Have you ever thought about what it is that brings unity to a Church? This is something which even the early Church struggled with – you only need to read the pastoral epistles to see that as the apostles worked tirelessly to deal with division and controversy, and to get solid foundations in place. When God’s people are united though, amazing things happen. We begin to capture a glimpse of what the unity looked like in our reading from Acts today. We are told that “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had….And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.” You can’t speak about unity without mentioning being one in heart and mind and that leaves no space for personal agendas. In God’s Church, there is only one way – His way. As the Church we must do everything in our power to discern that and be obedient to what God is asking us to do.
There are some hallmarks of unity and a journey we must embark upon to be united. Some of the hallmarks include having a common purpose and vision which is rooted in God. There is also the need to acknowledge the truth and reality of one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of all. All these things we have in common.
The journey towards unity that the disciples embarked upon was not an easy one. Much like the people of God had to spend an entire generation wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus before they reached the promised land, Jesus’ early followers had to go through their own experiences before they could begin to live their potential in Christ. Here are some examples:
- Peter denied Christ 3 times
- The apostles argued amongst themselves
- There was a disagreement about whether the gentiles should be included in the Church
- All of them deserted Jesus
- Paul persecuted Christians
I’ve been thinking about the emotional rollercoaster the disciples went on leading up to the events surrounding Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion and what happened next – this was so much a part of the disciples journey towards unity. It is perhaps helpful to remember that Jesus had explained to the disciples on several occasions that he had to be killed but on the third day would be raised to life (Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:22-23, Matthew 20:17-19). Did the disciples understand this? Or did they think that it simply could not and would not happen? I think the only way we can possibly identify the answers to these questions is to look what happened next.
If you imagine for a moment that you are one of the disciples in the days after Jesus’ death, you’d likely be in shock for numerous reasons:
- You had witnessed the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. Even if you know someone is going to die, it is still shocking and devastating when it happens. The way in which Jesus was killed was brutal in the extreme; crucifixion was one of the most horrific ways in which someone could lose their life.
- You had fled in fear of your own life and were in hiding. All the hopes and expectations of the disciples had come crashing down and they were terrified that the fate that had befallen Jesus would also be meted out on them.
- It is in the depth of their shock and grief that Mary Magdalene bursts in with the news that Jesus was not dead but was risen; “I have seen the Lord!”
I don’t know about you, but I think I would have been distraught, disorientated, disillusioned, and feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and struck down by grief. These emotions paint a chaotic picture. After all, this wasn’t how it was supposed to work out, was it?
It’s hard to imagine what the actual conversation between the disciples must have been about at this time. What will we do? How can we avoid capture? What on earth went wrong? Often though, when people gather at funerals there are many conversations that begin with “do you remember when…”, as the mourners look back and share fond memories of the loved one they had lost. The stories that we can tell, and the memories that we share are part of the very fabric that sustains us through trial and adversity. That’s why breaking bread together is so important – we are telling and retelling the foundational story that underpins everything. I’m sure that as the disciples journeyed through the cycle of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance), they will eventually have found themselves asking that “do you remember when…” question too. It’s likely though that events had moved too quickly for them to come to a place of acceptance, and certainly Mary’s commentary that we heard about last week will have “upset the apple cart” all over again. Had she really seen him? Why would she say such a thing?
It is perhaps quite astonishing that it is into this situation that Jesus chooses to appear to his disciples, as they were gathered together in a locked room – firstly when Thomas was not present and secondly when he was. At first, perhaps, they might have been doubtful or incredulous, thinking that they were seeing things. I think I would have been on a rollercoaster of emotions. The disciples needed to have that revelation and experience of the risen Christ to finally understand everything that Jesus had said, and everything that Jesus done – as they came to a place of belief.
Jesus greeted them with “Peace be with you!”, wanting perhaps for peace and order to replace the chaos and the turbulence of the preceding days. Almost immediately, he showed them his hands and his side perhaps wanting them to know that he was no apparition – he was stood there before them “in the flesh” even if somehow different. After all, he had come and stood with them in a room that was locked! Helping the disciples see that he really was there with them in such a graphic way was all that was required – and they responded with joy! What a tremendous moment. All their hope that Jesus might truly be alive was re-realised. And quite possibly all the words that Jesus had shared with them in which he said this would happen will have come flooding back. Sometimes in our faith journey it takes us a while to get the point, to understand, for things to start to make sense, for the “penny to drop” especially if that place of understanding takes us beyond or outside of our comfort zone.
Jesus wanted the disciples to journey from doubt and disbelief, he wanted to commission and appoint them, and he wanted them to be one body – united. He was sending them and empowering them in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is an incredibly powerful charge to give to someone if you say: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:23)
There is another powerful and contrasting emotion here that the disciples experienced – joy. “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the LORD.” Do we live every moment of our lives with a deep joy that bubbles up like a spring within us because we KNOW that Christ is risen, and he HAS conquered sin and death? Do we engage in our calling mindful that it can be and should be fun?
And then we come to the disciple Thomas…whose response when the other disciples said they had seen the risen Christ was “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Jesus appeared before the disciples again and clearly already knowing what Thomas had said he speaks directly to Thomas and uses incredibly graphic language. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My LORD and my God!”” If you look at the Greek text in this passage, Jesus is essentially saying “throw your very hand into my side because I really want you to belief and have no doubt”. No wonder Thomas responded as he did!
The disciples’ experiences at this time taught them invaluable lessons that not only sustained them in their subsequent ministry of building up and equipping the early church, but also bore tremendous fruit. Their experiences had stripped away a lot of baggage and clutter and in the power of the Holy Spirit a room full of 11 terrified people literally went on to change the world. That’s why even in the face of the roller coaster that we are on now with this pandemic, “we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
In these times I pray that when we emerge from this, our communities will be different, and our communities will be better, and in an age of disunity we might be united. We have to lead by example. I pray that these difficulties might make people more aware of the immeasurable value of each other, and to have a deep appreciation of those simple things we so easily and so often take for granted. I pray that in these difficulties, people might turn to God and to his Church and stand united. Let me close with a reading from Psalm 133…
1 How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! 2 It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. 3 It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.