Before we get to the main theme for this morning I want to address the Gospel reading briefly. The story that is told is about Jesus appearing to the disciples following his resurrection, specifically when he appeared to Thomas following his expressions of doubt. Thomas has become known as “Doubting Thomas.” Not exactly the most favorable nickname to be stick with for centuries. Could you imagine being known by millions of people throughout the last two centuries as “Doubting Thomas”? We read the story that is the basis for the nickname and it seems valid. Thomas proclaims, “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.” Jesus then tells him to “stop doubting and believe.” If we take that story alone the nickname seems to be fitting. But this is not the only story that we have of Thomas in the Gospel of John.
He believed so strongly in who Jesus was or perhaps cared for his friend so deeply that he was willing to walk into the valley of the shadow of death.
In John 11 Jesus has been informed that his friend Lazarus has died and in heading back to Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples have been avoiding the city of Jerusalem and instead staying in the outlying country because the Jewish religious leaders have been actively seeking to kill him. But Jesus has decided that he is going to return to the city in spite of the dangers. In response to this Thomas says, “Let us go that we may die with him.” He believed so strongly in who Jesus was or perhaps cared for his friend so deeply that he was willing to walk into the valley of the shadow of death.
Like the other disciples, he did leave Jesus and hide when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. But I think we should be careful to read the story of Thomas with the whole scope of his character in view, and not just isolate the wholeness of his character down to one moment. And in fact that moment may be less of a reflection of his lack of faith and more of a view into his understanding that dead people generally stay dead, but that he is also a man who is deeply grieved and hurt by the death of his friend.
The church in Acts is still in Jerusalem following the resurrection of Jesus. This is before the persecution by the Jewish authorities that begins with the execution of Stephen, which occurs in Acts 7. The church is still in its infancy, they have barely begun to grapple with the theological implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But one part of the kingdom of God is intuitive for the new church, they are united in their desire to live out the message of the Gospel. Acts tells us that the new church was “of one heart and soul.” They were united in their belief of the risen savior. They were united in their passion of living the gospel, proclaiming their testimony of the risen savior with great power. And they were even united in their daily living. They gave all they had to this new christian community, to the point that no one claimed private ownership of anything. Instead, everything was held in common and was used to care for the poor. Their understanding of the resurrection of Jesus drove them to radical desire to care for the poor.
What I find interesting about the lectionary for this weekend is that the first reading, this account from Acts stops at v. 35 and does not include the last two verses of the chapter. In the last two verses, this mission of caring for the poor goes from a community ideal to concrete action. We are told about a Levite, a man named Joseph, who sold a field and brought the money and gave it to the disciples for their ministry to the poor, for the ministry of this community. I don’t want to assume the motivation of the compilers of the lectionary, but it is almost like we are comfortable with a call to care for the poor, as long as it stays at some sort of esoteric ideal, but radical action by a known person disrupts that status quo of comfort. It is uncomfortable when we are confronted by an account of someone doing something that we speak about in vague generalities.
But I digress, the theme that I want to focus on primarily is the theme of unity in the church. We see that the fledgling church is deeply united in their ministry, in their heart, and in their theology, even if they have not really wrestled with the recent developments. In the second reading we see a vision of a church that is a few years removed from that early church. The church has moved out from Jerusalem following the persecution that began, and has spread to different cities and different, primarily gentile, cultures.
This spread meant that they had to wrestle with the message that they were spreading, namely answering the questions, “Who was Jesus? And how does he affect or change their Jewish faith?” Did gentile converts need to become Jewish before they could become Christian since Jesus was the Jewish Messiah? We would like to think that they all came together and came to a consensus on these issues easily, because the answers are obvious, right? They came together all right, but in Acts 15 we read about the Jerusalem council, that seems to be a response to the missionary work of Paul and he and Peter get into a heated argument that is then settled by James. As the church spreads and grows, differences arise that lead to conflicts or potential conflicts.
Who was Jesus? And how does he affect or change their Jewish faith?
John’s first letter seems to be coming from a place of correcting infighting that has begun in that specific community. He is writing to them based on what he has seen and heard, so that there are no unorthodox accounts of the life of Jesus in the community, and so that they may be united in fellowship with him. That unity in faith would make their joy complete. But what I find fascinating about John’s letter is that he holds walking in the light of Christ, that is, right faith and conduct, as a precursor to walking in fellowship with one another. That they are both a necessary part of what it means to say that Christ has cleansed us from sin. “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 are united in faith and that in turn unites us in fellowship with one another and we are cleansed of our sin. But if we are not in fellowship with one another, that is, we are not united in the same faith, then we sin. This means to be united in orthodoxy, that the essential things of faith are held in common. The church is meant to be in fellowship with one another on the basis of our orthodox faith.
The church is more divided today than ever before because we have made nonessential things essential, we have strapped to orthodoxy opinions that it was never meant to bear. That division has bred hatred, contempt, and malice. I was told once, that for my view on the relationship between the faith traditions of the world, and that we ought to be open to conversations and to work toward that which we hold in common, that I would kill the church. I think the person who said that believed I am capable of far more than I am. I have friends who have been ostracized from churches and ministries because they have a different opinion on social issues.
Earlier this week prominent Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne planned a prayer vigil at Liberty University. He said:
“What we have in mind is a prayer vigil not a protest—no signs, megaphones, banners, or chants… just Bibles and candles. We had even hoped to do a communion service, inviting folks who disagree politically to come to the table together.”
He sent a letter inviting the president of the school to pray with them but in response got a letter saying that if he steps foot on Liberty property he will be arrested and possibly spend up to a year in jail. Division in the church certainly goes the other way on the political spectrum but this event serves to illustrate the divide that is currently widening. If we can’t pray together, then we certainly can’t do the work of the kingdom together.
At Arbor House we have a set of Core Affirmations that outline what we consider to be distinctive and important. They are pairs of statements; Evangelical and Apostolic, Communal and Diverse, Missional and Prophetic. It naturally stands out that Communal is one of our core affirmations. Along with that, each of our descriptions begins with the phrase, “We are a community of believers.” We strive to be a community, a united group of people around a common faith. We fail at times, but this is an ideal that we continue to strive towards. This idea of community is not just a statement that we have printed on a piece of paper; it is also a tangible part of each of our services. Our services begin with a call to confession, we recognize our own sin and seek forgiveness. We are assured of that forgiveness from God because of the grace that he has freely given to his people. Following that assurance of forgiveness, we are encouraged to share that peace we now live in with one another. We are to be a community that lives at peace with one another. After the sermon, after the hearing of God’s word, we stand together and recite one of the creeds of the early church that outlines our orthodox faith. This does not just outline what we believe and what is orthodox and what is not, it unites us with the community of faith throughout the world and throughout time. The faith that we hold dear is the same faith that drove the early church, the medieval church, and the persecuted church. As we recite the creed, we affirm our unity with the orthodox faith and orthodox church.
This call to unity does not mean we forget our differences, surrendering our theological reflections as if they do not matter.
This call to unity does not mean we forget our differences, surrendering our theological reflections as if they do not matter. Instead we embrace one another in spite of our theological differences. I am surely a Wesleyan and have deep theological reservations about Calvin’s theology, but those in the reformed tradition are my brothers and sisters in Christ. In many protestant congregations, we find disdain for the catholic church with its rituals and popes, but this disdain, aversion, rejection of, is a barrier to unity in Christ. This does not mean we all become Catholic again, but that we recognize our common faith and our common goal, that is, the coming of the kingdom here on earth.
We show love to those who are Wesleyan, Nazarene, Mennonite, Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, and yes, even the Baptists. We will continue to have theological disagreements over necessary issues, the ordination of women, our relationship with other faith traditions, how the western church ought to respond to social issues such as immigration, gun violence, and abortion, but whenever possible we ought to strive toward unity. As the psalmist says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”
I would like to close by quoting a man of great repute, a man who strove down the long, hard road toward justice, Martin Luther King Jr.. He was speaking from a different time, in a different place, and to a different issue. But I feel that his words are as important for us today as they were years ago when he spoke them. And while he was speaking to the injustices facing the black community, his vision of a united humanity is applicable to the church now for all of the vast divisions and divisive issues and injustices there are in the world today. May his words remind us of all that brings us together and remind us to stand against all that seeks to divide.
“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character I have a dream… I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boy’s and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
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