In his important work, The Sunday Lectionary (1998), Normand Bonneau sketches the architecture of the readings for the Easter season, the 50 days from Easter to Pentecost, which focus on mystagogy, by which the newly baptized are led into a deeper understanding of their baptismal incorporation into Christ. The older designation Sundays after Easter yields to Sundays of Easter, since each Sunday plays the resurrection message in a different key. There is no temporal sequence as in Advent or Lent, leading to the birth or the death of Jesus. Though the Easter season culminates in the celebration of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, in John the gift of the Spirit and sending of the disciples occur on the first Easter evening. Also only during the Easter season are Old Testament readings omitted, to be replaced by readings from Acts, which stress the impact of the resurrection in the nascent church. The Gospels, apart from the Lukan appearance (Third sunday of Easter) are from John and contain memorable expressions of Jesus’ care for and presence in the community (The Good Shepherd; The Vine and the Branches; the Love Command).
The Gospel read today, once called Sunday in White to recall the day when the newly baptized doffed their white garments, recounts two appearances of the risen Jesus. On Easter evening the disciples are gathered in the darkness, fearful behind closed doors. The scene evokes the frequent association in John of darkness with lack of faith. Jesus’ first word is Peace, the biblical opposite of fear, not conflict, and a word that is closely associated with other biblical motifs such as justice, mercy and loving kindness (Hos. 2:22-23). Here and in the doubting Thomas incident, when Jesus shows his wounds disciples recognize him. The symbolism is powerful. The risen Christ is the crucified one; Christ’s presence among the community of believers is recognized by his wounds. This is the Johannine version of the Matthean presence of Christ in the suffering and marginal people of the world (Mt. 25:31-46).
Jesus now includes the disciples in his own mission and fulfills his promise to send them the Holy Spirit (14:26-27), elsewhere called the advocate (paraclete, 16:7), or Spirit of Truth (16:13). Recalling the original gift of life to Adam from God’s breath, Jesus breathes on them and grants them the power over sins, to forgive or retain them (literally hold, or restrain). Though later church teaching sees this gift manifest in the sacrament of reconciliation, its original meaning is wider. The community of disciples is to be a community of forgiveness that sends sin away (the literal meaning of forgive) and holds in check its destructive power.
The story of Thomas, set a week later, portrays an example of unfaith, which seeks proof of the resurrection (Do not persist in your unbelief). Only after Jesus challenges him to touch his wounds does Thomas confess, My Lord and My God. In words addressed to John’s community and the church through the ages, Jesus pronounces, Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed, and the Evangelist ends with a comment on the explicit purpose of the Gospel: It is written to bring people to faith in Jesus, the Messiah. Resurrection faith is the key to reading John’s Gospel.
These readings, along with the passages from Acts and 1 John, offer a dense collection of motifs for prayer and preaching. By his resurrection Jesus fulfills his promise not to leave his followers orphans (14:19), and to bring them the fullness of joy (15:11). His followers share in the very same mission that he received from the Father. With the gift of the Spirit, a disciple of Jesus is to be the continuing presence of God’s love in the world. Generations who walk in faith without seeing are begotten of God and more blessed than those who have seen and believed. This faith enables them to live as a community of one heart and one mind, the classical description of friendship, which is cemented by concern for the poor and needy. The Resurrection proclamation is not simply the victory over death or the promise of eternal life, but a summons to live as a community led by the Spirit, practicing forgiveness and resistance to evil, which takes shape in bonds of friendship that reach across the great economic divide between wealth and poverty.