By Ellen Sims
Texts: Acts 4: 32-35; Psalm 133:1; I John 1: 1-4; John 20: 19-29
Today’s Gospel story is one of my favorites because there’s a special place in my heart for doubters. But as much as I’m interested in “doubting Thomas”—both his expression of doubt and his confession of faith—I’m more interested today in the fact that he absented himself from the other disciples and then returned to the group. This narrative may be as much about the community’s faith as it is about Thomas’s.
I am starting to think that to focus entirely on Thomas as an individual ignores the importance of community in that culture. I want to investigate through this story what it might mean for us to live as a community of faith. What happens when you and I faithfully come together?
Yes, we are individuals—who live with faith and doubt. Who walk our own walk with Jesus. Who come to compose our own individual faith stories. Who forge our own personal theologies that may or may not be consistent with the official articulations of creeds and doctrines. But we’ve been powerfully formed by encounters with others in previous faith communities and in this faith community. Sometimes we’ve reacted against faith communities. Sometimes we’ve been nurtured by faith communities.
So I invite you to venture with me into a reading of this story that focuses on the communal aspect of faith. Contemporary Western Christianity and spirituality in general in our culture assume that spirituality is a highly individualized and private experience. But Jesus’s culture was communal. Jesus addressed God as “our” father or heavenly parent when he prayed his best-loved prayer. Jesus showed he cared about what others understood him to be when he asked, “Whom do others say that I am?”—as if others’ opinions about him shaped his self-understanding.
Anthropologists put it this way: “The people in the biblical world are dyadic. This means that individuals basically depend on others for their sense of identity, for their understanding of their role and status in society, for clues to the duties and rights they have” (Neyrey 94). In contrast, our modern Western value of individualism can prevent us from fully understanding the communal life Jesus and his disciples lived.
When Jesus first appeared to the disciples after his resurrection (minus the dead Judas and the missing Thomas), they were terrified that Jesus’s fate would be theirs. So when Jesus first appeared to them, the Bible says he breathed peace—he exuded peace. He didn’t simply express words of peace; his very breathing—perhaps the fact that he was breathing! and the way he breathed—calmed them. Then he charged them to continue his mission of forgiveness. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”—that is, if you hold on to unforgiveness, the people who’ve sinned against you will not experience what it can mean to be forgiven. It’s up to you.” The gathered disciples were transformed. Which is the Easter effect. New life came to them in that encounter with the risen Christ.
But what happens when some members of the community are absent from a transformative event, a powerful lesson, a deeply spiritual experience, an inspiring Easter worship service?
I know what happens here. When you aren’t here, your absence is felt. When there are fewer people in worship, there’s a different energy. God’s presence is not absent from us. But your presence really does make a difference in our worship experience. Especially for a church like ours that is often plowing new theological ground, if you’re not learning and sharing with us, growing with us, developing relationships with us—then it’s harder for us to move forward together in decision-making and in service to others.
When Thomas returned the following Sunday, the whole group dynamic among the disciples had changed. They probably tried to convey to Thomas what they’d experienced the Sunday before: “We had an encounter with Jesus together,” they must have said. But they couldn’t really capture what had happened.
Have you ever had a powerful experience with others that just didn’t translate to others who weren’t there? It was a group thing. What happened was more than just words and actions that can be summarized. So you give up with a shrug and say, “Guess you had to have been there.”
Thomas told the remaining ten, “Sorry, y’all. I’m sure you think you saw Jesus again. But I can’t wrap my mind around this. I’d have to have seen him with my own eyes and touched Jesus with my very hands.”
It’s interesting that Jesus did not reappear to the disciples for another week, according to this Gospel. Jesus might have chosen to appear sooner and just to Thomas. After all, the other disciples presumably didn’t need a re-do. They’d seen Jesus. But Jesus waited an entire week until the remaining disciples had all reconvened the following Sunday in the same house—this time with Thomas—so that Jesus spoke to Thomas with the others present. The gathered community was important for this appearance of Jesus. So in the presence of the others, Thomas spoke to Jesus his great confession of faith: “My Lord and my God.” Experiencing the Christ of faith happened within that faith community.
Let’s admit that emotional, implausible group experiences are always susceptible to charges of mass hysteria. But individuals’ mystical experiences can also be challenged by skeptics. In a communal culture, the community arbitrates what is authentic. And Christian faith in its earliest expressions was lived in community—like the church described in Acts that shared their possessions in common. Before a first-person singular creed was created that started with word credo–“I believe”–Christians recited declarations of faith like the one we read together in our Call to Worship from 1st John 1: 1-4. Note it began in the first person plural:
“WE declare 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 God 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 God and Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
A shared faith produces fellowship among the community and fellowship with God—and when that happens our joy is at its fullest.
Two takeaways for us:
- Faith is a spiritual attitude of trust, a spiritual discipline of letting go of our need to control; it’s not about signing off on particular doctrinal beliefs, as it has come to mean. The earliest meanings of believing had to do with giving your heart to someone or something. The first Christians aimed to have the kind of faith or trust that Jesus had—not faith in him or about him. The good news for progressive Christians who can’t sign off on all the traditional doctrines is that’s not what Christian faith is all about. The bad news for us is that having the faith of Jesus is an even higher bar. Having that kind of faith requires a commitment of our entire lives to living faithfully in the Jesus way, and that’s more difficult than mere intellectual assent to some arcane ideas.
We have the best shot at faithful living if we are faithful to a faith community. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: “My faith is far more relational than doctrinal” (107). Yet she ended up leaving the Episcopal priesthood after twenty-five years—because she “wanted to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything” (111). She was tired of being expected to defend the Virgin Birth or explain atonement theology. “By the time [she] resigned from Grace-Calvary [Church], [she] had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty.” She said, “I trust God to be God even if I could not say who God was for sure. I trust God to sustain the world although I could not say for sure how that happened. I trust God to hold me and those I loved, in life and in death, without giving me one shred of conclusive evidence that it was so” (170). She asks this question: What if churches invited people to “come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?” (222).
- The second takeaway for us is that faithful living requires profound commitment. Unfortunately, liberal churches like ours and pastors like me sometimes undersell the commitment that deep faith requires. It’s absolutely true that our welcoming invitation means you can participate here a little or a lot. But no one matures spiritually—no one strengthens their marriage or deepens their capacity to care for others or becomes more forgiving and at peace in the world—without hard work, without partners in prayer and practice, without a whole community committed to similar goals, without sacrifice of ego and doing things the way I want them done. Forgive me, friends, if Open Table’s warm welcome has implied we’re all here to form a nice group of people we see every now and then and we get to claim as our group.
The Church of Jesus is dying, say those who count the number of congregations that close their doors every year. A possible explanation? One segment of Christianity defines the life of faith as a list of things to believe and sins to avoid. The other segment defines the life of faith in ways that suggest there’s no cost or commitment required. Neither extreme supports spiritual maturation.
Faith communities survive beyond their founders if they are faithfully cultivating a spirit of peace, if forgiveness is in the air they breathe, if trust in the God of Love and Life is transforming people, if the people are committed to their own spiritual development and to the transformation of the larger world in which they live. The founder can leave. Individual Thomases can leave. And return. Or not. But the community goes on—as happened with the first disciples—when the faithful community keeps gathering, keeps breathing peace, keeps forgiving, keeps participating in the joy of fellowship, keeps serving in sacrificial ways.
And the Spirit that animated Jesus keeps showing up.
PRAYER: We pray, O Jesus, that you’ll keep showing up. We promise, O Jesus, that we’ll keep showing up. Amen
Neyrey, Jerome. In Handbook of Biblical Social Values, John Pilch and Bruce Malina, eds.
Peabody, Massachusetts: Baker Academic, 1993.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. San Francisco: Harper Collins,