April 12, 2015
“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.’” (John 20:21-23)
For the author of the Acts of the Apostles, Holy Week and the Triduum (the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Day) are not isolated events. For him, Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and ascension have cosmic implications for the baptized community the Lord leaves behind. A community that rejects private ownership practices (verse 32), testifies to the resurrection of Jesus (verse 33) and eliminates impoverishment in their midst (verses 34-35).
The actions of this early community of Jesus says it had a vested interest in embodying the divine realities that have recently played themselves out in and around Jerusalem. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (verse 33) was not something the first disciples did in word only. In deed, they recalled that the resurrection of Jesus ushers in a new society; one in which mutuality and generosity, not selfishness and greed, are normative.
Reading this passage might ignite visions of failed Utopian projects. But instead of allowing ourselves to be fooled into exalting human ingenuity, this passage invites us to focus on the ingenuity of the Holy Spirit, the driving agent of chaos, conversion and community. Nothing in the cosmos could convene such a disparate band of people than God the Holy Spirit. Nothing but the Holy Spirit could have the capacity to hold people of varying languages, ethnicities, cultural traditions and myth-worlds in one body: the body of Christ. Which brings contemporary Christians into conversation with a God who is deeply interested in cultivating cultures centered in the restorative life of Christ.
In what ways does your worshiping community embody the spirit of the Acts 4 church?
It is difficult to believe that the Acts 4 church could have voiced this psalm without thinking of its own unity; how the various images depicted are joyful glimpses of the sensation of camaraderie felt in the midst of a praying assembly. “It is like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe” (verses 2-3). And while that imagery certainly resonated with first-century people of Jewish heritage, it is worth the modern reader’s time to construct contemporary equivalents of that psalmist’s soothing tropes. Unity is like a hot shower after a long day of labor in the garden. Unity is like a substantive conversation with a familiar friend. Unity is like watching a toddler eat her first helping of mint chocolate-chip ice cream.
This psalm challenges the church in our own time to make unity – not uniformity – a serious priority. This means giving ourselves over to practicing honesty and hospitality as we relate to our neighbors. It means weighing which hot-button religious and political issues are worth tabling in the heat of the moment. It means valuing our relationships over our objective rightness. In this sense, unity is like a deep breath after being held under water by forces greater than ourselves. And that breath, that gasping for air, for unity of lung and untamed wind is the glory of the Christian life.
What metaphors would you use in regards to unity? What does it feel like? What doesn’t it feel like?
1 John 1:1-2:2
“We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us” (verse 3a). Integral to the Christian story is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, took on human flesh. In the Incarnation, Jesus opens up new ways of relating to God, namely in materiality (what later theologians would come to call “sacraments”).
The writer of this epistle is reminding his original audience of the compelling nature of their faith: that they can enjoy fellowship – or radical sharing – and that God has become human in Christ. Fellowship is not warm feelings among acquaintances. Rather, it is the tangible reality of communion in Jesus. It is the flesh and blood relationships that are formed in the transformative waters of baptism and the oil of anointing shared at the bedsides of the ill and dying.
In our flesh-and-blood encounters, God seeks to heal and restore God’s image within us. This process is a sort of casting out of the darkness by light (verses 6-8). A part of this casting out of darkness is confessing our sins, those ways – privately or publicly – in which we have obscured the image of God in ourselves, our neighbors or in creation. Christ, in his power as the Incarnate God, mends the fragmented pieces of this delicate ecosystem of redemption through his life-giving blood on the cross (verses 9-10). And when the violent shards of sin become the shattered glass of our lives, we recall that, ultimately, God is not our opponent, receiving pleasure from our clumsiness and shame; but that in Christ, God is our advocate, seeking to make us one with one another and all of creation (verses 2:1-2).
What is the “word of life” (verse 1:1)?
It would be easy to read this passage and condemn St. Thomas for a “lack of faith.” But a closer reading of this text paints the incredulous apostle as a giant in faithfulness. Even though he missed Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples (verse 24), this does not stifle his desire to encounter the risen Christ in sight and touch (and smell, since scent is a powerful gateway to memory recovery). His demand to “see the mark of the nails in [Jesus’] hands” and to feel “the mark of the nails and my hand in his side” (verse 25) are telling components to the visceral nature of Jesus’ resurrection. In upending the potency of death, Jesus also upends every expectation of control, manipulation and power. His resurrection leaves his disciples – us included – in vulnerable places, asking for encounters we don’t actually think are possible. And yet, the risen Christ comes to us, not on our terms, but on his, delivering us from dead-end narratives and defeat.
Like St. Thomas, Jesus appears in our locked rooms, announcing peace, inviting us to “see with our eyes” and “touch with our hands” (1 John 1:1). And as we experience Jesus’ risen life, a community of surprised disciples forms, experiencing a unity that only metaphors can describe (Psalm 133:1-3), a unity that compels us to eliminate poverty in our midst (Acts 4:34). In one gesture of healthy doubt, St. Thomas embodies the courage to forge a new way forward, a way forward not based on certitude and facts, but on the reality that a new day has dawned because of the puzzling emptiness of a borrowed garden tomb. And yet, Jesus commends us as the courageous ones, for we trust in him, even without seeing, touching or smelling him.
Why did Christ retain the scars of his crucifixion, post-resurrection?