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Thursday, April 12, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133:1-3, I John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

Although none of this week’s readings focus on the image of “the Body of Christ,” very early many who experienced the power of the resurrection began to realize that they themselves were the visible body of the resurrected Jesus.  (See I Corinthians, chapter 12, and Ephesians, chapter 4, for the most complete development of this image.)  Conversations sometimes get into trying to describe Jesus' resurrected physical body, which was similar to, but also quite different from, what his followers had known before.  Whatever the shape of that body, it didn’t last long.  It disappeared into “heaven.”  What was left was a surprisingly animated community of people empowered by and demonstrating love.  Tertullian, a third century leader of the church, noted that “pagans” were known to look at the early Christian community and say, “See how they love one another!”

One wonders whether anyone looks at the Christian community today and says, “See how they love one another.”  The question, “What does the risen Christ look life?”, is more than a matter of scientific observation.  It is a challenge and call to faithfulness and mission.  Does Jesus’ resurrection live in us?  What would the Christian community look like if it were truly the Body of Christ?

This week’s readings offer some descriptions.  Three of the four readings are from the first hundred years of that community.  Although two of the readings bear the name of John, they probably come from nearly 100 years after the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  I’m quite satisfied to accept these writings as an expression of what was going on as those early Christians tried to understand and experience and live out the divine love they felt working in and among them.

The other reading, Psalm 133, obviously does not come from the early life of the church, but offers a memorable and oft-quoted verse that can challenge us in our life together.  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  (Psalm 133:1)   It can be taken as one answer to our title question.  Unity, although not necessarily uniformity, is a mark of the resurrection “body” of Christ.

That leaves the reading from the book of Acts, likely written earlier than either of the “John” selections.  Many see it as a continuation of the Gospel According to Luke, Luke having been present with Paul at various times in his ministry.  The sections of Acts where Luke is present always uses the pronoun “we’; when he is not present, it says “they.”  (Note, for instance, in Acts 16:4, it says, “ . . . they went from town to town,”, while in verse 11, it says, “We set sail from Troas . . .”)

The focus in the lectionary reading from chapter four is upon the amazing community that arose after the resurrection.  The most striking feature is the radical economics described.  The Bible more than once lifts up the ideal of a community that shares at a depth that feels invasive to those nurtured in a capitalist environment.  The Old Testament had the ideal of the “Jubilee,” a time of debt-forgiveness, freeing of slaves, return of lands.  (See Leviticus, chapters 25-27)   In the community described in the reading from Acts “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold . . . and it was distributed to each as any had need.”  (Acts 4:32, 34, & 35)   A similar description occurs at the end of the second chapter of Acts, with this added note: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people . . .” (Acts 2:44-47)  Sadly, we must note that the experiment did not endure, in either the Old or New Testaments.  Indeed, in the very next chapter after this week’s reading (chapter five) begins with the story of a couple who held back some of their property with disastrous consequences.

The lesson to be drawn, however, is that a spirit of sharing was at work in the resurrected body of Christ.  Where we see people seriously sharing, caring about people in need, where people apply love when they meet those in need of justice, there we see the resurrected Jesus at work.  Are we among those doing that work?  Does the resurrected Jesus give us life, and come to life in us, so that the world knows and experiences his love?

The reading from the epistle of I John (remember we’re talking not about John’s Gospel but about one of three short letters near that end of the New Testament) repeats the word “fellowship” several times.  The Greek word, koinonia, may be translated, “community,” “distribution,” “sharing,” “partnership,” as well as “fellowship.”  Some of you may remember the Koinonia Community or Koinonia Partnership in South Georgia that gave birth to Habitat for Humanity.  It is known in part because of former President Jimmy Carter’s interest in and involvement with it.  Originally it was the vision of a group of Baptists and involved blacks and whites living together and sharing possessions in ways that stirred up of lot of resistance from the surrounding area.  They were trying to live out the ideals of the early Christian community.  They were an appearance of the resurrected Jesus.

In I John an identifying mark of this resurrection community is that it is made up of light-seeking members.  “God is light.”  (vs. 5) “ . . . if we walk in the light . . . we have fellowship with one another.”  (vs. 7)   Later in the same epistle, the writer identifies love as another mark, also rooted in the very nature of God.  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  (I John 4:16)  It is a community in which there is love among brothers and sisters.  (I John 4:10-21) Where there is light and love we see the resurrected body of Christ.

At its best, it is also a community in which forgiveness is at work, mentioned in I John and further developed in the Gospel reading.  The epistle speaks of a God who forgives sins (I John 1:9), while Jesus, in the Gospel lesson, makes us a part of that forgiving process.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  (John 20:23)  All kinds of attempts have been made to make these words about early church structure, the role of priests, etc.  I’m willing to settle, this week, for seeing in it a call to be a community that practices forgiveness.  We see the resurrected body of Christ when people forgive one another.  Forgiveness doesn’t just come from on high. It is part of what makes relationships effective, productive, and fulfilling.

Other parts of the Gospel reading might add to our understanding of the marks of resurrection we might see in our life together.  When Jesus appears to this group of disciples, his first words are “Peace be with you.”  (vs. 19, repeated in vs. 21)   The risen Christ speaks of peace.  Can the community of those who bear his name do less?

A significant part of the reading is about Thomas, to whom the term “doubting” has often been attached in a derogatory way.  Notice that Thomas didn’t ask for anything the other disciples hadn’t already experienced.  He wasn’t present until another gathering a week later.  He simply asked to see as they had seen.  (vss. 24-26)   We might ask why he didn’t take the others at their word.  Aren’t we a community in which trusting one another is important?   But I hope it is also a community in which we are free to express the questions that come to us, to come to our own experience of the living Christ each in his or her own way.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas.  He says, “Here, take a look.  Touch and feel.”  (vs. 27)   In the end, however, Jesus says that, after all the questions are asked, it is a matter of faith.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  (vs. 29)   We no longer live in a day when Jesus literally walks into a room so that we can see and touch him.  This Gospel was written to the early generations of those who had never known or seen the earthly Jesus, and yet they believed.  In fact, I would argue, they had become the only resurrected body the world would see.  What do people see when they look at that body today?  Do they see sharing, unity, light, love, peace, forgiveness, honest dialogue, personal commitment, faith, and belief?   To the extent that even the smallest glimpse of those things show through, the resurrected Christ is present among us.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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