I have never been on a roller coaster. I am more than willing to die having never ridden on a roller coaster. I have ridden some emotional roller coasters though, and the period of time from Palm Sunday thru Ascension would certainly be a fine way to illustrate one of those! Just our readings today are good examples of the valleys and peaks of the emotional roller coaster the disciples experienced.
We read from the Book of Acts, of people devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles in the Jewish Temple, living in community, praying and practicing their Jewish faith together, seeing miracles and healings, everyone sharing their wealth and possessions, eating their meals with “exultation and sincerity of hearts, praising God.” New people were daily proclaiming their faith in the Risen Christ. This was a period of time when they had the approval of the people of Jerusalem. Clearly this was a peak emotional time.
We get confused with the language, though. Was it a social commune or the beginning of communism? Maybe they were a community that had Communion every day. Maybe we unthinkingly forget that they lived in reality. All the apostles had gathered in Jerusalem. Many other followers, referred to as “the disciples,” had joined them. They had brought their families with them for the Passover celebration. They were fisherman, carpenters, potters & weavers from villages throughout Judea, but there were no Bargain/ Red Roof Inns in Jerusalem. No Red Line to make the commute home easy.
Culturally, the Judean Jews lived in a much closer community than we do. They were accustomed to open doors and open lives. So they were taken in, room was made for them in local homes. They were living together out of necessity. What was happening to these believers was alternately too scary, too exciting, too amazing and too powerful to just… leave. Their shared experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection made it easier to share their lives. Was it the end of time? They were riding a roller coaster, waiting for the world to change.
We would like to think that time was perfect and maybe even something we could re-create, but Thomas and Peter both understood this was a bubble in time. We recognize bubbles in time. Ask anyone who deals in “retro” or “antiques” or even politics.
In the 1st letter of St. Peter we read, “Blessed be God… who…gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading…Even though you do not see him now -yet believe in him, rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…” That is certainly peak material, befitting the Peter we recognize. But right in the middle of that he inserts a valley. “…although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold…may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter knew a lot about faith and failure, belief and betrayal, triumph and testing. That’s how Peter learned to be The Rock.
Thomas was the holdout among the Twelve; he was a wise man and I have come to respect him. He was more than happy to be subjected to ridicule or rejection by the others. He told them he didn’t believe everything people said; he wasn’t interested in the newest religious rumors or fads. He needed proof, he needed to see and touch. He was willing to risk being wrong, just as he was quick to believe when Jesus came to him. He went from valley to peak in seconds! As I read some of the newest books out about Jesus and watch some of the more sensational “documentary re-creations” of the Crucifixion on Television these past weeks, I hear some strange mis-information – how Jesus had political motivations and so on, that directly contradict the Gospels. We need more fact-checkers like Thomas.
Thomas reached possibly more people with the Good News than Paul did. Thomas traveled east, to the sub-continent of India, witnessing to his faith and establishing churches. It wasn’t all good- he was martyred there, in 72 AD; he poured out his life for Jesus. Records from the 16th century describe him as beloved by the Muslims, the Christians, and the Hindus. In fact, at that time, a Muslim maintained his tomb. If only we could live the faith like Thomas! This Sunday is celebrated as the “Sunday of Thomas” by the Orthodox Catholics brothers and sisters.
Even our Psalm is a roller coaster reading, the lectionary just conveniently omits the valley part: “All the nations surrounded me on every side. They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like fire among thorns. I was hard pressed and falling, but the Lord came to me.” It is a Psalm of Eucharist (thanksgiving) sung as the people processed to the temple, but it does not fail to acknowledge that life can be very hard; bee stings and thorns/ hard times and pain are part of life. At the same time, we are reminded that God is with us always.
So today we remember that our heroes, those super-faithful followers of Jesus, were locked in a room out of fear. Thomas had serious doubts about the resurrection. Even after a glorious Easter, our heroes were beaten and jailed and killed for their faith. But the “inexpressible joy” is also a real part of our Faith. We learn that goodness and love and faith are more complex than the emotion of success or fulfillment that accompanies them. By bearing pain and sorrow, we find faith, too. Our flaws and our wounds are refined and purified, like precious gold, in our resurrection faith.