God’s peace and mercy. That’s what we celebrate today as we come to the end of the Octave of Easter. Three times in today’s gospel, we hear Jesus say: “Peace be with you.” And, this isn’t just a pleasant greeting but a powerful assurance. Jesus has just overcome death and the power of sin in our lives through his rising from the dead and now he comes in the midst of his followers who were hiding in a room with locked doors out of fear and says: “Peace be with you!” The disciples certainly recalled when just a few nights before, at the Last Supper, Jesus had comforted them when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. …Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Well, they were troubled and afraid; afraid for their lives! It is only as they see the risen Lord and begin to realize the great power he gives them through the hope of the Resurrection that they are able to overcome their fear and begin to teach about Jesus and lead the faithful in praise of God, as we hear in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. As we will continue to hear over the next several weeks, they become more and more emboldened to proclaim the Good News that we are all blessed to believe. Through the death and resurrection of our Lord, we all have a new goal in our lives: eternal life with our loving God in heaven! We now have a clear plan for our lives – to prepare ourselves to share in the eternal life our Lord has made possible for us through his death and resurrection. This helps us to overcome any fear we have in our lives and to live in peace in the midst of a world in turmoil.
I had the occasion to reflect on the importance of this central aspect of our faith again last week as I met with a group of Jewish students from Eastern University. Every year, Jewish students from that university visit local churches as part of their course in comparative religions. I have met with this group of students and their professors every year around this time for the past 11 years and am always eager to show them our beautiful church and to share some of the basic tenets of our faith with them. As we stood around the altar, I pointed to the crucifix behind me and the Judgement Seat in the stained glass window behind the choir loft and said: “These two images best capture our faith. We believe that Jesus, who is truly God and man, died for us – the perfect sacrifice to God for our sins – and rose from the dead, giving us the hope of eternal life.” Then, pointing to the stained glass window, I went on to explain, “If you look carefully, you will see a book on the Judgement Seat; it is the book of life that you read about in your sacred scriptures. We hope to have our names written in that book so that we will be welcomed into heaven to praise and glorify God forever.”
I then asked the two professors about the current belief among Jews regarding life after death. I noted that over the years I had heard a variety of answers from Jewish rabbis and there didn’t seem to be a consensus among them about it. The two professors looked at each other and then, after an awkward silence, one of the responded by stammering that that’s exactly right. They don’t have a clear, universal teaching about the afterlife. We do, however; how blessed we are to believe in heaven! And, in our Lord’s Resurrection, which we celebrate with such joy, we can look forward to eternal joy in God’s presence. That brings us true peace, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, here on earth, we often find ourselves struggling with sin and its effects, especially sickness and death. We are encouraged by the message we hear in today’s second reading: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” In his great mercy, God accompanies us through our trials and distress of this life as we struggle to prepare for eternal life. And, so today, we include in our Easter celebration an acknowledgment of the mercy of God that restored our right relationship with him and allowed us entry into heaven. Thus, the Second Sunday of the Easter Octave is also celebrated throughout the Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. And, remember what we mean when we speak of God’s mercy. The English word “mercy” comes from the Latin word “misericordia.” You can hear the roots of two of our English words, “misery” and “cardiac.” It speaks of God, from the depth of his being – from his heart – sharing in our misery and raising us up to himself.
Today’s second reading presents this truth rather powerfully. As we heard a moment ago, the First Letter of Peter speaks of the blessing of God’s mercy that the early Christians experienced in the midst of their trials. Today’s Gospel passage shows God’s mercy in action. Jesus appears to the disciples for the first time after his resurrection. He wishes them peace and then, Jesus breathes on them, passing on to the Apostles the Holy Spirit, granting them the ability to forgive sins. In this way, he commissions them to take an active role in imparting divine mercy on those they serve in God’s name. And then, we hear the story of Thomas that gives us a living example of divine mercy. Thomas would not believe in the Resurrection unless he saw evidence. Jesus accepts this weakness of faith, and accommodates Thomas’ unbelief. This loving acceptance is an integral part of divine mercy.
Thomas represents us and our various weaknesses. As he did with Thomas, Jesus strengthens us when we have doubts, and raises each of us above our human frailties and, through his mercy, brings us into communion with the Father.
What love this is – what mercy he showers on us! As we contemplate the wonder of such mercy, let us show our gratitude by living as Jesus taught us, loving one another and showing mercy to everyone we encounter each day, embracing them from the depth of our being – from our hearts – and raising them up to our living God. In this way, we will all be instruments of the peace that comes only from God.