Acts 4:32–35; 1 John 5:1–6; John 20:19–31
Divine Mercy is the theme this Sunday, and the readings explain how this mercy is manifested in the early Church. As Acts notes, the members of the Church shared what they had with each other, even to the point of selling their property and bringing it to the Church to disperse. Our American culture of individualism occasionally blinds us to the obvious: when people in free association with each other decide to share what they have for the common good, that’s simply good Christian charity on display. That is what motivated charity through the early Church and the middle ages. But in Acts and in general, Christian charity is voluntary. Otherwise, it’s not really charity and not an act of love. And it’s not an Act of charity if we perform it to gain something for ourselves. Later in Acts, a couple of land owners decided to pretend they were giving everything they owned while holding something back. So Acts teaches us that all charity should be voluntary and that we should not attempt to glean favor by giving it. Give your alms in silence, and you will have your reward in Heaven.
I’ve spoken many times on our need to show mercy, particularly in how we address the problems of need we encounter locally. We have an obligation to address such needs locally and not simply rely on government assistance. As John addresses it, “In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep His commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep His commandments.” And God commands us to love our neighbor and to care for his needs. So we don’t get to relegate that to the government. If we don’t help the poor ourselves, it’s on us.
The first letter of John approaches the question of mercy from a very different angle than Acts. John’s words fit so well with Christ’s own. They both speak with riddles and paradoxes: we have to become poor to be blessed; we have to die to really live. It sounds absurd, but we don’t really come to know life and the truth until we set our lives aside and live for others—in other words, until we die to ourselves and live for others. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” We show mercy, and in turn, God shows us His mercy.
First John highlights and espouses what one commentary on scripture calls the three inseparable dispositions: to love the children of God, to love God, and to keep his commandments. In these dispositions, we capture what the early Christian community was about. We have to love God by loving His children and obey His commandment to care for one another. In the chapter just before this one, John writes, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” So we must show mercy and care for one another if we truly love God.
Our gospel account relates two events: the first is the appearance of Jesus to 10 of the apostles, and the second is His reappearance to the apostles including Thomas. I want to focus on the first event as it relates to the theme of Divine Mercy. Jesus gives the disciples two missions here. First, He sends them and commissions them to preach the good news. This is the Great Commission. And what are they to preach? That Christ came, died, and rose again for the remission of sin—so that the way to salvation would be open to everyone. At the end of Matthew, Jesus sends them in like fashion, telling them to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Second, though, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Compare this to Matthew 16:18–19, when Jesus says to Simon,
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Now, whenever someone gets a new name in scripture, they also get a new mission. The woman becomes Eve; Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel. With each new name comes a new role. We should expect the same of Peter here. The keys of binding and loosing are the authority to excommunicate or to allow admittance to the Church. Jesus extends this authority to the rest of the Twelve Apostles in Matthew 18:18. But it can’t get any clearer than here in John that Jesus grants the Apostles the power to remit sin: whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained. These passages in scripture are the foundation for the Sacrament of Penance, what we also call the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation. This is one of the great sacraments of healing in our faith.
Christ is sent and becomes incarnate out of God’s great mercy for our redemption, and Christ commissions the Apostles to continue His mission of mercy, and one way that the Church demonstrates that mercy is through the Sacrament of Confession.
Some of us aren’t really wild about receiving this sacrament. Our Protestant brethren often don’t understand the need and question its necessity. Sadly some Catholics say the same thing: “Why do I need to confess my sins to a priest?” That’s like asking why you need to take medicine when you’re ill. It’s so you can be well again. The sacrament was founded by Christ not to cause us shame or to punish us.. but to heal us. And it is a perfect example of how God continues to extend His mercy to us through the Church.
Christ’s abundant mercy is right here in His sacraments: in this Eucharist which we will celebrate in a few minutes, in the words of scripture that we read, and in the Sacrament of Confession. What grieves Him more than anything is that so few people seek His mercy, and so few of us recognize our need for it. But His mercy is right here for the taking.