Second Sunday Of Easter Year B – Divine Mercy Sunday
April 11, 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 4:32-35 | Psalm 118:2-4;13-15;22-24
1 John 5:1-6 | John 20:19-31

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

You have probably heard someone describe another person as a “doubting Thomas.” Maybe you’ve done that yourself or others have described you in that way. Today’s Gospel is from whence that phrase originated.

The Apostle Thomas wasn’t sure Jesus had risen. Thomas would only believe it if he could touch the crucifixion wounds of Jesus who lovingly responded, “Here are my wounds, see for yourself.” The Gospel doesn’t tell us whether Thomas actually touched those wounds, but it’s certainly possible. The attitude of Jesus to Thomas was an attitude of love.  His response to Thomas was one of mercy. Perhaps that’s why today is called Divine Mercy Sunday.

In my secular life before ordination, I was a litigation attorney. In that arena, I experienced skepticism firsthand. I dealt with it every day.  The judges that I faced in Court in a trial didn’t believe what I said at face value. They said, “Show me. Prove it to me. Give me some evidence.”  And between opposing attorneys in litigation, skepticism was the name of the game: I didn’t think opposing attorneys were telling the truth, and they didn’t think I did.

Yet, even outside the legal system, skepticism and doubt are part of being human. The coronavirus has been no exception. Many people doubted whether it existed at all; the United States experienced an entire political movement that called it one big hoax to the point where public officials at the national level did not take it seriously. The consequences of that attitude were deadly, according to a recent interview on C-N-N with Doctor Deborah Birx.

Much of the doubt connected to the coronavirus arose because many people alive today had never experienced a worldwide pandemic of epic proportion. Before coronavirus, the last one was the polio pandemic about eighty years ago and before that the Spanish Flu about a hundred years ago. Flu vaccines did not become available until the nineteen-thirties, and polio vaccines arrived in the mid-nineteen-fifties.  Today’s coronavirus is something totally outside of the world as most people know it. Widespread, easily transmissible, and occasionally deadly, such a disease is a new experience for large swaths of people.  Since it was so far outside the world as most people knew it, doubting its existence could be expected.

What the coronavirus has taught us is that not all doubt is alike.  Some doubt is reasonable. Some doubt is not reasonable.

The doubts of the Apostle Thomas on the resurrection of Jesus were entirely reasonable. A man who died on the cross was now up, about, and alive. That idea was, and is, far outside human experience. Those like Thomas with reasonable doubts deserve compassion and mercy. In today’s Gospel for what has become known as Divine Mercy Sunday, Jesus shows us what mercy looks like.

Jesus, even though no longer in his human body, was a good pastor: He empathized with the situation of the disciples. He understood how they were feeling. He cared for the needs of his flock.  His people were truly surprised to see Him after he died. So the first thing He did was to put their mind at ease by showing them His crucifixion wounds. He came to be with the disciples to reward their faith by sharing His vulnerabilities with them.  And the disciples were happy to see him, as he reassured them by saying, “Peace be with you,” as if to say, “Calm down folks, everything’s going to be OK.”

Jesus saw the skepticism of Thomas as reasonable. But the false information driving the antivaxxer movement is manifestly unreasonable.  The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have proven to be over ninety percent effective. That is more effective than the annual flu vaccines. The coronavirus vaccines have minimal, if any, side effects. Deacon Sharon and I have both been fully vaccinated. I can tell you I had no side effects from either shot.

No one has died from the vaccines, but over five hundred fifty thousand people have died from Covid. My message to everyone is, “Get Vaccinated.” It’s the right thing to do, to protect both yourself and others so that all of us as a human community can live normally again.

Any doubts about the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines are not based on facts supported by evidence and are therefore, simply irrational. Those doubts DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT, rise to the level of the very legitimate doubts that Thomas had about the resurrected Body of Jesus.

Jesus affirmed the reasonableness of Thomas’s doubts by showing Thomas his wounds.  When Thomas saw the wounds of Jesus, he felt peace, as he exclaimed “My Lord and my God.” His words were not meant as a dry christological pronouncement, but as heartfelt adoration, the same adoration we feel when the Eucharist is offered at God’s Altar.

As today’s lesson from Acts tells us, teaching, prayers, fellowship all are in the context of the tangible reality of bread-breaking which for us is the Eucharist, a fancy name for the Mass. In giving us the gift of Eucharist, Jesus recognized our need to experience concrete, physical reality with Him just like He did for Thomas.

Christians experience the concrete, physical reality of in the Eucharist, where ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is not just symbolic. It is not just a memorial. It is not something that happens just in our minds.  Something actually happens at the Altar. When the priest asks the Holy Spirit to bless and sanctify the bread and wine, it undergoes an ontological change. It becomes a different substance. It still looks, tastes, and feels like ordinary bread and wine, but its reality isn’t its physical nature. It’s no longer bread and wine, but it is Jesus among us. Jesus becomes part of us and we become part of Him.  To paraphrase the Gospel of John, the flesh of Jesus we as the bread we receive is real food, and the blood of Jesus we receive as wine is real drink.

To say we believe in the Eucharist as a tradition of our faith is more than accepting the reality of the physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  By offering Himself to Thomas, Jesus got Thomas to believe in Him, to trust in Him. The meaning of belief in Jesus is that we are loyal to Jesus and that we trust in Jesus, and that happens because Jesus offers Himself to us as we receive the Eucharist.

To believe in someone does not mean intellectual assent to that someone’s mere existence. To believe means to trust in that person, to be loyal to that person.  So when Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,“ Jesus wasn’t rebuking Thomas, but Jesus was telling us that faith extends beyond tangible reality.

Many of us in our darkest hours have doubts about our faith, and seek the comfort of certainty, as Thomas did. Put yourself in the shoes of Thomas. He is like us, because he doubts, but is then convinced; but he is unlike us because he was able to see Jesus whereas we can only hear about him. Those of us living in the twenty-first century don’t have the privilege the disciples had of seeing Jesus with our eyes, either before or after the resurrection. The First Epistle of Peter tells us,

“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him.”

What this says is that we don’t need to physically see the earthly Jesus to live a life of trusting Jesus and believing in what He has to offer us.  All we need to do to believe in Jesus is to rejoice with the joy that leads us to love Jesus, to open our hearts to Jesus, to be vulnerable to Jesus.

Jesus was someone different from other people. He was outside the mainstream. Jesus invites us to be different from other people, that is, to be yourself, to be the person that God made you instead of the person other people expect you to be. Those of us who are different from others have one trait in common: we’re willing to take the risk that the crowd might not like us.  To be different from other people, you have to be willing to be vulnerable and trust in God to care for you. Jesus offers you the pathway to clear earthly insecurities from your existence and be the person God created you to be.

Our love of Jesus leads us to faith in Jesus, and we show our faith by living it, and living it means loving others as Jesus loves us.  Faith in Jesus is not just words. Faith in Jesus is an action performed, based on trusting Jesus and our loyalty to Jesus.

St Paul tells us to “walk by faith and not by sight.” That’s because faith comes primarily from the heart, not our senses. The unknown author of Hebrews got it right: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Here’s an analogy. Many things that we do in life show faith. For example, a person takes aspirin when she or he has a headache. Why? Because he believes the aspirin will get rid of the headache. It’s like when a person plants corn, she or he believes that it will grow.

Our world is filled with examples of people believing in, that is, having faith in one another. Spouses have faith in their spouses to support one another. Children have faith in their parents that their parents will take care of them. Lenders put faith in borrowers to get paid back. The list goes on, but all these situations have one thing in common: the person having faith in another thing or person is taking a risk and is acting based on trust.

When we have faith in God, we open our vulnerabilities to God and trust God to make everything better for us, just like when you forgive and reconcile with someone who has hurt you, you’re opening up your vulnerabilities instead of defending yourself to protect your ego. From a human viewpoint, that’s perfectly understandable. When someone hurts you, you feel vulnerable.  To protect our vulnerabilities, we feel angry, resentful, and want to retaliate. That’s part of our fallen nature, our imperfection as human beings. Jesus came to redeem and transform us from that mode of thinking and feeling through a Gospel of love and forgiveness.

Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is now six years old.  Our first Mass was in the lobby of my former law office, and it was on the Second Sunday of Easter that we celebrate today.  The doubts of Thomas the Apostle gave us pause for concern as to how successful a church we would become. Before the coronavirus pandemic, we were experiencing a year-over-year increase in total attendance. However, like many churches, we continue to learn that what was the church in the years we were growing up is entirely different from church today.

Many people now attend church only on feast days like Christmas and Easter. Many more look to the church, not as a place they go every week, but mostly to be part of life events, such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals.  For many, these occasions are more family social events than they are religious occasions.  The fact is, most of the population no longer goes to church to save their soul from Hell in the afterlife. That is a reality churches must accept.

Some churches have responded to what’s happening in the world outside the church by erecting barriers to restrict their ministries to members only or by requiring people to accept particular doctrines as a condition of participation. However righteous they may feel about the correctness of their ideas, churches that behave that way are dying. Jesus, however, is the Lord of Life.  Jesus does not want dead churches! So we, therefore, we are not going down that road. We will continue to offer all sacraments to everyone, whether or not they attend church here on a regular basis. And I mean, everyone.

Our job is not to be gatekeepers obstructing God’s grace, but conduits through which God’s grace flows. And we will never charge money for sacraments, although we do welcome donations. God’s grace is not a commodity to be bought and sold. Jesus made that perfectly clear when he drove the money-changers out of the Temple saying, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

Scientific explanations of the natural world have replaced myths in how humanity lives, but that is only part of the reason why church everywhere is on the downswing. The entire Christian world is being Thomas by experiencing significant doubts about the future of the church as we know it. If the Church is to survive, the organizational membership model, or the exclusive club model of church, must no longer constrain what the church can and should be.

Here are the facts. The latest statistics from the Gallup Poll and other polling organizations for religion in the United States, peg the number of people not affiliated with any church at about thirty-six percent, and among millennials, that is, those born between nineteen-eighty to two thousand, it’s even higher about forty-three percent. Agnosticism, that is people who aren’t sure about God’s existence, and atheism, people who don’t believe in God at all, have risen significantly.

What is happening is millions of people are like Thomas. They are doubters.  Unlike us, they don’t think Jesus is the answer to their lives. Part of the reason they feel that way is that some of our fellow Christians, in particular, our conservative sisters and brothers, have given Christianity a bad name by their despicable behavior.

Rather than show mercy, these so-called “Christians” judge, and reject, those who don’t think as they do, particularly in the sexuality area.  They say those who don’t follow their rules will burn in Hell. That is called “triumphalism.” That’s not a very inviting message to get people to come to church, and it is definitely not what we do here. Your sex life is a matter between you and God. It will never be any of our business. We will always respect your privacy.

Just as Jesus showed mercy to Thomas the Apostle in his moment of doubt, Jesus invites us to show the same Divine Mercy on those folks out there who aren’t part of our world at the Altar. To demand change in what goes on inside anyone’s head in their relationship with God is not our role. Everyone comes to God in their own way on their own schedule. The doctrines you hold are a private matter between you and God. The clergy are here to guide you, but only if you ask. We are not here to make demands on you but to love you and help you when you are ready.

No matter where the rest of the world is in its relationship with God, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community can, and will, offer a completely Sung Mass every Sunday. Although our primary mission is to the community of musicians and music lovers, it goes without question that everyone is welcome here, whatever their relationship with God may be, and whatever their prior religious background may be. Even if the people who attend here don’t accept particular doctrines, we still love them and want them to be part of us.

For that reason, we earnestly invite everyone, and I mean everyone, to receive Holy Communion, no matter where you are in your journey with God. Just think of it as sharing a meal with people you love, to strengthen your relationship with one another.  That’s what Jesus intended for us.

Thomas found his way to Jesus because Jesus treated his doubts with mercy, not judgment. In doing so, Jesus bequeathed to us a paradigm for how Christians should relate to the rest of the world. Even those who see God as a judge should remember that God alone is our judge, not the Church, not the clergy, and not each other. The parting words of Jesus were not to judge one another but to love one another as Jesus loved us. Without a doubt, Jesus loves you, and so do I. AMEN.