Sermon preached by The Rev’d Elsa Worth
Sometime back in the 90’s, I took a trip to the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, and I met a woman in her 90’s that lived there – one of the last existing Shakers. She’s gone now, and as of 2006, the only practicing Shakers left in the world were two men and two women living at the Shaker Community at Sabbath Day Lake, Maine. But at one time the Shakers were a thriving religious community full of faithful energy and zeal – much like the early Christian community described in our reading this morning from the book of Acts. That first Christian community was clearly a group of people who had been completely transformed. Their enthusiasm for and faith in Christ had changed everything – including the way they lived together as a community. The book of Acts describes them as a unified body with one heart and one soul, in which no one claimed private ownership of anything, but everything that was owned was held in common. Members of the community sold everything they had and gave the proceeds to the apostles, who would distribute to each as any had need.
While there have been many experiments over the last two thousand years in communal Christian living that aimed to live out the utopian vision described in Acts, the Shakers being just one of them, outside of well established monastic communities of Christian monks or nuns, most intentional communities that eschewed worldly possessions have died away over time. I guess it’s just too difficult to maintain such a counter cultural community. And in our current society, where every family unit generally lives in its own house or apartment with its own washer and dryer and its own 3.7 TV sets and 1.3 cars, the Acts community seems particularly unrealistic as a literal model. I mean, can you even imagine if all the members of St. Paul’s were expected to sell everything you own – land, houses, cars, computers – lawnmowers – and to bring all the proceeds here and lay them at Father Nicholas’ feet to distribute among us as any have need? As fed up with consumerism as some of us may be, this may actually have some appeal, but even if we decided to try it, how long do you think it would last? Although it is indeed good and pleasant, as the psalmist says, for kindred to live together in unity, my experience of the ways of the world and of human nature – and even of how churches often tend to behave – lead me to doubt that any group could maintain the zeal and cooperation in community portrayed in Acts. So where does that leave us with this story from Acts? With all the history that has occurred between the time of the early church and the present, what are we to make of this short but provocative little passage?
As I was mulling that question over in my mind, I kept thinking about Thomas. The Gospel tells us that Thomas was not with the rest of the disciples when Jesus had appeared to them, so Thomas found himself on the outside of that newly forming Christian community looking in. There they were, all together, of one heart and soul, rejoicing in the resurrection of the Lord, while Thomas was in a completely different place. Unlike them, he had not just seen Jesus in the flesh. He had not, as they just had, heard Jesus say “peace be with you” or just gotten a good look at Jesus’ hands and side. He had not been there when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them all. So when the others tell him in their joy, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas, understandably, finds it hard to just jump onto the bandwagon. “Unless I, too, see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my hand in his side, I cannot believe.”
The more I read those words of Thomas, the more I began to hear just as much longing as doubt – a longing to be a part of the group and of what they had experienced. I want to see him among us and hear his words, too. I want to be shown his wounds. You have all obviously been unified in heart and soul by what happened here earlier – but I don’t feel like I’m a part of you because I didn’t experience what you did. Until I experience Christ in this community myself, I just won’t be able to believe like you can.
And isn’t that how churches are, with everyone in a different place? We come together from our various lives and journeys and experiences and bring our own assumptions along with us. It does happen, but not that often, that entire communities experience one dramatic and unifying event, like the Acts community did when Jesus died and then showed up among them. So instead of being communities with one heart and soul, we are more like churches full of Thomases – people longing to be a part of a community where everyone offers themselves to each other fully, shares everything freely, and whenever a need arises, provides caring support. I know I certainly long to be a part of a community in which there is a strong, shared experience of the power of the resurrection that unites the hearts and soul of all the people into one. But, I’ve got to admit that I also know how Thomas feels. Because I’ve been a part of a lot of churches in the real world, and as for any group of people being able to live in perfect unity, well, I’ll believe it when I see it.
So, a week later, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas, God bless him, was still sticking in there with them – still longing to be a part of the community despite feeling left out in the cold – and, God bless them, the community still fully included Thomas among them despite all his doubts. And Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” And then just as he did the first time he appeared, he showed them his wounds – this time specifically to Thomas. See my hands. Put your finger here. Reach out and put your hand right in my side. Do not doubt, believe. And Thomas, overcome by this experience responds, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus says an odd thing: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And, you know, it was just a few short weeks after that lucky Thomas got the chance to have a firsthand encounter with him in the flesh that Jesus ascended into heaven, out of our sight. And for generations since, we have been left down here to muddle and stumble our own way to that blessing – to find a way to come to believe without the benefit of literally seeing.
In an article I recently ready by Frank Honeycutt, a Lutheran pastor, he was struck that in this Gospel story, the first thing Jesus does after saying “Peace be with you,” in both his first appearance to the disciples and also in his second one with Thomas, is to immediately show them his wounds. He writes, “What would happen if we took our cues from Jesus in sharing the Peace at church? ‘Peace be with you, Madge, and take a look at my cardiac bypass incision.’ “Peace be with you, Randy, and let me tell you about my bills I had a hard time paying last month.’ ‘Peace be with you, Sally, and I’m sure you’ve heard about my nephew who’s struggling with a drug problem.’
And that thought got me to wondering what it really looks like for a church community to share everything in common. What does it really look like to be a community of one heart and soul, with no one claiming private ownership of anything? What does it really look like for us to be a community that supports each other, whatever the need? What could we literally own in common and what could we share abundantly and generously with each other so that no one would be in need? You know, I think this little passage from Acts really opens up into a world of possibilities for us here in 21st century, consumer driven, individualistic America.
And all of this brings to mind another example from the early church. Way back in the first century, the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, both annoyed and curious about these strange Christians he’d been hearing so much about, sent a man named Aristedes to spy on the Christians and report back to him what this new organization was all about. Aristedes’ famous report to the Emperor was “Behold, how they love one another! Even those they do not even know they love as a brother or a sister!” The early Christian’s love for each other became renowned and it continually stunned and impressed the people of ancient Greece and Rome. And their willingness to share and support and love each other as if they were loving Christ himself was an extremely powerful testimony to those outside the community of what the faith was all about.
We know John is all too right when he reminds us that if we say we have no sin, we deceive our selves, and the truth is not in us. We are all only human beings after all, and so we fall down, and we doubt, and we feel left out and we leave others out, and we fail to love ourselves and others as we ought – even when we don’t mean to do it. We can sometimes forgive the sins of others and let them really be forgiven, but more often we retain the sins of others, and hold deep grudges in retaining them. But despite all our muddling around in the dark, despite our doubts, our longings, and our sins, we have nonetheless, as our collect said this morning, been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s body as members of Christ who is light and in whom there is no darkness at all. We’ve been called here together by God to be Christ’s church. And even though all of us here missed Jesus’ post resurrection visitation to that locked room in Jerusalem by a few thousand years, we are still called to witness to Christ being alive among us by loving one another as Christ loved us. What does it really look like for a church to seriously strive to be a community modeled on the early Christian community as described in Acts? However it looks, it is certainly a community in which we show up in those rooms that are locked in fear, and become Christ for each other.