April 12, 2015
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! In the scriptures, the crucified and risen Christ will appear in different ways to different groups over a short period of time between that first Easter morning and Pentecost. The experiences will vary, some people will see and believe and some will dismiss eye-witness reports as too fantastic. Some will only hear the story without having their own experience. Some will believe—and some will not. The early Church longed for that powerful connection to Christ after the resurrection, after Jesus was no longer physically with them. They found that connection in the community he gathered. They discovered that when they were together, they could feel or sense Jesus in their midst. The community became essential as they continued to follow Jesus, as they did the work Jesus sent them to do.
How did the disciples move from being with Jesus and being a part of the community that Jesus anchored to building a larger and more diverse community after his death and resurrection? How did they move from fear of sharing Jesus’ fate to the kind of boldness that we read in the book of Acts? How did these diverse individuals come to share such a belief in God’s power and in the teachings of Jesus that they would commit their lives to continuing his work—not as individuals, but together as Christ’s Church?
I wonder if there is some clue in the many ways Jesus made his presence known to some of his disciples, or the ways his disciples experienced his presence. Mary recognized Jesus’ voice in the garden when he called her by name. Was it the intimacy of hearing him call her name? In today’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus simply appears to a gathering of his disciples in spite of the doors of the house being locked. He showed them his hands and side. Was seeing believing? The record doesn’t say how Jesus left, or even very much about his time with the disciples, only that Thomas wasn’t present and didn’t believe the other disciples’ report. A week later Jesus appeared again in much the same way, only this time Thomas was there. Jesus offered to let Thomas touch his wounds, and whether Thomas touched the wounds or not, he believed. So is touching proof? What helps you believe and how would you share that with others?
I heard a story about a man who was walking home in the dark one night in a rural area. He took a short cut across his neighbor’s field, not realizing that his neighbor had begun to dig a new well. The man fell into the well. The fall knocked the wind out of the man and he laid at the bottom of the hole until he could call for help. But no one answered his calls. He tried to climb out, but the walls were too steep and he could not get a foothold. He slipped back down each time he tried, growing more exhausted with every effort. Over and over he tried to climb out, to no avail. Finally, he lay on his back at the bottom of the hole and saw the stars above him, and he began to pray. As he prayed, he began to feel a deep sense of peace. He knew he was not alone, but that God’s presence surrounded him. He felt a sense of wonder and gratitude that the fall had not broken any bones. His gratitude led him to pray in thanksgiving for the other blessings of his life: his family, his friends, his work, his faith and he eventually fell asleep giving thanks for God’s goodness. In the morning, his neighbor came out to continue digging his well and found the man. Using a rope, he pulled his neighbor out of the well and apologized for creating a hazard. But the man was unharmed and grateful for his profound experience of God’s presence. In fact, he was so in awe of his experience of God’s presence that he wanted to share it with others. So that very night he invited his best friend to go for a walk—and pushed him in the hole.
As much as we’d like to, we cannot recreate our profound experiences of faith for others and sometimes, not even for ourselves. We try. I can’t tell you how much planning and prayer goes into creating a meaningful last campfire experience at church camp. But that is not how our gracious God speaks to us. God knows your heart and my heart and speaks to each of us in ways that are the most meaningful to us. Some of us feel God’s presence through music, so I want for us to have the best music we can and many opportunities to express ourselves through music. For some of us, God speaks through the beauty of our surroundings. I am so grateful for this gorgeous space and that’s why I think it was particularly meaningful to have so many flowers in our sanctuary last week. Some of us feel God’s presence in social justice. We rejoice when we share our worship service and resources with those who are least like us. Some of us find God in the written or spoken word so I work hard on my sermons. Others need to taste and see that God is good and so we eat together as often as we can. That’s why I listen carefully when you tell me what you need in worship, or what you miss. Even with all the attention to the many ways that people experience God’s presence, we may not get it right here. That’s why there are other worshiping communities—all of us searching for the risen Christ, for a faith that will sustain us and make us whole. The glory of God is that God will find us searching and whisper in our unique language the love we long to hear.
When we are willing to accommodate the spiritual needs of others, out of a deep desire to create the space in which they can best hear God’s voice, we begin to experience real community. Over the next few weeks we are going to read about the early church’s struggle to be the body of Christ in spite of human and cultural diversity. It really was a struggle. The church would move outside Judaism, it would put men and women together in worship and fellowship, Jew and Gentile, slave and free in such a way that it would surprise and shock and witness to a new Kingdom of love and neighborliness. This has never been easy. Too many times churches have divided over doctrine, theology, race, ecclesiology, holiness and justice. However, we honor the unity of the body of Christ when we accommodate the spiritual needs of others. Thomas wasn’t cast out as an unbeliever. His need became an opportunity for another way of witnessing and experiencing Christ’s graciousness.
While being open to and accepting of the diversity of human experience helps to build community, forgiveness sustains it. On that first Easter night, Jesus gave his disciples not just the power, but the task to forgive sins. Forgiveness is the currency of a healthy community. Forgiveness needs to be genuine, not counterfeit, and it needs to flow freely. Because if we don’t forgive other people’s sins, our community breaks down, or as Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ words, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” What indeed? We will let unforgiven sins fester and grow until they divide us and lead to cut off, isolation and violence. The miracle of the early church is that the church worked through its differences in experience, theology, cultures, and practices to become the Church. How do we move forward as Christ’s body? With ample graciousness and accommodation and a generous willingness to forgive one another, the same now as it was then. We have to work hard at imagining real community and then making it happen. We will make mistakes, but our meta-story tells us that even if we die trying, if we ground our work in love, we will rise again. So let us imagine real community and work to build it with gracious accommodation and generous forgiveness.