Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Acts of the Apostles we learn of the earliest days of the Church. Luke (who wrote Acts) described the community gathering to break bread and pray. The earliest members of this community lived together, sold all their goods and possessions and shared what they had, according to the individual’s need. Day after day the community grew. John’s Gospel described Jesus’ first meeting with his followers after his resurrection. Jesus breathed on them and gave them the power to forgive sins. Thomas was not present for this, and when he heard about it he refused to believe they saw the resurrected Jesus. Thomas told them that unless he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds he would never believe them. Eight days later Thomas was present when Jesus appeared again and offered his wounds to Thomas. Thomas then responded “My Lord and my God.” Jesus then praised Thomas for his faith, and also those who believed without seeing Jesus.
I confess that I’ve always been a little amused with our first reading from Acts. Of all that this reading describes I think many of us focus on the part where everyone sold what he had and shared their resources with the entire group. And we think wistfully about how great it would be if we could do that now.
Except we can’t. The concept of “give according to your ability and take according to your need” may work with small groups over short periods of time but eventually it becomes clear that a person’s ability to give varies dramatically and often randomly. Imagine a community of a house painter, a teacher, and a stockbroker. Regardless of their value, holding to Jesus’ teaching, they will argue. The house painter will claim that an unpainted house will rot and collapse and they will be without shelter. The schoolteacher will claim that without him the next generations will be illiterate and their future will depend on him. Finally the stockbroker will claim that he brings in the most money and is the most important.
Twelve hundred years after the events of these readings, St. Francis of Assisi gathered followers and demanded that they possess nothing and beg for what they need. Within a few years of his death his followers recognized that this couldn’t continue and they began to staff churches and own property. In 1989 I was on a retreat at a Franciscan monastery and saw a friar in his brown robe and white rope tied at the waist. On his waist was clipped a pager.
Let us instead look on other parts of this reading. They broke bread and prayed. They shared their food gladly and generously. In today’s Gospel they were given the power to forgive sins. Simply put they lived their lives in a way that attracted others.
Even a cursory examination of our history shows that we have stumbled, and continue to stumble. Later in Acts we see the struggle over whether to include non Jews. It took centuries to finalize our belief in the Trinity. A thousand years after these events we gave Crusaders permission to pillage and murder in the name of conquering Jerusalem and it was 800 years after that before we condemned slavery. And frankly today we continue to stumble in our response to survivors of sexual abuse.
But through it all we’ve continued to bread bread, pray and forgive sins. We’ve continued to try to live in a way that attracts others, and the fact that today there are over 2 billion Christians shows our success.
And yet….what do we do with our friend Thomas in the Gospel? We’re not exactly certain why Thomas refused to believe what the others saw. Perhaps he thought himself too important to be left out of something important (and we have no idea why he wasn’t there). I like to think that he was so devastated by the death of Jesus that he dared not hope only to be disappointed again.
Regardless, this could have led to a split in the earliest days of the community. Clearly the earliest disciples hoped to convince all the Jews of the time that Jesus was the Messiah, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this wasn’t going to happen, that some Jews of the time, indeed most Jews, were not going to believe in Jesus. Thomas could have been part of that group.
But the community did not give up on him, and neither did Jesus. To his credit, when Jesus appeared to Thomas and invited Thomas to inspect his wounds, he didn’t. He merely said: “My Lord and my God.”
And that, finally, brings us to an important aspect of our Church. We spend time looking outward hoping to add to our community, but Thomas also reminds us of the need to look to those who question their future with us. I know dozens of people who grieve when a family member leaves us. Some attempt guilt and manipulation and others find acceptance.
But Jesus and the early community did neither. They were able to convince him that the unbelievable was true. They didn’t forgive him because he committed no sin. His conflict (I believe) lied in his wounds. While Jesus’ wounds were visible, Thomas’ were not. But his wounds were in need of healing also.
When were break bread and pray, when we offer healing, let us recognize that this brings out the best in all of us. I know that at the end of my life I will be most grateful for those times when, as a hospice chaplain, I was able to heal wounds old and new and give the other a better life and way forward.
And you don’t need to be a hospice chaplain to do that.