All churches are wounded in various ways and we all have the capacity to be healing communities. As church members we take risks when we open ourselves to each other. Smaller churches are especially able to do that as we gradually learn to know each other better, enabling us to grow in our trust in one another. Every church can be a diverse place where everyone feels safe, but no one is completely comfortable.
The Wounded, Healing Community
Scriptures: John 20: 24-29; Acts 4: 32-35
Easter Sunday morning is the highpoint in the Christian Calendar. We gathered for a joint breakfast, worship service, and Easter egg hunt with the Table Covenant and Hill City churches. What a celebration! I love the photos that Johnny Wen took for us. I chose the one of us all eating breakfast together for our bulletin cover this Sunday because it depicts the wonderful diversity in our churches.
American churches have rightly been criticized at the most segregated part of our society and this photo tells me that we were beginning to crack that racial, cultural divide in our fellowship hall last Sunday morning. One woman was even on Facebook with her mother who lives in Ukraine, talking with her and showing her scenes of how we celebrate Easter here in our church.
Now here we are in the second Sunday of Easter, always a bit of a comedown as we struggle with some of the tough stuff of life and faith. Let’s be honest! We’re a struggling, wounded community. I’m tempted to skip over that for a least another Sunday. Our lectionary Scripture, however, is about the troubled community of disciples on that first week following Easter, including Thomas’ outright unbelief.
Many today are giving up on church, partly because it just doesn’t feel relevant and worth the effort, partly because churches don’t honestly speak to or meet their spiritual and social needs, and partly because churches can be so judgmental and hypocritical in how they relate to people who don’t quite fit into expected social norms. It can feel wonderfully liberating to spend Sunday morning at home brewing a strong pot of coffee and reading a good novel. Then the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that.
Rachael Held Evans tells about her friend Kathy who spent many years climbing the leadership ladder at a large church where appearances mattered a great deal. People were afraid to be honest about their faith questions, their marriage problems, their political positions, their financial struggles, and their addictions. Kathy finally couldn’t endure it anymore, resigned, and helped found a faith community inspired by the Beatitudes and the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The church functions more like a recovery group than like a religious organization. She explains:
Suburban moms are building relationships with addicts. People from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds are engaging those with pagan backgrounds . . . Orphans, outcasts, prostitutes, pastors, single moms and dads, church burnouts, and everything in between are all muddled up together . . . It’s wild.
Such a church certainly appears to be the kind of ministry Jesus would be involved in. Rachel Held Evans comments, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” I love this image of the church, but I fret that we may be setting up an impossible ideal that none of us will ever be able to attain. If that happens, it can become disempowering. Let’s hold it as a vision with the recognition that none of us has arrived at the pearly gates. Then, lets own who we are, warts and all. Every journey begins from where we are, not from where we wish we were.
That first disciple community, that our risen Lord encountered and ministered to, was a mess. They were so fearful that they were hiding behind locked doors. Given the situation, that was most likely a prudent precaution. They had reason to believe that imperial authorities were planning to arrest them. They were most likely scared out of their wits when this stranger suddenly appeared in their midst. The last thing they were expecting was a living Jesus to walk through those locked doors. They were most certainly instead expecting an enemy. So, Jesus first words, “Peace be with you,” were in an entirely different situation from us casually passing the peace of Christ to each other on a typical Sunday morning.
After the initial fear, can we imagine how they felt when they understood that this was really Jesus? Where had to be shame. They had fled and abandoned Jesus when he was arrested. Peter even denied that he knew him. Even now, with rumors of resurrection in the air, they were still hiding. It had to be awkward. They had utterly let down their best friend and desperately needed to hear his forgiving and reconciling expression of peace.
Thomas’ refusal to believe stands in for the unbelief of the whole community of disciples. We often call him doubting Thomas but there’s a big difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is being uncertain and having questions. Such doubt can be healthy and is the sign of having an inquisitive mind. Unbelief, on the other hand, is a refusal to believe unless I’m bowled over by concrete, undeniable facts—”unless I put my finger into the mark of the nails and place my hand into his side.” Belief comes for a source other that such evidence. Not that belief goes against clear evidence but it’s willing to trust and take risks. It’s a gift of God.
Think of the vows we make to each other when we get married. Even though we’ve fallen in love, the other person remains a mystery and that’s part of the attraction as we open ourselves to each other. And we don’t know what the future holds or the kind of person each of us will become. If we demanded the kind of evidence Thomas was insisting on, nobody would ever get married or take any other risks. That’s why Jesus told him, “Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
And that brings it back to us and our diverse Easter morning table fellowship. Other people are always something of a mystery to us—known completely only by God. That’s why we cannot judge others. Our table fellowship was a beginning in reaching out to each other and sharing our lives across our cultural differences. We enrich and empower each other when we’re able to do that well.
Yet we remain a mystery to each other. Even my wife Ruth, the person who is closest to me, can still surprise me after been married for more than 40 years. Furthermore, we all have our broken places that can cut and wound. That’s why careful listening, speaking truthfully in love, and extending forgiveness and reconciliation are constantly needed to build healthy relationships. Passing the peace of Christ as we worship with each other is a gracious reminder if this. I love the description of the first Christian fellowship in Jerusalem in the book of Acts as being of one heart and soul and freely sharing everything with each other. It’s a wonderful example of a shared common life. Pastor Diane Roth explains:
The people held all things in common; they cared for the needy. Acts says that “great grace was upon them all.” Perhaps it sounds naïve to our ears, but when we can no longer see Jesus, when those around us can no longer see Jesus, they are looking for him in our lives. They are looking for him in communities of faith that care for those who are needy, that sacrifice rather than hoard, that include rather than exclude, that listen before speaking.
Yet, when we read a bit further in the book of Acts we learn that this fellowship was soon severely tested by greed and a struggle for power. It’s so human to point to others as the cause of such sin and failure. We’re so good at attempting to remove the sawdust from our sister’s or brother’s eye when we have a huge plank sticking out of our own eye. No, the struggle between good and evil is within each of our hearts—it’s not only out there.
We take risks when we open ourselves to each other. Smaller churches are especially able to do that as we gradually learn to know each other better, enabling us to grow in our trust in one another. Jeff Saferite, the pastor of Hill City Church, has led their congregation in a process of being open with each other about how much personal debt they have and asking how this may hinder them from doing what they would like with their lives and in following Jesus.
They’re a church of young, post-college professionals who carry a substantial mount of debt from credit cards, school loans, and car loans. It has been a somewhat awkward conversation even though they put lots of planning into being caring and nonjudgmental. Jeff tells me that the conversation has been liberating for them and helped them to gain more clarity about the things that are especially important to them. I think of this as a contemporary example of the first church in Jerusalem being of one heart and soul.
This week we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As we remember that tragedy we recall his dream of creating what he called the beloved community. It’s therefore fitting to close my sermon with his prayer for the church.
We thank you for your church, founded upon your Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray,
but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon you.
Help us to realize that humanity was created to shine like the stars and live on through all eternity.
Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace.
Help us to walk together,
and live together
until that day when all God’s children
– Black, White, Red, Brown and Yellow –
will rejoice in one common band of humanity
in the reign of our Lord and of our God, we pray. Amen.
 As quoted in Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), 71-72.
 Ibid, 73.
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