I may never have been a Boy Scout, but I have gone camping and canoeing and backpacking with family and friends over the years and, based on those experiences, I’m going to share one piece of advice that I’m sure the scouts have heard plenty of times over the course of their scouting careers: stay together.
That is my advice to you today: stay together.
This advice seems fairly obvious and self-explanatory say, if you’re out in the wilderness and get lost. The scouting websites I reviewed went so far as to say, never move out of eyesight or earshot of each other. You stay together for safety and to increase your chances of being found. But what is the value of staying together in the everyday contexts of our lives?
Those who followed Jesus weren’t Boy Scouts either. In fact, they weren’t all boys. And, in the first days after the crucifixion and death of their leader, Jesus, they were in a state of crisis. Just a few weeks earlier they’d rode into Jerusalem with Jesus, ready to see the world change before their eyes. Then it did.
The teacher they loved had been betrayed by a member of their own fellowship and handed over to the Roman authorities. He’d been set up for a death sentence by his own country-people, who’d alleged that he was committing treason against the empire by claiming to be a king. Perhaps worst, as they looked back at what had just unfolded, he’d been abandoned by his own friends. When the moment of crisis came, this troop did not stay together. Instead, they split up, and the one they loved most ended up dead.
You can imagine the mood inside that locked up house, can’t you? I suspect it was a pretty quiet place, each of the disciples reviewing in their minds what had happened, what had gone wrong. Each of them replaying that moment when they had split off from the group and run for safety on their own, hoping not to get caught by the Temple authorities and nailed to a cross.
But, even in those early days of fear and crisis, they hadn’t all stuck together. Mary Magdalene had slipped away to visit the tomb, perhaps to confirm one last time with her own eyes the unbelievable truth that Jesus was dead. She’d arrived to find the tomb open, and went immediately to get Simon Peter and another of Jesus’ beloved disciples. After confirming that Jesus’ body wasn’t in the tomb, the men returned to their home.
How do we suppose the gathered disciples felt then? Not only had they abandoned their teacher in his hour of need, but even after his death they’d been unable to safeguard his body. I suspect they were not only afraid for their lives, but ashamed of themselves as well. When Jesus had been alive and with them, they’d felt a new kind of life taking hold in them. They’d been drawn together by the promise of a world transformed, but they’d also been scattered by the threats of the world as it is.
It is so hard to stay together in this world, as it is. Some of the forces pulling us away from each other are so commonplace that they feel almost like natural law. We grow up in a family, but we are pulled away from each other as we leave for work or school. We begin to know ourselves as children, but we are pulled away from each other as we come to know ourselves as adults. How do we leave enough room in our relationships for those we love to grow and become themselves, and still stay together as families?
As we pull away, or are pulled away, from our families we find ourselves again in new communities of friends or co-workers. We begin to recreate the families we’ve known as young people out of the people who now surround us. But, almost as soon as we have our newly constructed families put together, they are torn apart by graduations, moves to new cities for new jobs or new relationships. How do we invest ourselves fully in the people who come into our lives, friends who become family, and then watch them leave us? How do we stay together in this age of frequent relocation?
For many people, the community of close knit friends is replaced by the conjoining of marriage. Unable, or unwilling, or uninterested in staying put, we pin all our hopes and needs for community on one person, and we promise that at least we two will stay together as everyone else moves on to establish their new lives. High divorce rates over the last century suggest that marriage is not the panacea to our problems with staying together.
For most of human history, people were born, grew up, married, raised a family, worked the land and died in the same place. In some sense, these centripetal forces that work so hard to tear us apart are a relatively new phenomenon. The move from rural centers of production to urban ones, the rising need for specialized education to stay competitive in the marketplace, advances in communication and transportation, have created new contexts in which it is harder and harder to stay put, to stay together.
Others of these forces though are very old. Debt and poverty have always pulled families apart. Whether we look at families torn apart by the shelter system after a wage-earner loses employment today, or families torn apart by poverty during reconstruction as younger generations moved north to find work, or families torn apart in biblical times by debt that required them to sell the rights to their own children’s labor, debt and poverty have made it incredibly difficult to stay together.
This is part of what makes the story told in the fourth chapter of Acts so amazing. Far from the huddled band of disciples hiding behind the locked door in the days after Jesus’ death, the early church is described in the Acts of the Apostles as a community of radical solidarity. They are people who are testifying to the power of the risen Lord in their lives precisely by the way they stay together. The scriptures say that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”
Acts ties these things together, that powerful testimony and radical generosity go together. It was not enough to simply say that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It was not persuasive. But, when people saw the kinds of transformed lives that led people to sell what they owned and share their wealth with the neediest among them, they began to believe that something truly amazing had happened. That something new was alive in the world, and that the world as it was might finally be passing away to make room for something new. A new heaven and a new earth. A new future here and now.
How did the community of Jesus followers, who in time came to be known as “Christians,” get from the fear of the locked house to the joy of the beloved community?
I think it happened, in part, because they stuck together. Mary stayed by the tomb a little while longer after Peter and the beloved disciple returned home, and in those moments she experienced the living Lord who told her to return to his “brothers.” He reminds her that this community of friends has become a family, and he sends her to be with them. Only once they are together does Jesus appear among them, breathing peace and sending the Holy Spirit. Even then, they aren’t all there, Thomas is still away and unable to believe what he hears. This unbelief is no barrier to God. So, once again, when the community is together Jesus appears among them, and when Thomas sees the evidence of Jesus’ body, still wounded and still more alive, he comes to believe.
Much has been made of Thomas’ doubt, so much so that he is remembered as “doubting Thomas,” but let’s be fair — everyone in this story has doubts, just like you and I. We doubt the story, we doubt God, but I think more than anything else, we doubt ourselves. We all know what it’s like to live inside the locked house, doubting that life could be any different than it is today.
Is it the dynamic between members of your family? Is it your job? Is it the community of friends you’ve grown to love, scattering to the four winds? Is it your marriage? Is it your heart?
Where in your life are you hiding, convinced that “the world as it is” is “the world as it will be?” That nothing new could ever come to life?
Every life is filled with these kinds of crises. If that isn’t true for you now, then perhaps it already has been. If it hasn’t happened yet, just wait, it’s coming. But, like our Boy Scouts have been taught, so we are reminded: stay together. Help is on the way. God does not leave us alone in the locked houses of our lives, but finds us when we are gathered together.
This is why, as we gathered at the font this morning to baptize Aidan Morley Smith, we asked his parents to promise to live with him among God’s faithful people, and to bring him to the word of God and the holy supper. Because we know that every life will have its share of locked doors, and we want to be there to share the burden. We want to be the kinds of friends that are family. We want to see and touch the wounds that will inevitably come his way so that we know how to care for them. We want to stay together.
Sisters and brothers, so much of Christian faith seems tied up with belief. You tell someone that you’re a Christian and they want to know if you believe all that stuff about miraculous births, and magical resurrections and sacraments being body and blood, and whatever. Think on this: the very disciples who knew and followed Jesus while he was alive had trouble believing. That didn’t bother God at all. In the presence of doubt Jesus’ first words were, “peace be with you.” Then he did whatever needed to be done to bring people to faith. And all of this happened while they were together.
So, whether you are here this morning filled with fears and doubts, locked up in your house or in your heart; or you are here this morning filled with joy because your needs have been provided for and you are living, by the miracle of God’s grace, as proof of the beloved community, we are simply glad you’re here. Because it is when we are together that we see the risen Lord, still wounded and still alive.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!