Thomas and Interdependence (or: That Time My Hair Set on Fire When I Was Received into the Episcopal Church)
A week after being received into the Episcopal Church, Megan preached this sermon at all three of the Christ Church services. Enjoy!
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, 'We have seen the Lord.”
In a moment of vulnerability, our illusions of independence can quickly fade away, and we can realize just how much our life and our well-being are in the hands of others. I had one such moment last weekend, during the Episcopal Church at Yale's Easter Vigil where I was received into the Episcopal Church. During the service, we all had candles so we could read and pray along in the symbolic darkness of Yale's Dwight Chapel. The service came to a halt when the tip of my hair ended up hitting my candle and flames went spurting up the right side of my hair. I heard one of my Saint Hilda's House housemates gasp beside me before I realized what was happening. Though I can see some humor in the situation in retrospect, in the moment it was nothing but shocking and scary. I remember thinking that the flames were going to, possibly, burn half my face—maybe even make me lose vision in my right eye. I had been too stunned to take any action myself. Thankfully, my housemate, seated next to me, was able to put out my hair quickly enough that I came out of the incident with only a little less hair, a small burn on my face, and some major embarrassment.
Perhaps you've had a similar experience— where you couldn't act because you were too shocked, afraid, or overwhelmed to do so, and you became completely reliant on someone else stepping in. You became reliant on the fact that you were not alone—that you had others around you. A community to put out the flames.
While particularly vulnerable times and situations make us conscious of our dependence on others, this might not be an awareness we carry throughout the rest of our lives. Some of us are privileged enough to live under an illusion of utter independence. Perhaps we, at times, think of ourselves as having anindependent faith.
The story of Thomas in today's Gospel reading has often been presented as the story of the doubt of one individual man. But as I looked at the passage this week, I was struck by the context of his story—a communal experience of the resurrected Jesus.
The passage begins with Jesus showing up to the disciples in the midst of a locked house. Thomas isn't present for this collective experience...this collective rejoicing and collective receiving of the Holy Spirit. We then move on to the arrival of Thomas and hear the community testify to what they have experienced of God, saying,“We have seen the Lord.” At this point, the community's experience and word is all Thomas has been given. Sometimes our faith is not about what God has said to us independently, but is dependent on hearing from others what God has spoken to them In the Bible, we have a record of communities in relationship with God. The words of Jesus that we did not personally hear can be tremendously formative to our Christian faith. To allow them that role is to accept a level of dependence on the communities that have come before us.
In the particular instance of Thomas, however, he does not find communal witness to be enough of a reason to buy into the resurrection. He needs his own experience of Jesus. I would find it difficult to shame or blame him for this perspective. It is, after all, an extraordinary claim--that the Jesus they know has been killed and crucified is alive. Jesus seems to understand how difficult a reality this is to be grasped. He doesn't leave Thomas with the options of eventually getting on board with the community's story or simply having to believe the resurrection didn't happen. He ensures that Thomas has a chance to have his own experience, to touch, if he wishes, Jesus's hands and side.
Notably, however, this is not an experience granted to Thomas when he is alone. It is back in that house with the shut doors, with the other disciples, that it happens. Jesus “stood among them,” it says. Not only in front of Thomas--but within the group. Though Thomas is addressed directly, community is the backdrop for this very individual experience of the resurrected Lord. Despite the many instances where God works in our lives when we are completely alone, I think we see here, and many places throughout the Scriptures, that God loves to work among and through community. If we expect God to move in our lives, we cannot leave community out of the equation.
The other Scriptures for today reinforce the sweetness of community. The psalm declares, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” while the lesson from Acts provides us an example of this sweet community. In it, the people share all that they have. They are a people united. They are, it says, “of one heart and soul.”
Community is a priority of God's. I could spend the rest of this sermon trying to exhort us— myself included—to being better at building community. But it is just as important, I believe, to acknowledge that our community does not have to reach any certain standard before we receive the grace and presence of God within it. Perhaps we will always fall short of the vision of community laid out in Acts, but this doesn't mean we cannot have powerful moments of getting to know God together.
After all, the community of disciples in the Gospel passage is a community gripped by fear and grief—a community that is insular, that has shut itself in. This is not a community alight with hope or love or life or boldness. This is understandable, so soon after the crucifixion—but, still, was not the community's only option. This appearance of Jesus to the disciples comes after Mary Magdalene's encounter with the risen Christ earlier in the text. It comes after her announcement to the disciples that she has seen the Lord. If they believed her, this could have been a group ignited with joy, and Jesus could have appeared in the midst of their partying instead of their fear! But that was not the response of the community. Just as Jesus does not punish Thomas for his doubt but offers him an opportunity for encounter, so does Jesus embrace all the disciples though they have not accepted Mary's witness. Christ enters into the community just as it is to reveal himself.
In the beginning of our program year , the members of Saint Hilda's House (the young adult service community hosted by Christ Church) read from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, a classic text about Christian community.
Bonhoeffer writes, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” Bonhoeffer also states that, “He who loves the dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Surely, our own Christ Church community—and the other communities in which we all live—are far from ideal. It is easy enough to become disenchanted with community, but perhaps even more so with Christian community in particular. We often end up facing frustration, hurt, or rejection in a place where we expect to be loved and built up in Christ. We should be working, always, to make these communities—to make our Christ Church community—more reflective of God's love. But when things seem to be failing...when we find ourselves disenchanted...we must remember that the imperfection of our communities does not prevent Christ's presence with them.
Of course, this doesn't mean that we can't end up in the wrong community for us. Sometimes we are in places that we need to leave, churches that cannot accept us, or environments of spiritual abuse. Sometimes people need to leave the church—or a particular church—to recover or to reexamine. I would urge all of us, though, to never let disenchantment lead us to throwing out the towel completely in terms of pursuing fellowship with other people of faith. There is something worthwhile in the act of gathering together, even when we are a fearful, broken people. Jesus will show up in rooms with locked doors, in rooms of disciples who have been told that Jesus is risen and aren't acting like that's the case. And Jesus will be at work in us both individually and among us as gathered people—whether that gathering is here as a church, around the Eucharist, or even a few friends around a kitchen table.
We must remember that, as followers of Christ, our faith and our experiences of God are not singular—belonging to us only as individuals. Our faiths and our experiences are intertwined.
And this can be quite useful when our faith itself may seem to be going up in flames. During times like these, times where we might be too stunned to do anything, maybe it is enough to be among others who can say, “We have seen the Lord.” And maybe we will still need that individual experience of God—that experience like Thomas had—but perhaps listening to the testimony of our community, perhaps leaning on their faith, can be enough to keep us returning....returning to that gathering of people through which God might show up to us individually as well as among us in a community.