“Going Back for the One” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, April 24, 2022

Several years ago, a group of Christians were sent by their church on a mission to evangelize several tribes of natives in Siberia, part of the great frozen wasteland of Russia. Overcoming great obstacles of distance, terrain, weather and language, they worked their way through these various tribes and saw many people come to a living faith in Jesus. At the end of their last day of mission, they were exhausted but happy, and ready to return home to Canada. But as they were packing up their equipment, a man came to them from the last tribe they had been witnessing to, and told them that there was one other member of that tribe , who lived several miles away as a hermit, in terrain that was even more wild and inhospitable than what the mission team had already experienced. The leader of the group called the team together and asked them “Is it worth it to make that extra journey to evangelize just one more person?” They prayed, and all agreed that it was God’s will that they should go after the one. And so, they did, and that person, when they reached him, was also led to faith in Jesus.

Is it worth it to go after, or go back for , the one ? Jesus certainly thought so, and acted so. The gospel of John is full of stories of Jesus making time to seek out and find just one individual to bring to them the good news of God’s saving love for them. Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, we had the wonderful story of the risen Jesus seeking out Mary Magdalene, at the time when she was totally distraught and in tears outside Jesus’ empty tomb  to show himself to her and tell her that he really was alive, risen from the dead. What you may not know is that Jesus, at that time, was on his way back to his heavenly Father, that he was going to his Father to receive from him the gift of the Holy Spirit which he was to pour out on his disciples. The gift of the Spirit was crucial if his disciples were going to be able to evangelize the world. Without the Spirit, the apostles would never even have been able to move out of the Upper Room, where the doors were locked, because they were afraid of being arrested and executed, as Jesus had been. The giving of the Spirit was to be the final part of Jesus’ whole mission on earth, after which he would be able to return to the Father , having handed over the mission to the work of the Holy Spirit, Was it important , therefore, for Jesus to ascend to the Father to receive and give the Holy Spirit ? Absolutely, undoubtedly! Yet, what do we see in John’s gospel story of Jesus meeting with Mary Magdalene? Jesus deliberately halts the finish of his mission, in effect, says to his Father, “Hold on a minute, Dad, there is someone whom I have to see.” Then he goes to meet with Mary, to dry her tears and bring her to understand that he had indeed risen from the dead, as he had promised. He could have waited, finished his mission and appeared to Mary later. That would have been the sensible, cost- and time- efficient, thing to do. That is what teams of analysts would have recommended him to do. But Jesus has a different set of values and standards to most of us. Was it worth it to go back for the one? Yes indeed!

We see, especially in John’s gospel, other examples of Jesus meeting one –on-one with individuals, to comfort, inspire, heal and transform their lives. People whom others would have dismissed as not important, not worth bothering about. But that is not how Jesus thinks. To him, each person, no matter how unimportant, or lost, was and is precious beyond measure, beyond gold or silver or diamonds. Think of the woman at the well in Samaria, an outcast even among her own community of Samaritans. Think of the blind man Jesus heals in Jerusalem, and who is thrown out of his own community by the Jewish leaders for sticking up for Jesus. Jesus makes the point of tracking him down and welcoming him into his own community of disciples. Think of Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus, part of the Pharisees, part of the leadership of the Jews, but spiritually lost and seeking a whole new meaning for his life. Given that Jesus will receive nothing but abuse and hatred and death threats from the Pharisees, you would think he would not even give Nicodemus the time of day, let alone staying up with him through the late night hours, to shine light on his inner darkness. In each case, if someone had questioned Jesus and asked him, “Is it really worth spending the time with this one person?” Jesus’ answer would always be “Yes”. On this Divine Mercy Sunday, brothers and sisters, this is what it means to give and receive mercy from God. 

And so on to Thomas, the chief character of the second part of our gospel story today. In the earlier part of the story, Thomas was missing when Jesus first appeared to the apostles after rising from the dead. To them, Jesus then imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit, as I said earlier, a crucial anointing for them if they are going to be able to witness to the world to Jesus’ rising from the dead. Where was Thomas while this was going on? We don’t know. Perhaps he had another engagement, had been invited to drop by for drinks with some friends, wanted to catch a show which was premiering that evening? Of course not! Thomas, like the rest of them, were terrified of going out and mixing with other Jews, unless they denounced him to the Romans. So he should have been there with the rest of his colleagues, to thrash out this whole incredible piece of news that Jesus had been seen alive by Mary Magdalene and other women. But he wasn’t. He was elsewhere. Maybe he was the loner in the whole company of apostles, perhaps his stubborn skepticism and cynicism made him a difficult person to like or hang around with. We just don’t know. All we know is he wasn’t with the other apostles when Jesus showed up to turn their lives upside down.

Now Jesus could have said to himself :”Well, too bad that Thomas had to miss out on receiving the Holy Spirit from me like the rest of the eleven. But I can’t be bothered to go back for him. I have spent enough time down here on earth, it is time for me to return to my heavenly Father, and rest. Besides, Thomas has always been a tough nut to crack. Who’s to say that, even if I do show myself to him, and do what he wants, show him the nails in my hands and feet, and the spear wound in my side, who’s to say that he won’t, even then, refuse to accept that I am alive?” But Jesus just doesn’t think like that, like most of us would. The Holy Spirit is the greatest gift Jesus can give to his friends, which include you and me by the way. He loves Thomas, for all his stubbornness, his doubting, his skepticism, and he wants him to be able also to receive the gift of the Spirit. So he does come back to the apostles, as we read in the second part of the gospel today, does show him the nail and spear wounds, and does get to hear Thomas proclaim :”My Lord and my God !”, which is the full Easter faith proclamation of the Church. Thomas could not have said that, if he had not received the Holy Spirit. Thomas, then, does not miss out on Jesus’ greatest gift to his friends.

Jesus is my Lord and my God, as well as my Savior and my best friend, no matter how bad, or cranky, or stubborn, or skeptical, or lacking in care and compassion, in faith, hope and love I, and we may be at times. Jesus will not withhold the Holy Spirit from us, and indeed has poured it out on us at our baptism, and deepened it at our confirmation. What we do with that gift if up to us. Jesus told the parable about the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep and searches him out until he finds him. (Matthew 18: 10 – 14) Probably, that sheep has gone missing time after time before. Does the shepherd ever say to himself:” That’s it, I’ve had enough, that darned sheep is nothing but trouble. Besides, I have ninety-nine sheep left, who are no trouble to me at all. I can let the other guy go and get torn to pieces in the wilderness”. No, of course not. The shepherd loves his sheep, and knows each of them by name, as does Jesus with each and every one of us. No matter how often we turn away from him and wander into the ways of selfishness and sin, Jesus will always send someone after us to bring us back, back to the fold, back to the community. That someone could well be you or me, brothers and sisters. Will we allow Jesus to share his burden for souls with us? Will we allow him to fill us with the same love for the lost sheep that He has? On this Divine Mercy Sunday, how far are we willing to let God’s mercy take us?