It is very striking that, very early in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is introduced as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29) and that, here in this scene towards the end of the Gospel, Jesus talks specifically about forgiving sin. Jesus died and rose to bring God’s healing mercy to a hurting and often angry world. He announced that at the beginning and now he commends that mission to his disciples. So, it is not surprising that Pope John Paul II established this Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.
Sin is not a popular concept nowadays. It is portrayed as part of an old judgemental way of looking at life. People, it is said, should be free to make their own decisions and not to be judged. And yet, while I reject anyone who questions the rightness of my decisions, on the other hand, there appears to be a strong urge to condemn others. We love to hear of a scandal when someone is caught out and exposed. As someone said, everything is permitted, and nothing is forgiven. Furthermore, there is a widespread narrative that the past was full of outrageous mistakes and that we must consign those attitudes to the dustbin of history. The other part of that story is that we are wise and sensible today. So how dare anyone condemn how we modern liberated people deal with situations? People with different beliefs or practices are easily caricatured as evil or blinkered. But in every generation, there is a real temptation to blindness in that we are tempted and encouraged to take as normal and sensible some attitudes, actions and laws that the next generations will mock as outrageous.
Jesus speaks mercy rather than condemnation into our angry hurt and our confusion. He wants every generation to know the liberating power of mercy and forgiveness. His forgiveness is not about keeping people childish but about enabling us to become adult disciples. Last weekend, we experienced that forgiveness. Jesus took on his shoulders the sins of the world – the violence and greed, the exploitation of the weak and the pollution of the environment. And what was his response? The wrath of God on his persecutors or his fickle disciples? No, just an empty tomb and the words, ‘Peace be with you’.
As Thomas and the other disciples discover, Jesus does not ignore or hide the wounds that were inflicted on him. But love has ensured that they no longer bleed. Mercy and forgiveness are not about forgetting the past or drawing a line under it. He does not forget the awful reality of Good Friday, but he looks at the past through grace-filled eyes, not hurting or angry ones. That applies in our personal lives as well as in our local politics. A wise man wrote recently that sin is inexcusable but forgivable. Mercy enables us to forgive and to remember – not merely to forgive and forget. God’s grace enables us to tell a story about our lives that takes the rubble of the past and makes it into a foundation for the future – not into a pile of rocks to throw at others or with which to gash ourselves. It takes the rubbish of the past and makes it into compost that helps growth. The dirt from the past does not have to lie in the corner and stink out our lives. And we have many people who find it hard to believe in the creativity of God which can makes our lives beautiful, no matter how ugly they may have been. That is the maturing process that divine mercy wants to enable in each of us and in our communities.
We see in today’s first reading a picture of the ideal early Christian community in Jerusalem. They were committed to four core items – the teaching of the apostles about Jesus, the community, the breaking of bread (an early phrase for the Eucharist) and the prayers. But building that community cannot have been easy. Not everybody realised that Jesus had talked about service and not about power or status. Not everybody behaved well when Jesus was arrested and killed. But divine mercy enabled members to be reconciled with the past and face a future that was dominated by Jesus’ values rather than by human recriminations. Jesus has processed the past on the Cross and human mistakes can no longer dominate our identity. Through forgiveness and mercy, the Christian community can be buried with Christ and be raised again with his Risen life. The cold hard rock of sin, division and stupidity cannot lock away God’s hope and dream for us. New life is possible.
It is with these sort of Jesus eyes that we come to our local realities. We cannot simply draw a line under the past and the terrible things that people did to one another. Only the truth can set us free. But the truth has to be sought by hearts that are open to be touched by grace and not just by a hunger for victory or a fear of embarrassment. Dishonest narratives about the past will have to be sacrificed. That will involve personal Calvaries. Some people are not prepared for that. And there is a huge need for mercy with our own Church circles. We too have been affected by the shrill tone of political discourse. There are discordant voices about what went wrong in the recent or distant past. If, like the early Jerusalem Church, we are to face the future with Christian communities that inspire our contemporaries to love Jesus, then we have to be the first to be open to healing and divine mercy. If we have not sought that mercy, then we cannot talk about it. If all we can do is blame someone else and burn bridges, then we have not really encountered the Risen Jesus and allowed him to say, ‘Peace be with you’. We have to be the first to bear witness to the healing power of God’s mercy. Otherwise, we cannot blame our society for not daring to believe that a shared forgiving future is possible.
In our second reading St Peter talks about the effects of faith created by the experience of what he calls God’s great mercy. He talks about the new birth that comes from that, the sure hope, the love – and what he calls ‘a joy so glorious that it cannot be described’. He knew in his own personal life – as one who betrayed Jesus – what was meant by the joy that comes from knowing divine mercy. Where anger and resentment dominate, we are all diminished and isolated in the tomb of the past. Where mercy and forgiveness dominate, we can dare to dream God’s dreams for us as a human race and specifically as a Church. As Jesus showed with the empty tomb, he seeks to nourish our hearts on new life in the breaking of bread in his name, and not on the stale bread of old angers.
Nearly a hundred years ago, Sr Faustina spoke of divine mercy into a sore and hurting Europe after the First World War. She may have used a language that some people in 2020 find unusual. But the message of divine mercy, the fruit of the Resurrection of Jesus, is desperately needed today. We need to know the abundance of divine mercy, so that we can bear witness to it in our century. Only mercy will see us through this crisis. Only mercy will drive us to re-build life-giving communities of faith.
Today we turn to Jesus and say with Thomas, ‘My Lord and My God’. And we pray that he will use us to as channels of his peace. For that peace is the first gift that he wants to give the whole world today on this Divine Mercy Sunday.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered yesterday, on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Saint Eugene`s Cathedral, Derry.
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