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Sunday, April 23, 2017 | 4:00 p.m.
Welcoming Thomas into Christ’s Community
I’ve witnessed fear like nothing I’ve ever personally experienced before in my life. It was last June, and I was accompanying a family living in sanctuary at a church in my neighborhood. The father, named José Juan, was resisting deportation, publically hiding in a church because he refused to follow Immigration Customs Enforcement’s call for him to self-deport back to Mexico. The breadwinner of a family of five, he refused to be ripped apart from his family because ICE suddenly perceived him as a “threat,” which, of course, he wasn’t. Living in sanctuary can be terrifying, not knowing if ICE is going to show up and take you away into danger and mistreatment. The experience can be isolating and physically challenging—not leaving a church building, not going outside, not being able to work, not being able to care for your family. So that church organized volunteers to accompany him—walk alongside José Juan and his family 24/7. We worshiped with them. We exercised with them. We found games and handy-work to do, following his lead. We sat and chatted or gave them alone time. We assured the family that ICE wasn’t present. We cooked and signed petitions. We slept on air mattresses in a room next door, all to provide support and community to this family when José Juan’s fate was so uncertain.
The church where he was staying had many people using the building, and it was hard for the accompaniers and the family to know whom they could trust. One day when I was there, one of the daughters, who was five, kept asking me, “Who’s that? Should he be here?” She’d run back and forth from the room where we were playing to the gate that separated their area from the rest of the hustle and bustle of the church. She’d shake the gate, making sure it was locked. “It’s OK,” I’d say. “We’re safe. You’re papi is safe.”
Our scripture takes me back to this moment when I imagine the profound fear the disciples were experiencing. They hadn’t heard the message yet that Jesus was alive. As far as they knew, their leader, their friend, their God had died as a criminal of the state, and they could be next. Calling out the injustices of society, healing the sick, working for the reordering of the culture where love reigns is dangerous work. The disciples weren’t sure what was next, but they were hiding in their fear and grief.
They locked the doors. I imagine the room smelled of old wine from the Last Supper, days before, a lost and beautiful memory when Jesus washed their feet and showed them wholeness. They couldn’t bear to clean up from that night in fear that as the smells and tastes faded, so would the memories. They felt guilt, wondering if they couldn’t have done something to prevent the events that led to Jesus’ torturous death. They couldn’t sit still out of anxiety as the town outside the room had that uneasy calm about it, as if something unknown and scary was about to happen.
And then something terrifying did happen—terrifying in that it was too good to be true. Jesus appeared to them! He appeared and said, “Peace be with you.” Joy, comfort, and courage filled the room, overflowed in the room. He showed them his hands and his side and said, “Peace be with you.” He breathed new life into them, like God breathing life into the first human beings in the creation story.
Jesus communicates that God sent him and that he sends the disciples out next. Although he’s physically there now, he won’t be for long, yet the Holy Spirit is always present. Community. The disciples aren’t alone. They can’t be alone, because they need each other for the next stage of their journey proclaiming the good news.
But Thomas—he was alone. He missed this powerful community moment where Jesus appeared. I imagine him being so afraid after Jesus died that that he retreated into isolation in order to cope. Too afraid to make his way back to all the disciples, too depressed and weak to ask for help, retreating into familiar loneliness for self-protection. How can one have faith in such loneliness?
Like stepping into church for the first time in a long time—not knowing anyone, using all your energy and courage just to get here, not even sure if you have enough to actually meet people, to sow those seedlings of community formation, which you want in the first place. Loneliness and isolation. It sucks and drains the life, the hope, the courage, the faith out of us.
We often blame Thomas for doubting. Like, shoot man, why’d you have to make Jesus show you his wounds? But one of the first things Jesus did when he appeared to the disciples is show them his wounds. So belief can’t just be about individually seeing.
We live in a world individually focused. We see belief as this intellectual transactional experience between God and the self. Yet in a post-modern world, we also struggle with belief. We doubt when we can’t prove something to be 100 percent accurate. In Jesus’ time, though, there was a more communal approach to understanding. Our contemporary focus on believing in Jesus probably wouldn’t make as much sense then.
Take note that Thomas wasn’t with his community. He wasn’t with his fellow disciples, his faith community, his home with a common set of values. He didn’t experience Jesus sharing his peace. He didn’t feel the breath, the life force of the Holy Spirit. He missed it when the disciples found their faith, their hope, their resilience and renewal. Thomas needed that communal space to come out of his isolation and fear in order to believe. He needed that communal experience.
Another way to translate believing in the original Greek translation, is “to have faith” or “to trust.” What these other translations offer is a more action-centered, body-centered, communal way of believing. It removes the contemporary emphasis on intellectualism and individualism and puts believing back into the practice of faith in the community. This is Christian faithfulness. This is what Jesus was looking for in Thomas and all of the disciples.
By practicing faith it’s OK to intellectually doubt, because we’re in community. Faith holds the tension of doubt and singular belief in community. Practicing faith in community is collectively remembering Jesus’ breathing new life into what will become the Body of Christ. It’s calling upon Jesus’ words “Peace be with you,” our faith anthem—a reminder of who we are and what we practice together. Not a peace that suppresses conflict or hides truth but a peace that grounds us in our calling. A peace that brings courage. A peace that moves us to action. A peace that provides comfort and care. These signs of peace remind us of the Spirit’s presence with us, continuing to breathe on us. When we’re together as a community, we remind one another of this. We can’t do this work alone either. We can’t remember all this on our own. We hold each other up in our Christian faith together. What does this community-centered-faith-practicing life look like?
It’s surrounding a community member who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer, walking alongside this person’s fear and pain.
It’s the promise we make in baptism—to guide and nurture people, by word and deed, love and prayer, encouraging them to follow Christ and be faithful members of Christ’s church.
It’s organizing for God’s justice and sticking with it for the long haul, the long-term work that will hopefully bear fruit for generations to come.
It’s humility—knowing that we have much to learn about the world, so we believe the experiences of our community, especially people who are different from us, and learn from those experiences.
It’s celebrating a new birth and crying together at a funeral. It’s carving out a countercultural space where each person can bring their whole self.
In accompanying the family of José Juan, I didn’t justwitness fear. I witnessed Christian faithfulness. Communities were coming together to walk alongside this family facing tremendous fear. But within that building where the community confronted fear and isolation, we looked that fear right in the eyes and proclaimed the peace of Christ. Sleeping on that air mattress while accompanying, I could hear the creaks and cracks of the old church building, and it was as if Jesus was breathing on us the presence of the Holy Spirit right then and there. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so sure of anything in my life before, because of the faithfulness in community that brought such courage to everyone there holding onto hope.
Here is the Easter good news, friends! Christ has risen and is around us! In community, we practice faith by knowing that Jesus walks among us sharing peace, especially when fear and loneliness and isolation try to take hold. The Risen Christ breathes the Spirit’s fuel so, like the disciples, we come out of our fear and loneliness too and can organize for the work of God in the world.
Thomas gets a bad rep. But maybe he needed some help, some extra support from his community, with the fear and loneliness and anxiety he was experiencing. Maybe he was having a hard time asking for help. Believing in Jesus is not the point then, but instead practicing faithfulness in Christ in community.
If you’re looking for community, if you’re looking for a place to share your gifts and serve, a place to hold you in your struggles, a place to help you have courage, if you’re looking for a place to ride the tension of doubt and belief and find faith, then come home here. You are welcome, and this is what being Christian is allabout. In the name of our Creator God, the Risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.