The verses which make up the Gospel text for today may be seen to be divided into four parts, all of which are interconnected. The first of these is the appearance of the Risen Christ to his disciples, and this is followed by his commission to them. The third is the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples when Thomas is present. The final part is the comments made by the evangelist.
The disciples did not believe the word of Mary Magdalene that the Lord had appeared to her and so, they are behind closed doors. However, even closed doors do not pose a hindrance to Jesus. He comes into their midst. His first words to the disciples are his gift of peace. This is not merely a wish, but a gift, since it is with his peace that they will be sent out into the world. This gift enables them to substitute fearlessness for their fear, courage for their cowardice, and joy for their sorrow. The manifestation of his hands and side is to indicate to them that there is continuity. It is not a different Jesus who appears to them, but the same Jesus, who was crucified, died, buried, and raised from the dead. He is now, also, the Risen Christ. This manifestation enables the disciples to see and recognise him. This is the reason for their joy.
However, the manifestation serves another purpose as well, which is to send the disciples on mission. The disciples are sent by Jesus, the Risen Christ, just as Jesus was sent by the Father. In other words, they are to continue the mission that Jesus began. As he received the gift of the Spirit before his ministry, so too, the disciples receive the gift of the Spirit from Jesus. The breath of Jesus on the disciples makes them a new creation and readies them for their mission that is to forgive and retain sin.
While this has been understood as a basis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it seems, from the text, that the mission is much deeper. The Commission is to “the disciples”, which, in the Gospel of John, is a much larger group than the eleven or twelve. It involves the entire faith community. It is the whole community that is called to continue the mission of Jesus. This mission is not merely the forgiveness or retention of sins that individuals commit. It is more than that. In the Gospel of John, sin is, more often than not, a theological failing. It is the refusal to believe that Jesus is the manifestation of the Father. It is the refusal to believe that Jesus reveals God as no other does. Thus, when the disciples are commissioned to forgive and retain sin, what they are really commissioned to do is reveal God to the world as Jesus did. They will reveal God to the world by the love they have for one another, and by the love they show to others. They will make others see that God is, indeed, love. They will, through their actions, invite others to share in this unconditional love. Those to whom this manifestation is made are free to accept or to reject it. It is in this acceptance or rejection that sins are forgiven or retained. Acceptance means forgiveness. Rejection means that sins are retained.
This interpretation is confirmed when we realise that one reason why Thomas did not believe the disciples when they told him that they had seen the Lord, was because he was not able to see in their words and actions a manifestation of the love of Jesus. They were as they had been before the revelation that Jesus made to them. There did not seem to be any marked change in their behaviour. They were not able to convince him that the Lord had, indeed, appeared to them. However, Jesus will use, for Thomas, that way which will bring him to faith. In this, Thomas is as “doubting” as the disciples and no more so. Thus, in this scene, the focus of attention is not Thomas, but Jesus. The focus is on the generous offer of himself that Jesus makes to Thomas, an offer that Jesus made to so many others, so often in his life time. After his resurrection, Jesus continues to give. Thomas responds with the most powerful, complete and the highest acclamation for Jesus found in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus is, indeed, Lord and God. The words of Jesus to Thomas after the acclamation include future generations of believers. It is not necessary to have external sight to come to faith. It is not necessary to touch and to feel to come to faith. It is not necessary to have tangible evidence to come to faith. We, who believe without having seen, are invited, like Thomas and the other disciples, not merely to believe in the resurrection, but to believe in the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. We are invited to believe in his unique relationship with God. We now have life in abundance because Jesus has completed his work on earth and returned to the Father.
He is, as the second reading of today informs us, the one who has been raised by the father. He who was dead is alive forever and it is he who holds the keys of the kingdom. It is the same Lord who gave Peter and the first disciples the power to heal and make whole. It is the same Lord who gave Peter and the disciples the power to reach out in love. It is the same Lord who gave Peter and the disciples the power to make him manifest in their every word and action so that others will be brought to believe.
It is the same Lord who gives us this power today. What will we do with it?