicalism of our faith in the risen Lord, as illustrated by his first followers.