Year B, Easter 2 John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2
In 2001, there was a grassroots movement to include Jedi as an option for religion in the census of all English speaking countries. In England and Whales, 330,000 people (that is almost 1% of the total population) listed Jedi as their religion. Obviously it was a joke- although no one is quite sure who the joke was directed to. While the Jedi phenomenon never gained traction in the US, there have been growing a number of people who have listed “none” when asked what religion they are. This strikes fear in the hearts of clergy and all people who are concerned about the future of the church. Some people are proclaiming that we are in a post-Christian era and that the church is dying. People will give you statistics to prove this. If you have been to any diocesesan church council in the last 5 years, you will have heard these statistics and then theories about what we can do about them. It’s pretty depressing.
We have not given up but we are unsure about how to move forward. Much of the dialogue regarding the future of the church focuses on the past. I am not talking about the 1960’s when the Sunday school was overflowing and businesses were still closed on Sundays. What we as a church are talking about is the very beginning of the church which is reflected in parts of the New Testament. We see it especially in Acts. Today’s reading from the Book of Acts depicts a beatific view of the early church. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…” Everyone shared and helped one another. There were no needy people among them. The apostles provided their testimony with great power. It sounds positively magical. If only we could go back to that happy time when no one bothered gathering census data and no one talked about a dying church. However if you continue to read just a couple of verses later in Acts, you will see that life in this new Christian community was not perfect bliss. There was dissension because not everyone agreed.
It is not only Acts that reports such dissension. All five chapters of First John are about division in the community. People had left because they had different ideas about who Jesus was. In this letter, John was trying to reaffirm the correct beliefs while also maintaining the importance of forgiveness in the community of believers. Just because people had come to believe in Jesus Christ does not mean that they had stopped sinning. It meant that they now had someone in their lives who had the power to forgive. They were no longer a prisoner to their sins. Jesus had freed them from that prison. John was reminding them of that.
If dissension in the church started as soon as the church was formed, what hope do we have? How can we possibly keep the church from fracturing and inevitably dying off? We need to go back to the words and actions of Jesus. Even Jesus’ little community (his disciples) had a bit of infighting and dissension. Judas completely abandoned the group and betrayed Jesus. That was their first major split. Another more subtle rebellion was Thomas. After Judas left there were 11 disciples remaining, not including the small group of women. These 11 disciples were their own community. Yet it was a community living in fear. This was the first dying community…until Jesus appeared to them. Jesus brought them out of that little room they were trapped in. They were witnesses to the resurrection. Not only that, but Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit, which means that they shared in the resurrection. They too had new life.
However, at least one disciple was missing when Jesus appeared to them. It was Thomas. He refused to believe that they had seen the risen Lord. In many ways, this was the first dissension in the newly resurrected community of believers. But they did not kick him out. They continued to include him in their community and he stayed, even though he wasn’t quite on board with what they believed. Not only did the community refuse to push Thomas out. Jesus refused to cut Thomas out. He returned so that Thomas could see what the other disciples had already seen. He went so far as to let Thomas touch his scars. That was an amazing gift that Jesus gave to the first church dissenter. Thomas received the gift because he was there to receive the gift, because he stayed.
Yes, our church began in dissension. It began in dissension because we are sinners. We are flawed. We get into arguments and our feelings get hurt. I am not saying that is fair or right, but it is the reality that people face in communities made up of real people. Christian communities are no different than other communities in the sense that we have infighting. And sometimes we act in ways that we should not. What makes Christian communities unique (what makes us Christian) is that we find the humility to call it what it is, sin. Then once we have found the courage to name our sin, we will discover the joy in forgiving one another and ourselves. During all of that process, we stick together. We remain a community.
I don’t think we are in a post Christian era. I believe that we are in a post label era. People don’t want to be labelled. They don’t want to be put in a box. In the church, we love labels. High Church, Low Church, Anglo Catholic, Conservative, Orthodox, Liberal, Progressive, Open, Inclusive, Traditional, Contemporary. Those are just the labels we use in the Episcopal Church. They are not doing us any good. They are dividing the community; not bringing us together. We can rise above the labels. We can rise above dissension. We don’t need to be boxed in. Jesus opened the door for the disciples and he opens the doors for us as well.
What kept the disciples together, even when they were scared and fractured, was their belief in the love of Jesus Christ. There was some confusion and doubt, but it was not around the love of Christ. There is one label that is important that we maintain, that is Christian. That is the title that we are given in the Bible. One of the things we have to work hard at is making sure that people don’t associate Christians with division, but with love, humility, forgiveness and community.
In the 2011 census, the amount of people who called themselves Jedi decreased by half. The number of Christians decreased as well, although thankfully not by half. We could look at these declining numbers and say we are dying. Or we could stop trying so hard to maintain the box that we have built. We could die to labels, division and pride. We could hang those things on the cross and then rise again to a new way of being church…or perhaps a very old way…back to 30AD. Jesus could have looked at those 11 disciples who denied him, abandoned him and doubted him. He could have said, “This is the group I am supposed to start a church with?” But he didn’t. He didn’t see sin and failure. He saw an opportunity for new life.
What is it that we see when we look at the state of the church? Do we see boxes or do we see opportunity…do we see Jesus opening our doors? We have been given something greater than any worldly powers, even greater than the force. We have the Holy Spirit. That means that even if we die, we always have the power to rise again. And if any church knows that, it’s St. John’s, a church that has literally risen from the ashes.