Texts: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
We read today about the early community of the Church. In Acts, the believers gather around the apostle’s testimony to Jesus’ resurrection and that good news of God’s unconquered love touches them, changes them from a bunch of loosely connected individuals into a group, a community that cares for one another and sees to the needs of all. In the 1st letter of John, we read how one community is testifying—bearing witness—to what they themselves have seen and heard concerning the word of life. They share this testimony so that others will be joined in community with them, and through them will be joined in community even with God’s own self. They share this testimony so that their joy will be complete.
We even read about this community at the very beginning, almost before it was a community. In John’s gospel, on Easter evening, Jesus’ friends are gathered behind locked doors. John means more than that the key had been turned. He means that the people gathered in that room were defensive and shut down, that their grief and their pain is impenetrable. While none of Jesus’ disciples were crucified, a part of each of them has died with him on the cross.
When Jesus appears to them, showing them his hands and side, they are united not only in their sorrow over his death, but also by their joy in his return—but not all of them. When Thomas joins them, he alone has not seen the Crucified and Resurrected One. The others, in their love for him, forgive him, embrace him, and bear witness to him; in their love and fellowship with him, they ensure that he is there the following week when Jesus returns to experience the risen Christ for himself.
But knowing that love and experiencing that love are two different things. The love of God is by nature abstract; it’s not something we can experience directly like we can experience the love of parents or children or neighbors or friends. What we can experience it is our love for each other. The other disciples did not convince Thomas of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection by offering proof or evidence or theologically sound arguments. In fact, they did not convince him at all. They merely remained with him, loving him until he could see Jesus for himself.
And as they remained with him, they shared their testimony: what they themselves had heard, what they had seen with their eyes, what they had looked at and touched with their hands. That testimony is the basis for our community—not evidence or arguments. And so, I share with you my testimony, what I have seen and heard and touched, so that we may have that community—that fellowship with one another—and so that our joy may be complete.
Even as a small child, I knew that God loved me, but I didn’t really know what that meant or what that looked like. I knew my parents loved me because they cared for me, fed and clothed me, soothed my hurts and celebrated my accomplishments. I knew my friends loved me because they spent time with me and played games with me, because we shared secrets and adventures together. I couldn’t experience any of that with God… not until Mom got sick. When I was 8, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She suffered through almost 2 years of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy before she died. During that time when she was sick, our friends and family rallied around us. People came to visit and spend time with us, they watched my sister and me when my parents couldn’t, they cooked meals for us and took us out to have fun, they talked with us about what we were going through. My congregation even bought our family a trip to Disneyland so that Mom could share a place that was very special to her with her kids before she died. And when the time came, they filled that church for her funeral.
It wasn’t until I experienced the depth of that community’s love that I began to really understand the love of God. Here was this group of people whose love for us caused them to hurt with us, to be broken just as we had been broken. This group of people was not gathered together around a common interest or a job they were being paid to do; they were not bound to us by obligation or happenstance or even really by choice. Each of us was there because God had called us there; the only reason we knew each other was because God knew us and brought us together. I realized in this time that the love these people shared for my family and I—the love we all shared for each other—came from God. My congregation’s love for me was God’s love for me.
The love that made us a community also made us vulnerable. That love meant that Mom’s death hurt all of them just like it hurt us. We wept together; we died together. I saw the love of God in the marks of the nails on the hands of the Body of Christ; and I also saw that although we were being shaped by the reality of death, we are not defined by it. Because of the love God shared with us and we shared with each other in God, we also lived together. We supported one another, comforted one another, walked with each other. In that love, life continued; in that love, together we witnessed resurrection.
That love we share as the Church—the love that comes from God and that we share with God—that love makes us a special community. We all have communities beyond this one: the communities where we work or go to school, groups of friends or clubs or social organizations, the community of people where we live. None of those communities are specifically focused on the cross like this one is; they are all formed by something else: a job, a common experience, the happenstance of where we live or spend our time; but the Church is a community of people who have been changed by this witness of resurrection and called to gather around this table and font. Unlike any other community or club or family, we have been built around the cross—shaped by the reality of death, but defined by the promise of life.
It is because of this community and this love that I have experienced firsthand that I can stand here today and bear witness to what I have seen and heard, what I have touched with my hands and known in my heart. I declare to you what I have known from my very beginning concerning the word of life. This life has been revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen; but it has been revealed to me in the love, the care, and the support of this community that was borne out of the testimony to that resurrection. I bear witness to what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears so that you may share my joy, my experience of the resurrection, and so that my joy and yours may be complete. I declare to you the truth: in the marks of crucifixion borne by this community washed in the death of Christ and nourished by his living flesh and blood, I have seen the Lord.