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Doubting Thomas and the Activity of the Early Apostolic Church

by Brant Pitre April 23, 2020 0 Comments


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Okay.  So that's the first part of the episode there.  The second part, the famous story of doubting Thomas, is one my favorite stories in Gospels and it too has some similarities but some differences as well.  So notice that when Jesus appears to Thomas eight days later, he says the same thing, “peace be with you [shalom].”  And then he says to Thomas, he invites him to, in a sense, test the physical proof of the resurrection.  “Put your finger here.  See my hands.  Put out your hands and put them in my side.  Don't be faithless but believing.”  Now most of us I think when we think of this story call it the story of doubting Thomas because we identify with Thomas's struggle, his struggle to believe in this amazing truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  But you could have as easily called this story the confession of believing Thomas because it really climaxes not with Thomas touching Jesus, but with his confession of faith.  Where once he encounters the risen Christ, what does he say?  “My Lord and my God.”  And this is the first time in John's Gospel, since chapter 1, where anyone ever calls Jesus God.  So the two words Thomas uses here, “my Lord [kyrios in Greek] and my God [theos in Greek, we get the word Theology from that],” are both the words that were used to do to describe God himself in the Jewish Old Testament, in the Greek Old Testament.  Kyrios was the Greek word for “the Lord” and then theos was the Greek word for God, Elohim.  So this is a full confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ by Thomas and it kind of brings the Gospel to a climactic end — although there is going to be an epilogue in Chapter 21.  You get the sense there that after Thomas says this, John kind of wraps it up and he says that “there are many other things that Jesus did, but I told you about these so that you might believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God.”  So Thomas's confession of faith is extremely important because it shows us the importance of the divinity of Jesus, that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just a vindication of the fact that he really was the Messiah, the resurrection of Jesus is a vindication of his claims to be divine, of his claims to be God, and Thomas recognizes that.  When he encounters the risen Christ, he realizes he isn’t just the Messiah, he is “my Lord and my God” come in the flesh, crucified, died and risen again.  And this verifies the truth of everything else that Jesus has said and everything else that Jesus has done throughout his entire public ministry.  And it really is the heart of the Christian claim that Jesus is the divine son of God, risen in his body forever.

Although you might say “well, it would be nice to have been there”… many people will say that “if I had been there it would be easier for me to believe.  If I could have seen Jesus, if I could have touched Jesus, if I could have seen him perform miracles, it would be easier for me and I wouldn’t have these struggles with my doubts.”  But notice that last word of Jesus.  He gives a kind of beatitude, a blessing for all those who, unlike Thomas, didn't get to see him.  He says “have you believed because you have seen me?   Well blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  So in a sense I would just say that Jesus imparts a special blessing for all those of us who weren't born at the time he was walking the earth.  And he gives us a special grace to be able to come to the same faith that Thomas had through seeing and believing.

Alright, with that in mind what about the first reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, for Divine Mercy Sunday?  In this case what we get is a little glimpse of the birth of the Church, of the life of the early Church after Pentecost and after Peter gives his first homily on the day of Pentecost.  It's a description of what took place after that homily as people began to convert and the Church began to spread.  This is what it says in Acts 2:42 and following —speaking of the people who converted to the way (to Christianity), it says this:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders anfd signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Alright, so there are lots of things we could talk about here in this particular passage,  but I want to highlight that opening verse for you.  Notice when we get this first description of what the early Church was like, there are four elements that are highlighted here.  It says they devoted themselves (1) to the apostles’ teaching, (2) to fellowship, (3) to the breaking of bread and (4) to the prayers.  So what are those things referring to?  Well it fascinating to me as I look at that, that those four elements being described here, which are really:

  1. The doctrine of the Church with the teaching of the apostles.
  2. The fellowship.  The Greek word there is koinonia, which means something like lived communion with one another within the community of believers
  3. The breaking of the bread.  Ever since ancient times and all the way up to today, most scholars think that that isn't just a statement that they would eat lunch together or have supper together at night, but the breaking of the bread was the breaking of the Eucharistic bread.  It was the sharing of what Paul calls “the Lord's supper.”  And you can see that because if you go back to the Gospel of Luke 24, which I think we will be looking at next week, you'll see that Jesus is known to them in the breaking of the bread.  It is a term in the early Church for the Eucharist, for the Eucharistic Communion.
  4. So we have the doctrine of the apostles, we have the life of the community — fellowship with one another, we have the Eucharistic breaking of the bread and then finally we have the celebration of the prayer.  This would be them gathering together in common to pray with one another.

One of the reasons I think that that's fascinating is that you can kind of correlate that with the four parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  So if you have the Catechism of the Catholic Church — I have used it before, it's the official compendium of the Church's teaching on matters of faith and morals — what is interesting is it is broken up into four parts.  The first part is on the apostles’ teaching, it is on the doctrine, the creed.  The second part is on the sacraments, above all the Eucharist, the breaking of the bread.  The third part is on life in Christ, on fellowship with one another.  How do we love God and how do we love our neighbor.  How do we keep the Commandments and live with one another according to justice and mercy and love.  And then the fourth part of Catechism is on prayer.  It's on the Lord’s Prayer in particular, but on the life of prayer in general.  So it's kind of neat there that you see that those four pillars of the Church's teaching are already present in this initial description of the early Church.  And for me I think that it's important to see that any authentic expression of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a member of the Apostolic Church, is always going to have all four of those. 

In other words, if you are a member the Apostolic Church, if you're part of what goes on to be called the Catholic Church, you don’t just believe the doctrines.  It is important to believe the doctrines, but you also have to live the sacramental life of the Church.  The same thing is true…you can't pick the sacramental life of the Church and say that “I am going to participate in the sacraments but I don’t believe anything the Catholic Church teaches.”  No, you need the doctrines of the Church and you need the sacramental life of the Church.  Or you can't say “well I am going to live the community life, I am going to be active in my parish, but I am not going to receive the sacraments and I am not going to believe what the Church teaches.”  No, activity in the parish or in community, the fellowship of the Church, isn't enough.  That's an important part.  It is necessary but it is not sufficient.  You have to both participate in the life of the Church and believe what the Church teaches and receive the sacraments.  And then finally, you can't just believe what the Church teaches, go to church and participate in it and receive the sacraments, you also have to live a life of prayer; your own personal prayer, prayer in the family, prayer in the home, and a life of daily prayer.  So if you're part of the apostolic Church, if you're in the Catholic Church, if you are living like the first Christians believed, then you should be praying every single day just like the early Christians did. 

So I just think that it's really fantastic that the Church gives us this little glimpse of what the Christian life was like from the Acts of the Apostles, because it's always a helpful corrective to any inclination that we might have to just take a piece of the life of the Church and not take the whole.  The word Catholic, although it frequently gets translated as universal — which is true — literally means according to the whole.  That's what it means to be Catholic, we live according to the whole.  We take the whole life of the Church, all the doctrine of the church, all the sacraments of the Church and all the prayers of the Church and we try to live those out.  And that's what's happening here in the Acts of the Apostles in chapter 2.f


Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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