We have a glowing picture of the early Christian community: one heart, one mind, no one of them claimed anything as his or her own. So stunning was their witness that respect was paid by all.
There were no needy in their midst, and each was provided for according to need. Perhaps they felt, in the words recorded in the First Letter of John, that, as believers in Jesus as Son of God, they could take on the world.
The account of the earliest community, however—the community hidden behind locked doors, the community hiding in fear—reveals that perhaps not all was sweetness and light.
It is noteworthy that the first word attributed to the risen Lord is “peace.”
One can presume, then, that this community was somehow in a state of disquiet, And it seems that the reason was not only fear and terrible disappointment. Quite possibly it may have been divisiveness, since it is forgiveness that Jesus next addresses: “If you forgive others’ sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.”
What is it that is to be forgiven by the gift of the Spirit’s breath?
Scripture recounts that “it happened” that Thomas was absent when Jesus came. Later the community greets Thomas with the words, “We have seen the Lord.” And he quite simply refuses to accept their testimony.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Whether this was a major source of division or not, it is evident that Thomas is the first Christian to dissent formally from a fundamental conviction of the gathered church. After all, he does not believe in their testimony to the Resurrection.
Despite the wound of this division, however, Thomas remains with the community and they seem to welcome him. In fact, the next time Jesus appears in their midst, a week later, Thomas is present. And Jesus speaks directly to him: “Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe.”
I have found this a fascinating and rather challenging narrative. Even if forgiveness is not the theme of the Thomas incident, it is clearly the case that Thomas is with the community he so profoundly challenges.
I’m afraid that if I had been running the church it might have been otherwise.
I find in myself strong inclinations to exclude from the category of believers those who seem to reject significant parts of our doctrine and practice. And yet, the example of the resurrection community undermines such an attitude. Thomas was not excluded.
He was not kicked out or given an either-or choice concerning the Resurrection of Christ. He was welcome. Apparently, he was forgiven, not bound, even though at the time he had not yet recanted his heresy.
I wonder what this might mean for a church that has strong tendencies to exclude the marginal.
Again, I am not constitutionally inclined to take much delight in such an observation, but the evidence of the text warrants it. And it says something important to us all.
We have not a few liberals and conservatives who act as if the presence of the other side is a contaminant in the church. There have been wars and persecutions mounted in the name of dogma. There have been excommunications and interdicts in the name of right practice.
Divisions have wounded the church and injured our witness in faith. The passion for being right has served the cause of ego at least as much as it has served the cause of Christ.
Does this mean that anything goes, that there is no cause or truth worth standing up for and making divisions over? Is it an invitation to the chaos of diversity without any center or unity? Not necessarily.
What provided the occasion for the renewed entry of Jesus into the community was the fact that they were gathered together in his name. At least Thomas had not hardened himself to their testimony. At least he had not put himself out of and above the church. He may have had the attitude of a dissenter, but it was in the context of Christ as the center of their relationship. There is division, but there is also humility and openness.
Jesus says to the Thomas in us: “Enter the wounds: the wounds of my humanity, of my church, of my crucified body, my risen body and my mystical body.”
And the reply of Thomas, the doubter, the unbeliever, the skeptic? In the strongest divinity text of the New Testament, albeit a text probably appended later, he says, “My Lord and my God.” Such is the transformative power of resurrection faith.
“These have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that through this faith you may have life in his name.”
May they help us believe. And forgive