“We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” So said the apostle John in the first century A.D.
Easter Sunday allows us to see a glimpse of a larger community, reminds us that our fellowship goes beyond these walls, linking us with others who also share some sense of allegiance to and link with Christ. Which is partly why this Sunday after Easter is always a bit of a letdown, sometimes referred to as “Low Sunday,” a disappointment after seeing the possibilities – the potential – when the larger community comes together.
However, I think we need to pay attention to and even embrace this sense of incompleteness that John articulates. I think we are meant to feel the pain of not having our brothers and sisters, children, grandchildren, friends and neighbours, join us in church.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple reminded the Church of his time that “the Church is the only organization that exists for those who are not yet members.” That sense of incompleteness is rooted in the apostles’ experience of Jesus. Jesus had taught them to see things wholistically – to pay attention to the one lost sheep, the single mother, the isolated leper — to know the value of a single thing. In today’s Gospel, the fact that Thomas is not there when Jesus first appeared is critical – the other apostles didn’t write him off, didn’t think in terms of themselves alone.
In recent years an unfortunate tendency has arisen in which people put the sole focus on their own well-being and their status with God – the “I’m saved and you’re not and I don’t care” approach. That was not the way that Jesus had taught them. As the New Testament expresses it, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gave birth to a new way of being, and that way of being had its clearest expression in the community of Christ-followers that came to be known as Ekklesia – the Church.
The story shows that the individual disciples did not scatter, tempting as it was to look out for themselves only, but made a decision, an inspired decision, to stay together, to commit to each other, which, given the hostile and dangerous circumstances, was itself something of a miracle as well as a testimony to the validity of their experience of the presence of the risen Christ in their midst.
For the early Church, at least for the ones who wrote about it, the Resurrection is clearly not just about an amazing thing that happens to an individual. The focus immediately shifts to the community, and of course as we read those Gospels we see a witness there to the fact that Jesus was not about making himself unique or demanding to be above others. All the way along, the focus and concern was on the community around him and he was constantly reaching out to pull others into that community, so much so that it became something of a travelling city, moving about with Jesus.
In John’s version of things, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is an event that happens a week after the Resurrection. The Spirit is given directly by the risen Christ as he breathes his Spirit (the Spirit) into them, connecting it much more directly with the Resurrection moment/event, and this gift is given to them as a group, not individually, which may be part of the point in indicating that Thomas had initially been missing. The Spirit of the risen Christ is a gift to the whole Church to enable it to be Christ’s continuing presence – his body. It mattered that Thomas was not there.
Perhaps the greatest testimony to the Resurrection was the quality of life that developed among his followers. When I was in seminary, I developed the impression that for St Paul, the theology of the Body of Christ was even more important than his theology of justification by faith.
The Book of Acts, quoted today, suggests that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” and that those not prepared to make an absolute commitment were advised not to join, not because they weren’t valued or needed, but because the integrity of the life of the community came first, and half-hearted or token commitment would not be appropriate to a community using the imagery of marriage to describe the depth of its relationship with Christ.
The Gospel today suggests a rapidly evolving church, and puts it out there for future readers some of the difficulties and questions that the first Christians had to deal with. The exchange with Thomas in today’s Gospel acknowledges that there were questions and doubts in the early community, and that these were welcomed with open arms, as if to say that dissent was present, or even to say that dissent has a positive value, and that staying together, and working through differences, rather than running away, is a good thing. Like Christ, the Church was not afraid to acknowledge its wounds. But at some point a “buy-in” was expected – even demanded — as a prerequisite to being part of the Church.
The goal is community. The Gospel is proclaimed so that people may come together in a community of equality, mutual respect, and familial love. The community of the Resurrection was distinctive, with a level of support and care among its members that caused the world around to take note. People sometimes considered redundant or useless were given special care in the Church. St Paul tried to make the point that everyone mattered, that no one was to be considered lesser, even if their role in the community seemed less important. Like Jesus the early Church extended a healing and compassionate hand to the poor, to those abandoned and lonely, and to the sick and suffering.
According to John, Jesus is supposed to have said to his disciples “I have called you friends,” and so friendship, relationship, loyalty and fidelity became central to the Church’s understanding of its life and witness.
Studies are suggesting that isolation is not just problematic but potentially deadly, yet the indication is that people are retreating from community life on all levels. Loneliness is becoming the modern scourge, ironic given the fact that the vast majority of people now live in cities surrounded by people. But they’re all strangers, with no impetus or means toward meaningful connections and lots of reasons for suspicion and fear.
A recent study of Vancouver’s community life confirms what people already know: Vancouver can be a very difficult place to make friends. One third of the people surveyed said it is difficult to make new friends here. And one in four say they are alone more often than they would like to be. In both cases, people who experience this also report poorer health, lower trust and a hardening of attitudes toward other community members.
Thus one of the simplest and most effective gifts the church has to offer our world, in our time, may be the fact that we are a community. So Easter may be a season in which we intensify our focus on community life, our welcome and hospitality, on commitment to each other, and on caring for, affirming and encouraging each other. We have Lenten disciplines; an Easter discipline might be to explore and reflect on the deeper meaning of friendship, and the value of relationships, or to develop a deeper sense of the value and priority of corporate prayer, and worship, putting emphasis on the life of the whole Body.
I continue to believe that “The local church is the hope of the world” as pastor Bill Hybels once said. Today’s readings ask us to examine our level of commitment – the degree to which we are not merely living for ourselves but for the community around us – and what kinds of specific communities we need to cultivate and encourage us in this orientation to life.
Christian life is not just about trying to copy something that happened a long time ago but allowing the Spirit of the risen Christ to be among us and inspire us now. Christ is alive – Christ is life – and Christians are invited to live into the fullness of that life not just for their own sake (rewarding as that is) but as a witness, as an invitation, as a way of making the whole world a better place. As Brennan Manning said: “For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” (Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging). The Resurrection not just an historical event and it is not merely something that happened to someone else – the life of Jesus is a key into a universal reality, so that the Resurrection is an experience that is meant to be lived and shared. And the ultimate goal is that “all may be one” as God is one.
John makes it clear that Christ came not merely for our needs, but “for the sins of the whole world,” that is, to heal and bless all people. Recently, we have been reflecting on the way of St Benedict, and noting the way the Benedictines valued and created intentional community. The question remains: How is this meant to play out in the local church? What is the quality of life in our own parish? What are we being called to do about this? Like Thomas, let us continue to raise those questions and to challenge the Church to be the all-encompassing, inclusive, loving and compassionate place that Jesus intended it to be.
Like John, the ultimate scope is not merely local or even ecumenical but cosmic, and our joy cannot not be complete if there are elements of our fellowship missing. We cannot experience the full joy of God in Christ until we care about and to some degree realize that unity that he was speaking of and praying into. May God continue to bless and guide our journey toward wholeness.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Acts 4:32-35 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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.