April 15, 2012
The Rev. Franklin Wilson
Acts 4. 32-35
1 John 1.1—2.2
St. John 20.19-31
“…but everything was held in common.”
“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity…it is like oil running down on the beard of Aaron…on the collar of his robe.”
“When, therefore, it was evening on that first day of the week, and the door as shut where the disciples were on account of the fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst of them and said, ‘Peace be with you’.”
Romance gets in Easter’s way, and muddies resurrection reality. Heavenly notions threaten the jagged truth of Christ’s earthy life. When Jesus came and stood among the twelve, they were not all Easter-bunny happy and brim full of joy. They were afraid—afraid of the religious authorities—afraid of the Jews. That is, they were afraid of practically everybody—even themselves. They were all Jewish! To be afraid of the Jews in first century Jerusalem, meant you were afraid of your own shadow.
But Luke-Acts tells a happier story. To hear Acts tell it, the Easter church was sweet as harmony pie: everybody loved everybody else, all got along, followed the rules, and shared everything in common. When it comes to imagination, Acts outdoes John Lennon. Imagine that.
But I suspect Luke’s account conveys early Christian longing, the romantic desire to enjoy heaven on earth, instead of the earthy reality of Jesus risen within a conflicted community. After all, Jesus was not raised in heaven, but on earth, amid human beings, the children of Adam and Eve whose lives evidence anything but utopian perfection.
In any case, it’s not long before Acts succumbs to the gravitational tug of sin. By chapter five, instead of “all things in common,” folks are hedging their bets and dropping dead from deception, greed, and fear. As Sherlock Holmes puts it, “The game is on!” Sherlock’s genius isn’t meant for a perfect world, but for a place in which people lie, cheat, steal, and kill. So also with the risen Christ: he’s not raised for heaven alone, but for earth’s torments as well. Where death looms large, resurrection matters most. Christ was raised not in utopia, but in a darker corner of the Roman world.
Which brings us to Thomas: if not a man for all seasons, then certainly a man for the Easter Season. Thomas wants empirical proof, evidence, stuff you can see, touch, and measure. His email address could have read, “wisc.edu.” Thomas could be a sophomore reading anthropology—the sort of hyper critical study that casts doubt on everything but anthropology. It’s no wonder more students of the “hard sciences” come to church than those who labor in the “the humanities,” where hyper criticism fears even its own shadow. Serious disciples of empiricism soon recognize their own limitation. A true scientist can only quantify so much before questions of quality begin to trouble. As Joseph Stalin put it: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” The troubling fact is, the more we quantify, the less we mean. Sooner or later, the quantification of all things leaves us pondering the qualitative meaning of everything. What’s the measure mean? And who decides? What’s behind the mirror? Is there really a “you” or a “me”? And what about God? How to quantify God?
The doors were shut, and yet Jesus entered the room. They were shut on account of fear. And once fear starts locking doors, casting sidelong glances, looking over shoulders, and raising suspicions, most everything is up for grabs. Once fear works its magic, it’s not long til fear of the Jews becomes Kristallnacht. Perfect love casts out fear. But perfect fear also casts out love, and it’s Christ as Love that moves through doors and walls; it’s Love that declares “Peace.” Love comes in peace for those who fled and hid. Love comes with peace for all who hide in fear.
Love submits to humiliation and yet forgives. Love submits to suffering and yet comforts. Love submits to death and yet lives, never to die again. Love continues to bow and embrace and give and receive the probing need to know: “Unless I put my finger into the marks of the nails and put my hand in his wounded side, I will not believe.”
“Thomas, put your finger here. Thrust your hand here. Be not unbelieving, but believing.” It’s not a question of doubt, but unbelief. Thomas does not believe that Christ is alive. He must see in order to know. He must see, touch, know, and quantify the lineaments of Love. This is the quality of Love: it submits. Christ submits to Thomas’ demands, and not only for Thomas’ sake, but for ours also and for all who do not see and yet believe.
Oddly enough, the Thomas story—itself so dependent on verification, an eager ancestor of empiricist demand—the Thomas story subverts quantification; the Thomas story subverts empirical certainty and blesses the beauty of trust, faith without sight, belief without verification, hope that accepts limit, loss, and failure.
Thomas had failed to appear when the risen Lord first came. Thomas failed to keep his end of the bargain, and in failing, he suffered disbelief: the others had “seen the Lord,” when he had not. He simply didn’t believe it. But, of course, he never had to. His faith was born of certain knowledge, the verification of sight, touch, and probing depth.
Our Easter faith—the faith of the church—is of a different order, grounded not in things touched, measured, and penetrated, but in Someone who touches, measures, and penetrates us. The church’s faith—our Easter faith—derives not from touching Christ, but from Christ touching us in Word and sacrament. Christ takes the measure of us, finds us lacking, and joins us to his crucified and risen self. When we taste bread and wine, Christ penetrates us, giving us what we lack. He makes us what we are not, brings life to the dead, passing through the walls of our hearts and minds. He comes to all who are afraid and hidden behind locked doors of disbelief, and he says, “Peace be with you.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.