'Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’. Acts 4:32-35
This description in Acts seems like an impossibility – can it really be that through faith in Jesus humans can so limit their own pride, greed, wrath and envy that they live together in harmony, sharing and taking care of each other? Surely, this cannot be so?The Gospel on the other hand (John 20:19-end) explores the very human and realistic propensity to doubt. The figure of St Thomas is so important because his doubt, normal and understandable as it is, is also a major enemy to human well-being and flourishing. The story of Jesus standing in front of St Thomas inviting him to physically reach out and touch him, is, an invitation to all of us, to take the risk and reach out in faith.
Doubt has to be confronted in religion, as well as understood, because it can play a corrosive role in our relationships and in our communities – and this isn’t just about doubt in God, but in what God represents in Jesus: human equality, human potential and capacity for goodness, renewal and healing. For example, if we doubt the humanity and potential for good in others, we can justify all sorts of inhuman treatment of them (torture, murder, enslavement, indefinite imprisonment); if we doubt the potential of others to learn and contribute to society we can erode and devalue the principle of good-quality and well-resourced education for all; if we doubt life after death we focus on the preservation of life at all costs; if we doubt the capacity for healing and renewal we refuse to make the changes in our lifestyle that will enable such healing and renewal......
Our society depends upon our capacity to trust each other – the erosion of that trust means that the fabric of society disintegrates. It’s a trust that to a certain degree is independent of whether that trust is earned or justified. Jesus maintained his trust and faith in us as human beings even though we betrayed and murdered him. His trust in us is not dependent upon our goodness. God continues to trust us, to believe in us, even though we are making a mess of the beautiful blessed world He’s created. It’s why we have to maintain our trust in politicians, Dr's, clergy, teachers and public servants, even when there is every reason to doubt them. They are human, not divine; they will let us down, and they should be held to account, but if we give up our faith completely in our corporate institutions and our public officials and servants and so undermine their offices and roles, what will emerge in their place? Are we ready to re-create or are we just good at accusing and dismantling? If all we do is point the figure and attack, we already live in a hell of our own making.
Jesus comes back from his experience of murder and betrayal not to condemn but to forgive. As Christians we are shown that because we are betrayed, let down, robbed, hurt, etc. we cannot give up hope in ‘the other’ or in God. Hope and faith persist through pain and suffering, through adversity, through counter-indications of change and the persistence of evil.
Christians practice faith in the seemingly impossible – resurrection from the dead – in so doing they also witness to the seemingly impossible prospect of transformed human relationships and communities. Faith is a daily enterprise, it is a daily discipline, its takes courage and determination; it is not for the weak-willed, the easily disillusioned, the seeker of ease or comfort. The problem of evil and the problem of suffering, is, for the person of faith, the very reason for and the only way to challenge both evil and suffering.
Imagine, two people, experiencing the exact same life, the exact same things happening to them – one believes and the other does not. Faith is not about external events, it’s about internal resolve. It is easily laughed at and mocked because its innocent and foolish at the same time.
Innocence cannot however be naivete, nor can foolishness be taken as reason to believe in anything – the content and history of our faith is specific and Jesus shows us a particular response to evil and suffering. The church has been guilty of and continues to need to address its naivete and its false holiness. Holiness does not consist in giving titles and protected status to clergy – nor in protecting the institution that seeks to proclaim God; holiness consists in working for the transformation of our communities through the patient practice of faith. A faith that enables us to get up at night and do a night shift at the homeless shelter; that encourages us to share our wealth through giving to charity and paying a fair amount of tax; that helps us make the choice to recycle, limit car use, plant trees, collect litter; that enables us to support refugees that come to our community; that encourages us to live simply and so on and so on. Faith enables us to keep on making the practical and daily changes in our lives that are a sign that we are made in the image of a loving God and that we are forgiven and blessed.
Most people may look at Christianity in the West today and say it’s hopeless, it will die out in 30 years, why do people still bother, let’s just nationalise the churches and push aside people of faith from our lives all together. But our commitment to God is not dependent on its success, but rather on its beauty – a beauty that is a sign, a sign no less beautiful because it is weak and faltering, a sign of God’s impossible goodness, and our impossible hope.
As Etty Hillesum (a victim of the holocaust) wrote: ‘I am ready for everything, for anywhere on this earth, wherever God may send me, and I am ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death, that life is beautiful and meaningful and that it is not God’s fault that things are as they are at present, but our own’.
In this season of Easter when we renew our hope in the Risen Christ let us renew out commitment to being the change we want to see. Let’s put our faith in the possibility of transformation in a world crying out for good news and hope, and let’s refuse to let go of the one who made himself and outcast and a fool for our sake. Amen