Acts and Disciples
Acts and Disciples
April 23, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; John 20:19-31
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nailes in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas was not there. He was not there when Jesus was seen by the others. They told Thomas, we have seen the Lord. And Thomas responded, “Really?”
He did not believe. He could not believe what he had not seen with his own eyes, felt with his own hands. He was a disciple, but that was not a discipline of belief that he had taken on, believing what others had told him, to take them on faith. We hear something along these lines from the reading from the Book of Acts: “Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
This was Peter speaking, Peter said to be the rock upon which Jesus would build his church. Peter described a line of tradition, flowing through King David until Peter’s time. David speaking of the Messiah to come, one who would be free from death. In the example of Jesus, Peter proclaimed the disciples as witnesses. People there, men and women who could claim to have seen Jesus after the crucifixion, like Mary Magdalene and Peter himself. There were witnesses.
Thomas was not a witness, not at first. The others describe a fantastic tale, and Thomas responded, “Nope.” No way. Unless I see it, unless I feel his wounds myself, I will not believe. I will not believe.
The Easter season is upon us, meaning the season following Easter Sunday. One of the features of this time of year is that the assigned scriptures for Sundays now include readings from the Book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles. The book documents the early life of the church, the time immediately after Jesus when the disciples were trying to build a community of believers. Peter is an important figure, of course. And then there was the new guy, Paul, who was a late comer to the group, a convert who had once been an enemy of the followers of Jesus. Both men were critical to those early days of development. Peter said to be the rock. And Paul who would become the voice; the voice of the faithful, the mind through which Christianity would come to be understood through the ages.
But what of Thomas? Another disciple, Thomas was best known as a doubter, the one who questioned mad tales about death and resurrection. He sought out truth with his eyes, reality with his bare hands. But doubt was not a quality that the early church could tolerate, for it had to struggle in a hostile world. It had to struggle even within the ranks of stout believers. And so Thomas becomes a side story, while Peter and Paul are front and center.
Faith is a virtue. Doubt is a sin.
We have a couple of months left in the regular church year, eight weeks to be exact before the summer. I thought I might close the year with lessons we rarely discuss. Over the years I have programmed alternate readings after Easter, lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the Book of Acts. I decided to stick with the program this time around. We will consider the lives of the disciples.
I also decided that I needed a theme to follow, something else that we rarely discuss but probably should. We are a Unitarian church within the Christian tradition. We use the Bible to guide our Sunday mornings and, I hope, to inform our lives. I wanted to add to that set of traditions some observations from the wider denomination. So for the next seven Sundays, we will be hearing about the Seven Principles. These principles are touchstones within Unitarian Universalism. After many years of study, it is my view that these principles are firmly rooted in the Biblical and philosophical traditions we hold to dearly each Sunday morning. That language may differ at times, but the substance is the same. And the substance is what matters.
This being the first Sunday, I will discuss the First Principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person…”
Let’s break that down. To begin, “we covenant to affirm and promote….” We, meaning a wide group of independent churches. We covenant, meaning that we agree to make a solemn vow and to pursue a sacred undertaking. We covenant to affirm and promote, meaning that we agree and that we will share that agreed upon message. That is the context for all Seven Principles, a choice to embrace certain values in our lives, within our congregations, and beyond in the wider world.
The First Principle offers the first matter, what I would describe as the fundamental ordering assumption leading into all the rest: to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
In one sense, the other principles do not matter. Each arises from the first, for if every person has inherent worth and dignity, the expectations of social behavior that follow should naturally come about. I say “should” because this does not happen. It does not happen naturally nor does it come about easily even through considered practice and ongoing discipline. “Discipline” because this turn toward fundamental beliefs is a matter of discipline. There are things we are taught, basic notions of behavior, that one would expect go without saying. Depending upon who you are, where you live, and with whom you spend time, those basics may go without saying and they may have long since gone by the boards.
I remember back to my days in organized sports, playing football and rugby (and yes rugby is indeed organized). It was a lot of work. Harsh conditioning and repetition of plays or techniques, building and growing with experience and practice. But inevitably, we would hear a message at some point during the season: alright, it is time to get back to basics. Time to review our fundamentals, time to correct our forms and stances. This may resonant with any golfers or tennis folk, those who practice yoga or undertake running long distances. Many activities build in complexity over time, relying upon a base of foundational practices. But those practices can break down over time through carelessness or overconfidence. The complexities above start collapsing due to weaknesses below. Getting back to basics is about remembering what one already knows so that there is a firm spot on which to build. That is about discipline.
And the disciples knew this. Peter had certain ideas about what was essential, what was basic in the life of faith. Peter was a simple man, a fisherman, who had been called to follow Jesus from the boats along the Sea of Galilee. He had lived his life as a faithful and observant Jew, and so Peter built his new community of followers of Jesus along these lines. His basics came from his own life, the foundational expectations of Judaism.
Paul is thought to have been a Pharisee, meaning a learned man who understood and sought to enforce the behavioral expectations of Judaism. To put it another more blunt way, Paul may have been a professional nag, telling people what to do and correcting them when they strayed. This is an essential element of discipline, even if it sounds dreary. We learn the basics and learn from there, but when we fall away from what is expected, the basics and beyond, someone might need to point that out. Peter knew the basics, but Paul had dedicated his life to them.
In time, Paul would advocate for a change, a fundamental break from the fundamentals of Judaism. Why? Because Paul understood Jesus as a break from the past, though that was not the only possible conclusion. Peter understood Jesus as the Messiah from within a Jewish context, a leader coming down through the line of King David, one even proclaimed by David in his role as a prophet. Peter imagines a continuation. Paul suggests a rupture.
Peter wanted the disciples and those they had gathered as followers of Jesus to follow the laws of Judaism, to undertake the existing covenants and practices. Paul sought to cast that all aside, building anew on the foundation of Jesus rather than adding another floor onto the existing structure of the past. In many ways, Christianity has sought to follow Paul’s logic. And Paul’s shift has been a successful effort by many measures, but I wonder what has happened to the fundamentals.
Where you begin matters. The first step can define the journey. If you build upon the past, you are relying upon those who came before you, accepting their choices and adopting their judgments. If instead you seek to break new ground, you get to avoid past mistakes or miscalculations, but you might also lose the wisdom embedded in those choices made over time. One way conservative, the other radical. One slow and incremental, the other fast and abrupt.
For example, the First Principle of the UUA attributes inherent worth and dignity to every person. Think about that starting point for a second. Is it true? Is it logically true, emotionally true, practically true? Does it feel right and look right? Can we accept it as our first step from which to journey off into a life focused on certain goals and filled with related purposes? Inherent worth, meaning value from the start. Inherent dignity, meaning owed respect from the get go. Everyone worthy and everyone worthy of respect. Can we build on this?
I do not offer this principle to get you to sign on to a grand whoosh of liberal sentiment. This idea is by no means unique to this particular set of principles. People may think they are making a grand break from something else, but that is rarely the case.
Inherent worth and dignity may not be the most familiar formulation. How about we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These words are from the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, and they arise from a sense of rights attributable to each man.
I say “man” because at the time Jefferson was writing, he did not intend to include women. This was not the global “Man” implying all human beings together. This was equality within a category, not across them. Men were equal to men, sort of. Men of certain economic means were given political rights, unlike men of lesser means. Also unlike non-white men and unlike women regardless of color, wealth, or class.
A simple statement of inalienable rights has a high-minded tone. But it sounds peculiar arising from a time when men and women could be sold into slavery. In the same way, ascribing inherent worth and dignity is meaningful as a practice, but otherwise it is a nice sounding phrase ringing hollow with good intentions.
We often find a similar hollowness around practices suggested in the lessons of Jesus. One of the cornerstones of Christian community is the belief that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Great message, but what does it mean? If I say I love my neighbor, what expectation is there that I will live differently as a result? What does it look like? Who is my neighbor? And what exactly is love?
It seems so simple – love your neighbor. But if that love is confined to one’s heart, if it merely characterizes a lack of active hate, if it is the spoken message rather than the lived practice, what does it truly mean? Like inherent worth and dignity, love for one’s neighbor can be a catchy platitude, stitched onto sofa cushions and emblazoned on bumper stickers. A treasured phrase can be hoarded rather than shared.
It seems obvious that loving one’s neighbor is a central aspect of Christian belief, but is it a fundamental component of Christian life? When I was suggesting that the First Principle was a rule for living, in and of itself, and that all the other principles sprang from the First, I meant it. But declaring something to be true is not the same as living into that truth. Sometimes you need the details.
There is an old story about two rabbis who lived before Jesus was born, Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. A gentile came to the men and asked, with the obvious intention of provoking them, that he be taught the whole of the Torah while the teacher stood on one foot. Rabbi Shammai whacked the man with a measuring rod – no subtly there. Rabbi Hillel replied to this request to learn the Torah in so short a time by saying, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another: this is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
It is unclear whether the rabbi was standing on one foot at the time.
The First Principle offers the first matter, the fundamental ordering assumption leading into all the rest. In one sense the other principles do not matter, but in truth everything that comes after matters greatly. Each principle may arise from the first, but the basics are only the beginning. You learn how to hold a golf club and then you have to hit the ball. You will know you are correct when the ball goes where you intended and you will know you are incorrect when the ball lands in the woods. Getting back to basics is a way of readjusting what we do after examining the results. So you need to study and then you need to act. Learn then practice. Learn then live. Learn then examine. Learning is the critical beginning but never the ultimate end.
What does it mean to practice? To see what it is like to follow the lessons one holds to be true. What does it mean to live? To use those lessons and all of that practice, to guide our days. What does it mean to examine? To make sure it is all working, to discover what those lessons look like walking around. And more so, to examine means to doubt. Not to doubt the basics but to question the way in which those basics are applied. What has been done with them and what has been done to them.
Peter wanted a life of faith to look one way, Paul another. Who was right? Who lived up to those lessons Jesus taught? Thomas has been criticized over the centuries for not taking anything at face value, but he was also the voice of reason trying to pin down what was real, what he could see and feel. I do not blame Thomas for doubting. And I do not blame anyone who wants more than the assurances of preachers. Doubt is a healthy response to even the most basic of truth because it keeps those who might champion truth honest.
When faced with a problem, it is good to stand back and take it all in. To see where things are and where they might have gone off the rails. It might be a quick fix, it could involve a lot of heavy lifting. It may even be a time to start all over. But in that process of examination, it is worth going back to the fundamentals, the forms and stances, the first principles upon which everything was supposed to be built. Thomas was looking beyond the reports of his fellow disciples and for this he is occasionally treated as the lesser example. But for Unitarians, I would call Thomas the patron saint.
Not that we should always remain mired in doubt, but doubt is a healthy and fundamental part of faith. It is all well and good to say pretty words of virtue. But if the beautiful words remain on the page rather than across our lives, it is worth expressing some doubt. And then it is time to get back to basics once again.