An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A, John 20:19-31, May 1, 2011
As I was reading Amando Doronila’s The Fall of Joseph Estrada: The Inside Story, it occurred to me that the whole story of the former President’s fall is something like what we see in cartoons—as the carcass of an animal begins to disintegrate, a new, stronger creature arises. Early in his term, Joseph Estrada’s Presidency was wounded by a series of scandals involving corruption, his battle with the press, and his tinkering with the Constitution, among others. When Gov. Luis Singson’s bombshell exploded, his Presidency was directly hit. And Clarissa Ocampo’s testimony was like a final sword thrust to its heart. When his 11 Senators prevented the opening of the second envelope, the Presidency began to leave him, and, as the people started gathering at Edsa, gradually entered the body of another, this time, a woman. When the Cabinet left him, the Army withdrew its support, and the Chief Justice sworn in Gloria Arroyo, the Presidency completely left him, and took a new flesh to dwell in.
The resurrection of Jesus admits of various meanings, but one of them is akin to this. As we noted last Sunday, God the Father, by raising Jesus from the dead, vindicated him. The resurrection proved that Jesus’ enemies were wrong, after all. But this vindication was efficacious. Just as the dying days of Joseph Estrada’s Presidency gave rise to a new people power gathered around a new President, so from the death of Jesus rose a new people. In today’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), this is indicated by a significant gesture of Jesus—he breathed on his disciples (John 20:22). This action of Jesus readily recalls God’s creative acts recounted in Genesis and Ezekiel. In Genesis, it is said that when God breathed into the nostrils of Adam the breath of life, Adam became a living being (Gen 2:7). Thus, the gesture of breathing completed the action of the creation of man. Similarly, in Ezekiel, it is told that when the wind breathed into those who were slain, they were given a new life (Ezek 37:10). There is no doubt that John had in mind these texts when he wrote today’s Gospel. By saying that Jesus breathed into his disciples, John wanted to teach us that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new life was imparted, and a new community was born. There was, in other words, a new creation—a new people was born through the Holy Spirit, which is what the air breathed signifies, by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The second reading describes to us the form of this new creation: “The [members of the new community] devoted themselves to the apostles’ instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). A few words may be said of this text. Though the instruction included the Old Testament, it gradually focused on Jesus’ teachings and the interpretation handed on by the apostles. Later on, these were collected, committed to writing, and applied by preachers, teachers and catechists to their own particular situation. An important feature of this community life was the sharing of goods. Those who believed shared all things in common. They would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of each one’s needs (Acts 2:44-45). The practice obviously brought each member closer to one another, and encouraged the development of an ethics of renunciation of property and rejection of concentration of wealth. The breaking of the bread was an early feature of community life: “Every time then you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The breaking of the bread refers, of course, to the Eucharist, which replaced the temple sacrifice with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Finally, no doubt the prayers consisted of Jewish prayers, although in the long run, Christians gradually formulated their own, after the example of Jesus himself who taught the “Our Father” to his disciples.
It should be emphasized that these features of the early Christian community were an actualization of the new life in the Spirit of Jesus in the daily life of Christian believers. In other words, they reflect the work of the Holy Spirit in the community. From these features developed some of the fundamental structures of the Christian community. For example, the apostles’ instruction could be easily identified with the Church’s task of evangelization, while the breaking of the bread and the prayers pertain to the entire worship of the Church, but especially the Eucharistic Celebration and the sacraments. The fellowship of love, on the other hand, is related to the ministry of social service in the Church. If these have anything to teach us, it is that the present practices in the Church did not come from nowhere, nor were they invented by the present Church. On the contrary, they developed out of the effort of the Church to actualize the distinctive features of the early Christian community in the current situation as the members tried to demonstrate how the Spirit works in the new age.
Therefore, as we pause to consider the present structures of our parishes and dioceses, it is important to ask whether these stand in continuity with the earliest traditions in the Church. It is unfortunate that today, when people try to look at their Church—the parish or the diocese, it seems that their point of comparison is the world of business. They seem to think that what makes a business corporation successful must be applied to the Christian community. However, from the viewpoint of Christian faith, that is far from being correct. The parish, for example, is not about profits and successes, or about display of achievement. Looked at in the perspective of faithfulness to the early Church, it can be seen—in the words of the 1987 Synod of Bishops—as “the customary place where the faithful gather to grow in holiness, to participate in the mission of the Church, and to live out their ecclesial communities.” No wonder that the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) recommends that the parish “should be a dynamic Eucharistic and evangelizing community of communities, a center which energizes movements, Basic Ecclesial Communities and other apostolic groups and is in turn nourished by them.” By being such, the parish exhibits the life of the Spirit that God continues to pour out in the Church..