Jesus doesn’t “do” crowds. In the Gospels, when Jesus speaks, you get the impression that he sees each individual and cares for that person. He notices a woman who touches the hem of his garment; he stops to speak to a man up a tree; among all the noise he hears a blind beggar, or a leper calling his name.
In the Gospel according to John, this individual concern is seen at the beginning and at the end. Where the other Gospels have Jesus introduce his message to a crowd in a synagogue, John has him speaking at length to two individuals away from everyone else; to Nicodemus in chapter 3 and to a woman at a well in Chapter 4. He reveals Intimate details of his life, the meaning of who he is, even before his apostles get a chance to hear this truth.
But this Sunday we are more concerned with two apostles, two special friends, whom Jesus singles out for special attention. In the last two chapters, Thomas and Peter are blessed to have such personal, loving attention from their friend and Lord. And the love shown is clearly a forgiving, reconciling love, a love symbolised in the wounds of Jesus in the case of Thomas, and in the charcoal fire in the case of Peter.
The appearance of Jesus to the apostles apart from Thomas comes across as a whirlwind of amazing events, which pass almost without comment. The apostles do not utter a word. It is all Jesus at work. He says “Peace be with you” twice. This is more than “hello lads!” It is his forgiveness for their desertion and disloyalty when they ran away in fear and in the grip of which they still remain, huddled in the Upper Room. No wonder we hear that their fear turns to joy – not just because they see him alive, but because they experience his undeserved acceptance and pardon.
Here, too, in this short, final section of the Gospel, John proclaims that Pentecost is happening already on Easter Sunday! No waiting for fifty days as is the usual tradition. And the Spirit is given to the apostles so that they can bring it to the waiting world. Here is the mission of the Church to spread the atoning love of Jesus, not just to the nation of Israel, but to the scattered children of God, the family he wants to gather in unity.
It is truly remarkable that all this happens so quickly. It is literally breath-taking! But it is overshadowed by the story of Thomas whose doubts now take centre stage. Where the apostles are dumbstruck, Thomas speaks out boldly and the topic is the wounds of the Lord. He demands to see and touch them if he is to believe, and Jesus in his appearing repeats the same words as he shows his wounds to his bewildered friend. These scars from the cross (for they are now healed in the resurrection) have a double symbolism, which will cut Thomas to the heart and lead him to cry out in both relief and triumph, “My Lord and my God.” The wounds are the cause of the death of Jesus, brought about by the sins of humanity, including, especially, the betrayal by Thomas; but they are, most importantly, the signs of the sacrificial love of Jesus for Thomas and each individual person ever to be born into this world. Now, Thomas is ready to join his fellow apostles in embracing that call announced a week before, to go out to the whole world with the message of forgiveness. Just as Jesus is the original “Wounded Healer” – by his wounds we are healed, according to the Letter of Peter – so is Thomas, wounded by his own guilt and shame, sent out to be a wounded healer to everyone he meets.
The original ending of John’s Gospel ends with this story. “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe” – a fitting end indeed. But then we realise that there is another ending, which was added to the Gospel some time later and which centres on Peter, the head of the mission of forgiveness already mentioned.
Chapter 21 tells us of the appearance of Jesus at the lakeside after the apostles have failed all night to catch fish! Once Jesus has lifted their fear, his friends are able to leave the room and appear to return to normal, as they wait for the next step in their calling. Our Lord has fire going, with a breakfast of bread and fish waiting for them. But first, he must address their failure as fishermen and he guides them to a great catch of fish, which symbolises all the nations of the world awaiting their message of reconciliation with the Father, and the invitation to participate in a new covenant, to join a new family, to attain eternal life. Peter must be reminded of his first calling, when another miraculous catch of fish threw him to the ground, stirring him to exclaim, “Depart for me, for I am a sinful man.” And Jesus responds: “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men!”
This call is to be renewed but it requires a further level of forgiveness for the one who is to be head of the Church. Another “Wounded Healer” must be commissioned for the task. So Jesus takes Peter to one side away from the others, just as he singles out Thomas for special attention earlier. Then, there come those heart-breaking questions, not once, but the awful three times, “Do you love me Peter, more than these?”
And all this happens within the sight of the charcoal fire from which breakfast has been served to hungry fishermen. Note the symbolism here! The only other time there is mention of a charcoal fire in John’s Gospel is when Peter denies Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest. He is depicted as warming himself around the fire in the very company of the police who arrested Jesus. Peter is with the enemies of the Lord sharing with them. And now, with the fire in the background, what must Peter feel on hearing those challenging questions about love?
As in the case of the wounds with Thomas, so the fire has a double symbolism for Peter, the symbol of betrayal, but also the symbol of the love of Jesus in making a fire of hospitality welcoming Peter home, forgiving him from the heart. Peter has already been reconciled the previous week when Jesus came into the Upper Room, but this further story, the final ending of the gospel, appears to require a further assurance of the core mission of the Church, represented by its head, Christ’s vicar.
And what an example of a Wounded Healer is Peter, perhaps even more wounded than Thomas? Yet by his wounds are we healed!
Kieran Cronin OFM