How good and pleasant it is (sermon)

This is Low Sunday, or that Second Sunday after Easter where, in my experience, everyone tries their hand with our friend Thomas: Thomas the doubter, or Thomas the faithful, or Thomas who just needs proof.

But if we look at the gospel for today, Thomas is just one part. Jesus appears to the disciples on the first day of the week. Thomas was not there, and so he doesn’t believe that this resurrection sighting happened, making himself at odds with the rest of the disciples, who had seen, and believed. And so Jesus appears again, and in the process of quelling Thomas’ doubts, reintegrates him with the community of the apostles, a community who can all now testify to the risen Christ. In short: Thomas, alone in his wonderings, at odds with his best friends, is brought back into community by the experience of seeing Jesus.

How palpable that excitement must have been, when Thomas said, “My Lord and my God”. When all the followers of Jesus, huddled in fear, or absent, just a few days earlier, could see Jesus. When fear and terror was replaced by excitement, and a new sense of purpose. When something beyond their wildest dreams became reality.

“Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

Unity, says our Psalmist. Unity is the theme of today’s readings. And as Augustine says in response to this psalm, “There is no need for us to spell out or to explain to you… how pleasant and lovely it is for people to live together in unity”. The feeling invoked by our psalmist is a hopeful one, that I think it’s fair to say that we all share: “how good it is, when people live in unity”.

How good it is, when Thomas sees Jesus.

How good it is when he rejoins the community of disciples who say “My Lord and my God”, who respond with joy to the risen Lord.

How good it is, that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”.

How good it is, that the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions”…

Wait.

Wait, what did that say again?

“everything they owned was held in common”

“There was not a needy person among them”

In Acts, this community’s response to the resurrected Jesus is to sell all they own, and redistribute it to all that had need.

Now, as people who live in 21st century America, we might be tempted to attach a lot of ‘isms’ to this, to try and categorize it as a particular kind of politics or social program.

This is one of those passages that, in a society which focuses on the accumulation of wealth and ‘climbing the ladder’ or ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’, sounds jarring, and countercultural. Perhaps some of us want to say, hey, let’s go back to that Thomas the Doubter fellow, shall we? Let’s leave this passage for the monks and nuns.

And while some scholars argue that this passage is an expressed ideal for a Christian community that was never actually achieved, there’s plenty of evidence of this kind of community life in Paul’s letters and other early church writings. Our lectionary confronts us with the difficult truth that this life in common is a right response the Resurrection.

St. Augustine, in writing about Psalm 133 “How good and pleasant is, when brethren live together in unity!”, says that “The first [Christians] to live together in unity were those who sold all their possessions and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.”

So that leads us to ask: well, what is it about selling possessions that leads to unity?

And there is one line in Acts that stands out: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all”. They had all possessions in common, and great power in testimony to the Resurrection.

One of these early church narratives I mentioned earlier tells about this community life in the story of St. Lawrence, a deacon in the church in Rome. Deacons, in this context, would be like the church treasurer and outreach minister rolled into one. Lawrence would have been responsible for distributing money and treasure to the poor and outcast. When Roman authorities arrested him during the Valerian persecutions, they demanded “give us all the wealth of the church”. And perhaps you know this story, that Lawrence gathered up the widows, the blind and deaf and paralyzed and diseased, and told the prefect “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you… which are the Church’s crown”

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all”

Unlike the Romans, who thought the treasure of the church was her gold and silver, St. Lawrence demonstrates the true witness of the church: the proclamation of Resurrection by caring for the least of these… those who are marginalized and forgotten. The apostles in Acts had great power in their testimony to the Risen Jesus precisely because of the way they lived, and the people they valued.

And perhaps it is discomforting to reflect on this passage, precisely because this kind of witness to the Resurrection might change the way we live, and the people we see, the people we value. Perhaps it is easier to reach for Thomas the Apostle as a response to the resurrection because his response is intellectual, and he just needs to see Jesus, in order to believe ‘correctly’. Thomas’ response is a head thing, a question about certainty, while the response of the apostles who hold all things in common is a radical restructuring of what daily life looks like. It is almost as if these readings, paired together, ask us, how far will you go, to witness to the Resurrection? How much will your life change, if this is true, that Jesus has vanquished sin and death and calls us into new life? With what powerful testimony can we witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus? How might this testimony of our common lives as Christians, change the world around us?

“Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

St. Augustine again:

“The first [Christians] to live together in unity were those who sold all their possessions and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. As we are told, Goods were distributed to all, as each one needed, and no one claimed anything as private property, but all things were held by them in common…. They were the first but not the only ones, for this love and fraternal unity did not reach them only to end there. The intense joy of charity came upon their descendants too…

Friends, we are the descendants of Thomas, who saw and believed, and of those first apostles who held everything in common. We are the inheritors of the intense joy of charity, and we are witnesses to the Resurrected Christ through the testimony of our lives.

Our call, in these Fifty Days of Easter, is to ask, where should this relationship with our Risen Lord take us? What is our response to this Resurrection?  

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