easter The Sánchez Archives

Year C

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Community of Disciples

ACTS 5:12-16
Revelation 1:9-11, 12-15, 17-19
JOHN 20:19-31

Each year the readings for the Sunday within the octave of Easter provide the gathered assembly with a literary window through which to revisit the early church. In the Johannine gospel, the fourth evangelist reminds his readers that ours is a community that was founded on the peace of the risen Christ, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit and commissioned for a ministry of forgiveness. John, the seer, in the second reading from Revelation, shares with his persecuted contemporaries and with us a vision intended to foster faith and stir hope, viz., that of Jesus, the glorious Son of Man, risen from the dead to live forever. Remembering this vision, believers will find the strength to endure every difficulty because Jesus’ resurrected glory is a sure pledge of our own. Luke, in the first reading from Acts, describes the life-style and activities of our ancestors in the faith, holding out for us, as it were, a model of what the church is called to become.

As the church has grown and evolved, a variety of models or ways of envisioning and understanding church have emerged. Jesus imaged the community of believers as a vine with many branches. Paul likened the church to a living body with many mutually cooperative and supportive members. In the post-reformation period, Robert Bellarmine defined the church as “the community of men (sic) brought together by the profession of the same Christian faith and enjoined in the communion of the same sacraments, under the government of the legitimate pastors. . .”

In keeping with the renewal brought about by Pope John XXIII and the second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI declared that the church is “a mystery imbued with the hidden presence of God.” A participant at the Council, Gustave Weigel, suggested that one of its most significant contributions was the profound realization that the church is best described, not in words, but in images, most of which are biblical, e.g. God’s flock, field, bride, house of living stones, etc.

Following the inspiration of the council participants, Avery Dulles identified several of these images or ecclesial models, noting that because of these images or models are derived from the finite realities of experience, they are never adequate in representing the mystery of grace. Imaging the church as institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, and servant, Dulles assisted believers in the 1970s in exploring the vast and varied complexion of who we are as church (see Models of the Church, Doubleday, New York: 1974). Thirteen years later, Dulles expanded upon his earlier insights (see Models of the Church, Expanded Edition, Doubleday, New York: 1987) and affirmed Pope John Paul II’s suggestion that the most fitting model of the church is that of a “community of disciples.”

Noting that this model includes and creates a harmony among all the previous models, Dulles further explained that the church is never more Church than when it gathers for instruction and worship. On such occasions it becomes most palpably the visible presence of Christ in the world. But it would not be completely and fully Church unless the gathered assembly went forth to carry on Christ’s work and to speak Christ’s words to the world. Like systole and diastole in the beating human heart, like inhalation and exhalation in breathing, assembly (for worship and instruction) and mission constitute the very life of the Church. The community of disciples would not exist without the centripetal movement of worship and the centrifugal movement of mission. Only when these two movements are maintained and sustained in a holy and wholesome balance, can the church accomplish its purpose in the world.

While it is inspiring to look once again at the early church, through the literary window of the Scriptures, this journey into happy memory should also be an impetus for present and future growth. Centuries from now, our descendants in the faith will be looking back at us. What vision, image or model of the church will be our legacy to them?

ACTS 5:12-16

First coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in his book by the same title, the word, Utopia has come to be synonymous with an ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants enjoy a seemingly perfect existence. A compound term comprised of the Greek words for “not” (ou) and “place” (topos) utopia actually means “nowhere”. Although More originated the name Utopia, the idea of a utopian existence predates him by almost two millennia. Plato’s (429-347 B.C.E.) most famous work, the Republic was the model for many writers, from More to H.G. Wells (A Modern Utopia, 1905 C.E.). Euhemerus described a utopian island in his Sacred History (ca. 300 B.C.E.). Plutarch imagined a perfect Sparta in his life of Lycurgus.

Nearer to our times, religious and political reformers have attempted to establish utopian communities, particularly in the Americas. The first such community, begun by the Dutch Mennonites in Lewes, Delaware in 1663 C.E. has been followed by almost 140 other settlements in North America alone.

While a utopian existence will probably never lose its allure, the exigencies of everyday living seem to render it unattainable. Well aware of this, Luke in today’s first reading presents his idyllic description of the early Christian community in a balanced and realistic fashion, viz., sandwiched in between the deaths of the dishonest couple, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), and the second arrest of the apostles (Acts 5:17-32). Always a challenge and not always completely realized, this model of Christian community should not be dismissed as a nowhere and impossible utopia. Rather it should speak to every believer’s heart of the hope and possibilities of grace-filled Christian living.

The third of three such descriptions included by Luke in Acts (2:42-47; 4:32-35) this text details both the activity of the earliest believers in Jesus and the effect that they had on those around them. As William Barclay (“Acts of the Apostles’” The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) explained, this cameo-like portrayal tells us where the church met. Solomon’s Portico was the name given to one of two great colonnades which surrounded the temple area. A location where Jesus had preached and taught during his earthly ministry (John 10:23), Solomon’s Portico became a gathering place for his followers who continued his work.

Luke’s description also affirms the fact that the early church assembled in public, where their faith and courage could be witnessed by all. Finally, Luke’s depiction underscores the effectiveness of the growing community of believers. Following the model of service set forth by Jesus, they healed the sick by wielding God’s power over unclean spirits. In the ancient world, all maladies were attributed to demons and evil spirits; therefore a cure was described in terms of exorcising or driving out these demonic perpetrators of pain and suffering.

Notice that Luke’s references to the crowds converging in search of help and healing, and the sick lying on mats in the streets had been applied to Jesus in the gospel (Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40-41). Like the one in whom they believed and by whom they had been saved, the first Christians were modeling for the world the very words and works of Jesus. Those who may be inclined to dismiss this model of the church as attractive but unrealistic, given the sophistication and secularity of the contemporary world, need only be reminded that the same Spirit, same charisms and same graces continue to be available to all who believe.

REVELATION 1:9-11, 12-15, 17-19

Perennially popular, the book of Revelation has nevertheless been misunderstood, misrepresented and misinterpreted for centuries. Those who spurn the probing and clarity afforded by hermeneutics in favor of a fundamentalist or literalist approach to scripture have interpreted John’s visions as ominous portents of a frightening future. Others have used Revelation to predict the exact date of the end of the world. As Raymond E. Brown has so ably pointed out in his fine study, Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, New York: 1997), “Up to the moment, all have been wrong!” On the other hand, those who avail themselves of all the tools that scholarship has to offer understand that the ancient author and seer wrote in the genre called apocalyptic.

Replete with bizarre signs, symbols, numbers and beasts, apocalyptic literature was not intended as a forecast of coming events but as a message of encouragement to the author’s contemporaries who were suffering persecution during the last years of the reign of Emperor Domitian (ca. 92-96 C.E.). During his tenure, Domitian was declared a god by the Roman Senate. At his insistence, statues of him were erected throughout the empire; all peoples subject to Rome were to venerate the statue and acclaim Domitian as “Dominus et Deus noster” (our Lord and God).

While Judaism and its adherents were tolerated by Rome, Christianity, considered an aberrant sect of Judaism, was not. In the mid-eighties C.E. when the breach between the church and the synagogue became absolute, Christians became completely vulnerable to Roman persecution. Well aware of their situation, the author of Revelation extended a message of strength and comfort to his brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Spawned by a firm faith in God’s power to save and sustained by the conviction that God would not abandon any believer to the forces of evil, the author or Revelation entrusted his present fears and future hopes to God and invited his readers to do likewise. At its very heart, the basic message of Revelation is: Evil will never triumph over Goodness, not the evil of Rome or even the evil of death by persecution.

Today’s pericope has been excerpted from the authors’ inaugural vision in which the glorious and victorious Son of Man, i.e., the risen Jesus, commissions John, the seer, to record the visions that will be communicated to him. Having written down all that he will see and hear, the author was to share his experiences with seven of the churches in Asia Minor. Portrayed as seven lamp stands, the churches were to remember Jesus’ mandate to be the light of the world and to take heart in the fact that the triumphant Christ would not allow anyone to extinguish them.

“I hold the keys” (v. 18), he encourages, meaning that he who rose from the dead is now master of life and death. This assurance was intended to dispel the fears of the persecuted that, one day, they also would share in the victory of Christ over all. We who are privileged to anticipate that victory in the sacraments and especially in the Eucharist are also encouraged to fight fear with faith, and trepidation about the future with trust and hope.

JOHN 20:19-31

Given the fact that this gospel, or a portion of it, is proclaimed no less than six times during the three year Sunday lectionary cycle, it would appear that the model of the church herein represented warrants serious consideration.

First and foremost, the Johannine author has portrayed a community of fearful disciples who clung to one another for strength and support. With the doors locked, they found security in one another and in the shared memories of one whom they believed had died on the cross. Second, this model of the early church knew the strength of the risen Jesus’ presence and the power and peace of the Spirit which he breathed into them. Third, the nascent community was diverse in its strengths and weaknesses. Even though Thomas doubted their claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus, the other disciples did not shun him or deny him a welcome with the assembly. With their support, Thomas’ doubt grew to full faith. Fourth, the community was mandated to be both a model of and a means of extending forgiveness to others. Fifth, the community’s parameters were enlarged and its membership expanded to include all whom Jesus pronounced as blest, because we have not seen, but have believed. Sixth, the community took care to remember, preserve, order and hand on the signs and traditions about Jesus, so that through faith, all may have life in his name.

Highly apologetic in character and content, this gospel also modeled the community’s growing faith and understanding of the resurrection. That there was continuity between the Jesus who died on the cross and the risen Lord who suddenly appeared in their midst is shown in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. That Jesus was not merely resuscitated but transformed is illustrated in his mysterious entrance into the locked room. Some, in the Johannine community, who were influenced by the gnostic intolerance of all things material and corporal, were inclined to overlook the cross and concentrate solely on the risen, glorious Jesus. The evangelist’s portrayal and his frank admission of Jesus’ scars served as a reality check.

In addition to Jesus’ visible wounds, the invitation for Thomas to take his finger and examine his hands and to put his hand into Jesus’ side is a further affirmation that his risen body was not simply a vision or figment of a community’s collective and wishful imagination. Jesus’ resurrection was as real as Thomas’ doubt. Thomas’ experience of the risen Jesus called him to move beyond pragmatism, logic and the sensational aspects of the event to a committed faith. As to whether or not Thomas actually touched Jesus, the evangelist has chosen to remain silent. Faith does not come from seeing or even touching. Faith is God’s gift to those who will listen, hear and live by the challenge of Jesus: “Do not persist in your unbelief but believe!”

With Thomas, the gathered assembly of sometimes fearful, but continually forgiven disciples, is invited to hear Jesus’ challenge yet again and to respond to it with renewed fervor, “My Lord and my God!” Then, infused with the peace and power of the Spirit, we are to go forth from this place to forgive and to see and touch and attend to the wounds of the rest of the body of Christ.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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