Grace Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2015, Easter 2B
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31
Of One Heart
One of the curiosities of the modern design of the Revised Common Lectionary, that guide or starting point for planning worship or sermons that most pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) work with these days, is that out of all of the twelve disciples, the only one who could really be said to have his own “day” in the lectionary is Thomas. Peter certainly shows up more in scripture, in Acts as well as the gospels, and James and John are certainly more prominently featured, but Thomas’s rather spectacular moment in the days after Jesus’s resurrection somehow proved so compelling that in all three years of the lectionary cycle, the Sunday after Easter is given over to the story that, combined with some of his other appearances in scripture (mostly in John’s gospel), give him for decades the somewhat dubious nickname “Doubting Thomas.”
For modern preachers, the constant return of this story seems to have provoked a particular reaction; rather than piling on Thomas, look at the story from a different angle. Is that label really fair? Does Thomas deserve to be labeled a doubter any more than the rest of the disciples, for example? What exactly was Thomas guilty of, anyway?
To be sure, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly appropriate to point out that for all the grief we give Thomas for his declaration that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he wasn’t really asking for anything more than the other disciples had already received. It’s not as if Peter and John had come back from the tomb shouting at the tops of their voices about the resurrection; they saw the empty tomb and…went home.
It remained for Mary Magdalene to be the first to see the risen Lord in John’s telling of the story. She was the one who remained, weeping, while the other disciples had gone home. Only that evening did they see Jesus, behind locked doors. We don’t get any indication that they had been terribly responsive or enthusiastic about Mary Magdalene’s report.
So, when the disciples told the absent Thomas what had happened, his reaction wasn’t necessarily all that different than the reaction of the disciples themselves had been to Mary Magdalene’s report.
Something we often overlook in this story is that Thomas had a whole week to chew on what he had been told; verse 26 tells us it was a week later when the disciples were gathered together again in that same house, Thomas present this time. Once Jesus appears to them again, he goes right to Thomas (or brings Thomas right to him) and puts him on the spot: you wanted to see, did you? wanted to touch the nail scars in my hands and side? well, here they are.
And to be fair, Thomas goes from skeptical to worshipful, instantaneously; he is the first of the disciples to make the theological leap from Jesus as Messiah, as Son of God, to the point that “Son of God” equals, well, God. It is a dramatic moment of confession and worship – “My Lord and my God!” is hard to beat as confession.
For all of the Thomas redemption one can see in much modern preaching and commentary, I don’t think we can completely let the fellow off the hook. Yes, it’s a little unfair to dump on him for wanting to see what the other disciples had been given the opportunity to see, but there is still one question that can be laid at Thomas’s feet:
Why wasn’t he there in the first place?
When the disciples were gathered in that house on the evening of the first day of the week, where was he? We don’t know why he wasn’t there, and in a way that’s a problem. Somehow the other disciples managed to come together – whether in response to what Mary Magdalene and Peter had seen or for some other reason – and were thus available for the miraculous appearance of Jesus. Thomas wasn’t there, and wasn’t available.
The point is not to turn Thomas into a pariah again. You and I cannot possibly imagine the heartbreak, the fear, the confusion and paranoia and terror that the disciples and other followers of Jesus must have been experiencing. But at the same time, Jesus’s followers had been told this was coming. Had Thomas forgotten all that Jesus had said? Or had he simply decided it had all been a fantasy, a nice dream that had collapsed when confronted with the reality of The Way Things Are?
Whatever was the case, Thomas missed out. There’s a warning for us in this. I am not going to promise you that miracles are going to happen in every Sunday morning service. (On the other hand I’m not going to promise that they won’t either—who knows what the Spirit might decide to do?) Nor am I going to condemn people who go on vacation – I’m going to take vacation myself sometimes, so knocking you for doing so would be pretty hypocritical. And if you’re contagiously sick, you really shouldn’t be here.
But withdrawing from the fellowship, pulling away from the body of Christ, weakens both that fellowship and especially the person who pulls away. We aren’t there to support one another; we aren’t there to grieve with one another; we aren’t there to rejoice with one another, and we all suffer for it – both those present and those absent.
It seems as if the nascent church learned this lesson pretty quickly. The description of the fellowship found in today’s reading from Acts frankly sounds wildly idealistic to our modern, jaded ears. Actually there are some who find such a description threatening, especially that stuff about having their goods in common and nobody claiming ownership of their possessions – that kind of thing goes rather badly against the modern grain, you know.
But see how the fellowship is described; “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”. What a beautiful description. What a beautiful way to appear to the world. What a beautiful way to respond to the resurrection, which, after all, isn’t very far in the past at this point.
What this little dropped-in description of the fellowship – not even a church yet, really – also tells us is that this closeness, this unity was noticed. When the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection, it wasn’t just their message that was making waves in the world around them; it was also this unity, this being “of one heart,” that made an impression on those who saw this community, this “group of people who believed.” As the author speaks of “great grace” that was upon them all, it reflects the fact that this group was being noticed for its own grace, its own cohesiveness, its unity and compassion and care for one another. People saw that, and what they saw from these people (who weren’t even being called “Christians” yet) gave credence to the message that the apostles preached. It wasn’t just the apostles bearing their witness to the resurrection, it was that this group of people who were gathered around this witness to that resurrection were living in community in such a way that this whole resurrection story suddenly seemed to matter. It seemed like something that people wanted to know more about. If this group has been so dramatically changed by what they witnessed, by what they experienced, can I be part of that? I want to be part of that.
I don’t think I have to tell you that churches don’t always have that impact on the world around them today. If anything, churches are getting pretty good at giving off the opposite message – we don’t want you here. You’re not good enough. You’re not our type. Churches are more concerned with keeping out those who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t act like us than they are with being ‘of one heart.’
Notice that it doesn’t say “of one mind,” or “of one belief.” We have no idea what disagreements might have existed at this point. A few chapters later we’ll see disagreement over how certain widows in the fellowship were getting left out of the provisions, according to some; in response, the apostles appointed a group to oversee those provisions and the community continued on.
But for a time, this little group was a striking example of what could be. In time some of the leaders would be killed or arrested, and many of them would be scattered away from Jerusalem. But for this time, however long it might have been, this group lived so completely with and for one another that their whole culture had to take notice. They stayed together. They stayed in the fellowship.
I like to imagine that Thomas was there, fulfilling his apostle role, encouraging the members of this “group of those who believed” to stick together, to be there for one another, to be there. “After all,” he might have said, “you never know what you might miss when you’re not here.”
For “one heart,” thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from PH '90):
#121 That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright
#114 Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain
#507 I Come With Joy To Meet My Lord#123 Jesus Christ Is Risen Today