What is the context of today’s Gospel?
Each of the four Gospel accounts provides us with a slightly different glimpse into the life of Jesus. Each author had a particular set of experiences that shaped his/their understanding of who Jesus was, and each had a specific group in mind as a target audience.
Imagine any contemporary subject of public scrutiny, for instance the most recent Heisman Trophy winner, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota. Heading into the upcoming NFL Draft, dozens of different stories will be published about Mariota, and depending on who is writing the story, whom the intended audience is, and what the author hopes to convey, these profiles will vary slightly in their details. For instance, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the largest newspaper in the state of Hawaii (but little read by a larger audience) would very probably focus on Mariota’s journey from his days as a high school phenom and state champion at St. Louis High School in Honolulu to becoming the first ever Hawaiian-born player to win the Heisman Trophy. By contrast, NFL.Com, which caters to a national audience of professional football fans, would more than likely focus on where Mariota might potentially land on draft day, and how he would fit into the system of various NFL franchises in need of a QB.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, for its part, would probably describe how current Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly recruited Mariota to play at Oregon, and how rumors are swirling that Kelly hopes to move up the board on draft day, in order to acquire his one time college signal-caller. And perhaps Sports Illustrated or ESPN, wishing to show another side to Mariota, will publish a piece highlighting Mariota’s community service while at Oregon, featuring interviews from teammates, family members, and those who knew him off the football field. All of these different accounts would be true, yet each would be incomplete. Taken together, we can come to learn about this person we have never met personally. And so it is with Jesus.
This week’s passage on Jesus comes to us from the Gospel of John, the latest Gospel to be written and the one with the most theologically sophisticated understanding of who Christ is in relation to God and Creation. The Gospel of John was written at the very end of the First Century, probably around 90-100 AD, about 60-70 years after the death of Jesus. Whereas the letters from St. Paul were written only about 20 years after the death of Jesus, and the first of the Synoptic Gospels, that of Mark, was written about a decade later, the Gospel of John was addressed to a community who did not have first-hand knowledge of Jesus the way prior audiences had. By 100 AD, the apostles had all passed away, so there were no longer any first-hand witnesses to what he had said and done during his earthly ministry. (Think, in our own time, about how World War II ended 60 years ago. Very few people who fought in the war remain. The farther removed we get from firsthand accounts of the events of that era, the more important it becomes for details to be written down.)
Thus, in John’s Gospel, we get the account of “Doubting Thomas,” and we hear the famous words of Jesus, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” This anecdote about Thomas does not appear in any of the Synoptic Gospels, because their respective audiences were more proximate to the life and ministry and Jesus and still had a palpable connection to the apostles. The Johannine Community, by comparison, would have been composed entirely of people who “had not seen, but have believed.” It was affirmation for their faith, just as it remains an affirmation of the faith of all Christians, some two thousand years later.
What does this have to do with us?
Faith, in its essence, is not about being convinced of something by way of proofs or evidence. We do not need faith to believe that gravity is in operation, because we can prove its effects by way of scientific experiments. We do not require faith to know that there really is a country named Equatorial Guinea, because, even if we ourselves have not been there, we can log onto Google Maps and view photos of it. We do not take most things in our daily life on faith--rather, we seek verification and come to informed conclusions. We are the products of modernity and the scientific method and a process of independent confirmation of readily observable facts about the true nature of reality.
Belief in the Resurrection, then, stands out among our collection of independently verifiable truths about the nature of reality, as something that we necessarily cannot accept, except by faith alone. No number of CNN Special Investigations or History Channel specials will be able to provide irrefutable evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. No series of forensic tests nor carbon dating will ever be able to settle whether or not our God became human, suffered, died, and was buried, and on the Third Day, rose again. And yet, this fundamental belief shapes our daily lives every bit as much (arguably more so!) as our belief in gravity or the trustworthiness of Google Maps.
And so, today’s Gospel, in which Jesus attests to both John’s original audience and to us, how blessed are we, not when we demand proof, but when we place our unqualified trust in God... remains an inestimably powerful affirmation of faith.
The central themes of the Gospel... that God is love, that we are forgiven and redeemed, that Jesus’ desire to find us and care for us, as the Good Shepherd and the Father of the Prodigal Son... all require us to take a leap of faith. But having taken that leap, we become the witnesses who, like the first apostles, are missioned out to others. Through our own Baptism and Confirmation, we too, have been infused with the grace of the Holy Spirit to carry on Jesus’ ministry. We, too, have been empowered with the gifts necessary to spread the Gospel by way of our words and deeds. In short, we become living, walking witnesses to the nailmarks on Jesus hand. We, through our very lives, become the pierced flesh in Jesus side; we, through our Christ-like model of love and self-sacrifice, become the invitation for all that we encounter to believe in the Resurrection!
Through our own faith, Easter becomes not a one time event, but an ongoing intervention of God into human history. We offer evidence of the Resurrection; we embody the power of God’s saving love to conquer death; we truly become the Body of Christ.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever suffered from a lack of faith? Have you ever experienced great doubt, either about God, or our faith, or some other aspect of your life? How did you handle it?
2. Do you ever doubt some of the things you hear asserted in Church? Do you ever wonder if God truly forgives us every time we sin? Do you ever struggle to accept that you are loved unconditionally, forgiven tirelessly, and valued immeasurably by God?
3. How do you think you could witness to the Resurrection to others? What are some ways you might be able to provide evidence of the Risen Jesus, through how you live?