by Ellen Sims
Texts: Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, John 20:19-31
Prayer: God of Resurrection Hope, give us a glimpse of the Risen Christ in this time together. Amen
The psalm we read earlier celebrates a community that lives in harmony and unity:
“How very good and how pleasant when kindred live together . . . and dwell as one.”
Today’s reading from Acts documents the way the early church lived communally and caringly:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them.”
Today’s Gospel text likewise affirms, indirectly, right relatedness within a community and may even suggest that being part of a faith community is necessary for a life of authentic faith. Yes, there have been spiritual giants who chose to or had no choice but to live solitary lives. Yes, some who identify as “spiritual but not religious” can make a good case that a day alone on the beach is better for the soul than an hour in a worship service with a bunch of imperfect people. Yes, today’s Gospel story about “doubting Thomas” may seem to play up Thomas’s individual encounter with Jesus and de-emphasize the role of the group. While the story begins as the resurrected Jesus visits the disciples gathered together in the upper room “on the first day of the week,” the weight of the story falls on the event one week later when Jesus gives a very personalized message to Thomas.
So yes, Thomas encountered the resurrected Christ one-on-one. In that encounter, Jesus let Thomas touch his wounds just as Thomas requested. Like the Good Shepherd John’s Gospel describes, Jesus returned for the lost sheep who’d wandered away from the rest of the remaining flock. Jesus did see and address Thomas’s individual need. It seems the aims of harmony and unity within the church don’t require us to sacrifice our individuality.
But Thomas saw the resurrected Jesus only after he returned to the room where the others had gathered. I may be making too much of Jesus’s appearances to the disciples as they were gathered together, according to John’s Gospel. Maybe the Gospel writer includes the detail that Thomas recovers from his doubt among his peers as a way of validating the resurrection through two separate incidents with multiple witnesses. It also seems obvious that this Gospel story, which originated in a group-oriented culture very different from our own, would not depict Thomas’s declaration of faith as the act of a solitary hero who experienced Jesus alone. But it’s also possible that Thomas’s experience of the Christ when he rejoined the other disciples underscores the early church’s experience of Christ’s presence when they gathered.
Today’s story could have been told in an Americanized and very individualistic way —- but it wasn’t. Here’s how Thomas’s encounter with Jesus might have gone if the story had been composed within a more Western, modern, individualistic culture:
Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with [the other disciples] when Jesus came to the room. So the resurrected Christ sought out Thomas, who was wandering the streets of Jerusalem, sick at heart for the loss of his Lord and terrified out of his mind for fear that he would meet the same fate as Jesus. Suddenly, in a deserted alleyway, Jesus came and stood before Thomas and said, “Peace be with you, Thomas. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. I came to YOU so that you, Thomas, you, might know me.” And Thomas said, “Thank you for being my PERSONAL Lord and Savior, Jesus. Thank you for giving me this special relationship with you.”
That’s not the Gospel of John’s story. Jesus does, in John’s version, meet Thomas at the level of his individual need. Like the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John’s parable, Jesus cares about the one sheep who has “strayed.” But it may be significant that Thomas encountered the risen Jesus when he was within the fellowship of the gathered disciples. Maybe Thomas needed his companions in order to combat his fears and to continue his allegiance to the Jesus Way. Thomas experienced the risen Jesus within the fellowship of the gathered disciples. It’s in community that the risen Jesus permitted and listened to Thomas’s doubts. Faith communities need to be places where doubts and differences can be shared and honored because different experiences of the Christ require a generosity of spirit.
Jesus’s bodily appearance to the disciples in the locked house was pointedly physical. And because Thomas had insisted on physical evidence, Jesus told him to touch his body’s very specific woundedness: his nail-pierced hands and sword-pierced side. The bodiliness of Jesus’s appearance to his friends helps John’s readers recall the final supper they shared, in which Jesus touched their feet as he bathed them. The bodiliness of Thomas’s encounter with Jesus reminds us how tradition teaches that the CHURCH becomes the body of Christ. The Church is the location of Jesus’s body today. You and I: the body of Christ.
Which is not an easy role to assume. No wonder Jesus greets the initial disciples with words of peace. Because they were terrified. They were not at peace within. And because it’s hard for fearful people to live in peace with one another. “Peace,” Jesus spoke to them. And then he charged them with forgiveness. After all, they could not be at peace with one another and at peace within if they did not learn to forgive one another—and forgive themselves.
We, too, are challenged to be at peace, to forgive, despite our differences. The way in which we see and experience the risen Christ will differ. But if the spirit of peace and the power of forgiveness follow in Jesus’s wake, then the community can remain united—and the experience of Christ’s presence may be deemed authentic.
When we experience conflict within our own faith community, I try to appreciate the fact that it’s our differences and challenges that become the curriculum for spiritual growth. When we see a situation differently, we have an opportunity to grow, to learn, to deepen our relationships and insights, to practice that peace that Jesus promised the church, to practice that forgiveness that he commissioned us—through the first disciples—to offer others. I encourage you to spend some time alone with God on the beach when you can. Personal prayer and meditation are necessary. Practicing mindfulness and self-care are important.
But being part of an imperfect faith community, committed to following in the way of Jesus, teaches us to practice peace and forgiveness, helps us love more deeply. In fact, we learn to love one another not just despite our woundedness but because of our woundedness — because the body of Christ was/is wounded. Think of that image. The Church, which is now the body of Christ, bears wounds, is imperfect. Just as Jesus’s physical body was wounded.
Being part of an imperfect faith community within a God-blessed but imperfect world also allows us to love the world through actions, not mere emotions. We, just one small congregation, can point to the impact our small but concerted efforts have made through the creation of an LGBTQ support group for teens in our city. I could not have created it alone. You could not have done so. None of us could have individually envisioned and birthed the Free2Be youth group. But as a community of faith through a group discernment process, WE could. We did. We are doing so. Your private prayer supports you in your personal growth. But your engagement in a community effort helps you contribute actions for justice and compassion in this world to answer the call of Christ.
And when we come together as instruments of peace and forgiveness, compassion and justice . . . we are resurrecting the life of Jesus. We are making Jesus visible again. I think that happens best when a community of Jesus followers commits to his way of living. Together. United.
And when our small congregation comes together with similar churches, when we unite as part of the UNITED Church of Christ, we are stronger than we could be alone. Yes, the more the messier. But there is something thrilling about recognizing that Open Table is not an anomaly. There are other churches like ours. And our brave experiment here in Mobile has been supported in very concrete ways by the UCC: with grant money and sound counsel and connections and prayers and educational opportunities and more.
Sometimes someone outside our congregation will approach me for spiritual support—someone who has been burned by church, someone who feels no need for church attendance but wants instead a personal chaplain to care for them. Sometimes I’m able to serve the unchurched, de-churched, and anti-churched when they don’t have a pastor to marry them or bury their loved one, for instance, or when they seek counsel or need prayer or want to make sense of scripture. I offer myself with no strings attached, but I do invite them to worship with us. Most do not. I offer myself on behalf of Open Table, on behalf of the United Church of Christ, on behalf of Jesus Christ. I try to care for them in the name of OT, and the UCC, and JC. But the best part of OT is not me. It’s you. These persons I have in mind are missing out on church. And I wish so much they could roll up their sleeves and jump into this mess with a bit faith that they will at times see the wounded but resurrected Jesus right here in our midst. I want them to experience with us the authenticity and complexity and intensity of life within a faith community.
I suppose one Sunday Jesus may hunt you down in a dark alley in Jerusalem. Or meet you on the bright sands of Dauphin Island or Orange Beach. Or surprise you in the face of a homeless soul you give bus money to, whether you believe his story of getting stranded here or not. But Jesus, wounds and all, is VERY likely to be right here among us. Even in this very moment.