"Heart and Soul plus UNITY"Dr. R. Dale McAbee Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2 and John 20:19-31, Year B - Second Sunday of Easter
The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter seem to stress a common them of unity. Acts describes early believers as “of one heart and soul.” But not only heart and soul. The unity was so deep that it involved giving up private ownership of property and holding everything in common. Their unity for a time was a radical rethinking of the bonds of community and connection. “My house is your house” was taken quite seriously.
Psalm 133 which we heard sung in Hebrew, “Hineh Mah Tov,” literally means, “How good it is, and how pleasant, when we dwell together in unity.” It is a Song of Ascents—a song sung as one walked up to Jerusalem and then further up to the Temple mount where the highest act was to worship God with brothers and sisters who prayed daily in a unified faith, “Shema Israel.” “Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
The reading from 1st John dates to a time in the church when unity of belief was threatened.
“By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body. This teaching is known as Docetism, and was motivated by a strong belief that Jesus was in fact God, but also that material things are inherently evil. The logic of their teaching is based on the Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) idea that matter is evil. Since matter is evil and Christ is good, he could not have had a physical body. If Christ really suffered, then he was not divine, since God cannot suffer, and if he was God he did not suffer.”
(Burchard, 326.) G. L. Burchard, “Docetism”, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986. https://readingacts.com/2012/03/20/1-john-and-docetism/
For several hundred years in the early history of the church, some form of doctrinal division threatened the unity. Even after the Council of Nicaea in 325 clarified the theology, there were still large groups who assented that Jesus was God but not fully human for generations.
The unity of belief that was threatened was that Jesus was not fully human, hence the writer’s focus on “we saw with our eyes, we touched with our hands, we declare what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” He is defending the historic understanding of the Incarnation, the meaning of which is captured in a short phrase from John 1, which we usually hear read at Christmas, “the Word became flesh.” This is the heart of Christian unity for the writer of I John.
The gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter is always the story of Thomas.
The Orthodox liturgy has two beautiful chants that are always sung on Thomas Sunday:
“From the sealed tomb, You did shine forth, O Life!
Through closed doors You did come to Your disciples, O Christ God!
Renew in us, through them, an upright spirit,
By the greatness of Your mercy, O Resurrection of all!”
“Thomas touched Your life-giving side with an eager hand, O Christ God,
When You did come to Your apostles through closed doors.
He cried out with all: You are my Lord and my God!”
Doubting Thomas has become his nickname. Here too we have the theme of unity and lack of unity. The first appearance was to all the disciples except Thomas. They were all united in their joy that Jesus was alive. Except Thomas. He had not seen Jesus and he found their story incredulous. He says that unless he sees the mark of the nails in his hands and puts his finger in the nail marks and his hand in wound on his side, he would not believe. So, all the disciples were not united in their belief of Jesus’ resurrection.
But a week later Thomas was with the others and Jesus “came and stood among them.” Jesus encourages Thomas to touch him, to let his “fingers read like Braille the marking of the spear and nail” as a phrase from our next hymn poetically describes it. Thomas was blind but now he sees. He replies, “My Lord and my God.” Let’s read together the words of that wonderful Thomas Troegger hymn:
“These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.
The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.
His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.”
I feel for Thomas and the nickname he’s been stuck with for over two millennia. I don’t think the other disciples would have responded any differently if they had missed that first Sunday night appearance. But after Thomas affirms his belief Jesus says “You believe because you see, but blessed are those who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”
John was the last gospel to be written and many of the witnesses to the resurrection were no longer alive. There would come a day when there was no living witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ words directly speak to us, we are the ones “who have not seen, yet have come to believe.” How is it that we do indeed, believe?
Albert Blackwell has a helpful reflection entitled “Pistis: Faith as Believing, Faith as Trusting.” He notes that the Greek word pistis in most instances is translated as “belief” or “faith” but rarely “trust.” He is excited to discover the Complete Jewish Bible translation of the gospels. Hear the difference:
27 Then he said to T’oma, “Put your finger here, look at my hands, take your hand and put it into my side. Don’t be lacking in trust, but have trust!”
28 T’oma answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Yeshua said to him, “Have you trusted because you have seen me? How blessed are those who do not see, but trust anyway!”
30 In the presence of the talmidim Yeshua performed many other miracles which have not been recorded in this book.
31 But these which have been recorded are here so that you may trust that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by this trust you may have life because of who he is.
“For me pistis is believing—that is, understanding, testing, selecting, and accepting doctrines of my Christian tradition with thoughtful discernment. Pistis is also trusting—that is, dedicating life to the challenging, correcting, sustaining, and healing ways of Jesus. And pistis is faith—resolve, persistence, steadfastness, and patience in the lifework of believing and trusting. As a name for this spiritual lifework, I might suggest “faithing,” were the word less clumsy.” http://albertblackwell.blogspot.com/2016/10/faith-as-believing-faith-as-trusting.html
But I think faith also means to feel something about the word God. Now we’re moving into religious experience. Or some would “spirituality.”
Faith experience is the assurance of things hoped for the evidence of things not seen. It is not intellectual proof. It is not merely rational. It is sensing that that the creator of all that is knows me intimately and cares about me. And desires that I find wholeness and peace in my life. It is the awareness that I was created for some reason and that my life is a gift from somewhere else. And that while I may not always live up to my best self, the fact that I have some awareness of a best self is itself an indication that there is a God.
In the Genesis narrative after God has created all that is, the text says “and God created humankind, in the image of God, male and female.” Our best self is somehow related to image of God. And the second creation story says God took clay and fashioned a man and breathed breath into his nostril, and he became a living soul. Maybe that’s what Jesus was doing when John says “he breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” as he called into being a “new creation.”
In John’s theology the creator was at work again. Faith as belief, faith as trusting action, faith as spiritual experience felt deeply in the heart, all are included in the biblical understanding of faith. There is a final image of faith I want to share: Faith as being at home in God.
Occasionally I get to visit my friends in Kingstree, S.C. Aunt Beth is not my real aunt, but one of those Grady Nutt had in mind when he said “thank you God for friends who are family and family who are friends.” Sometime she’ll write “your room is ready whenever you want to visit.” And when I get there she’ll say, “now make yourself at home.” It feels so good to receive such a glad welcome. This is the power of the season from Thanksgiving to Christmas–going home.
I have “friends who are family” in a little village in Spartanburg County in South Carolina. It’s called Fairmont. This past Thanksgiving, I was able to visit and be with them. We stay in touch via texts and emails and phone calls. But I made the decision to get back for a visit when I received a text which said, “I know you are busy in Louisville and Fairmont will never be home for you again.” But my friend was wrong. In a very deep and real way the experience of growing up in that little village and being a part of a family that extended to me what John
Claypool called “glad welcome” allowed me to experience faith as trust and faith as being at home with God. In many ways, Fairmont will always be home.
I realize for some the word “home” brings pain. Home for many is not a Norman Rockwell painting but rather the source of despair and woundedness. But even if your home experience was not ideal, I believe the image of home registers clearly and powerfully in the heart. Home becomes the memory of what should have been but was not.
Frederick Buechner in ‘The Longing for Home” uses homesickness to describe our common spiritual condition when he says,
“We all yearn for something that is a long way off, for something we feel we belong to and belongs to us.” He says that “Christ both calls us home and is our home at the same time and that we are most at home when we bear the Holy Spirit-the Lord and Giver of Life- to those who most need the experience of home.”
He then ends by saying, “I believe that home is the Kingdom of Christ, which exists both within us and among us, as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”
In the final analysis, God is our home. As St. Augustine said so long ago “our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”
In 2016 the Spiritual Renewal Center in Syracuse, NY was given a larger than life painting (6’ x 8’) by Edward Kippers. We have permission to reproduce it. http://www.spiritualrenewalcenter.com/painting/
I like the fact that Jesus has his hand on Thomas’ shoulder. Jesus who knew his disciples so well is embracing him. Even welcoming him into the circle of “friends who are family.”
The artist Edward Knippers explains his approach this way:
“The human body is at the center of my artistic imagination because the body is an essential element in the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection. Disembodiment is not an option for the Christian. Christ places His Body and His Blood at the heart of our faith in Him. Our faith comes to naught if the Incarnation was not accomplished in actual time and space – if God did not send His Son to us in a real body with real blood.”
“We declare to you what we saw with our eyes, we touched with our hands, we declare what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
May all of us who ponder this image grow in love for Jesus who here manifests himself to his disciple Thomas. May we, like Thomas in this painting, be awestruck at the Presence of Jesus with us. May we know, like Thomas in this painting, the feel of Christ’s hand upon our shoulder, comforting us and welcoming us into his resurrection life.
We pray all these things in the glorious and holy Name of the Risen One, Jesus Christ. Amen.
About the writer:
For twenty-four years, Dr. R. Dale McAbee worked with Rehabilitation and Psychiatric patients at Baptist Health Louisville as well as those in treatment for Substance Use Disorder. Recently he has become the Oncology Chaplain. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. For the last eight years, he has been Choirmaster at Concordia Lutheran Church and prior to that served St. Mark United Methodist for 13 years, Church of the Ascension in Frankfort for 2 years and Tunnel Hill Christian Church for 2 years as music minister.
He is a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina and earned the BA in Music from Furman University, the Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 and summer of 2017, he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music:
1 John 1
1 John 2:1-2
Trust and Obey
Blest Be the Tie
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Draw Us in the Spirit s Tether
Christ Is Risen
Holy, Holy, Holy
Draw Us in the Spirit s Tether (Friedell)
Easter Morning: Peace Be Unto You (Christiansen)
Dona Nobis Pacem
O Breath of Life (David Ashley White)
Our God Reigns
Gentle Like Jesus
Jesus Is the Song
Surely the Presence of the Lord
I Want to Walk as A Child of God
Shalom to You
You’re the Only Jesus