My husband and I recently adopted a cat named Grace. One thing I learned in the process is that in the internet age you can look at profiles of cats up for adoption. Rescue organizations and pet foster families post photos, health histories, and little blurbs about personalities and behavior. Reading through them, which I did for several months before we found Grace, is a study in contrasts. One profile might say, “This is the best cat ever! She gets along with all our other animals, including our giant iguana, and will sit in your lap and purr for hours. She even lets our three year old grab her tail without a fuss!” And then another will say, “This shy kitty has had a hard life, and needs a lot of love to come out of his shell. He likes to hide under the bed, but we think with the right, quiet environment he’ll learn to trust his humans and be an independent and curious addition to your family. He would prefer to be your only pet.”
For what it’s worth, we chose Grace because she was described as “snuggly,” and because in the middle of a pandemic we were looking for grace wherever we could get it!
I was thinking about those cat profiles as I studied our scriptures this week. These lectionary texts from Acts and John are a similar study in contrasts. In John, the disciples are reeling from the crucifixion of Jesus, traumatized and afraid, and struggling to make sense of the reports that Jesus has been seen. Fear has driven them to hide behind locked doors. Some have seen Jesus, some have not. It’s not clear what’s just happened, or what they’re supposed to do next.
By the time we get to Acts, which we can presume doesn’t take place much more than a year or two later, the same disciples are running a Christian base community — reportedly of thousands of people — complete with worship and prayer, health care and healing, shared property, and resources for all in need. Even more stunning, this community is described by the writer of Acts as being “of one heart and soul,” unified by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of the resurrection.
So this week I’ve been struck by the juxtaposition of these texts. The images, so vividly painted, drawn us to the intriguing details: In John, the fear and the locked doors; Jesus’s sudden, almost magical appearance; his breath of the Spirit; the plain refusal of Thomas to believe; the particulars of the wounds of spear and nail. And in Acts, a unity of heart and soul, followers selling their land and homes, the absence of any in need, the disciples’ distribution of resources like a modern food bank or clothes closet, the lack of private ownership of anything. (I have to admit some skepticism about that last one, because who wants to share underpants?)
These texts also juxtapose emotions: the trauma and fear of the disciples locked in a room, wondering what to do and what to believe. Yes, there is some rejoicing, but the story feels overshadowed by wariness, bafflement, and plain confusion and shock over all that has happened. By contrast, the Acts text feels like a fulfillment: the triumph of generosity and caring and love for others; the release of greed and fear and guardedness. It feels open, and alive. I picture the disciples in John in a dark room of shadows, with maybe a lone candle or oil lamp on a dusty table. I picture the disciples in Acts on a sunny hillside, with birdsong and music, like a big church picnic.
We could look at these two communities as a linear progression — the disciples in John are just getting their bearings and just catching their breath from the horror of those days. Of course they locked the doors. Of course they were afraid of the authorities who had just executed their teacher. Of course they were disbelieving — or at least skeptical — of secondhand accounts from their friends who claim to have seen Jesus. The disciples in Acts have had time to process all this trauma, to move forward into what it means and how they’ve been changed, to interpret the events they’ve experienced and find within them grace and hope and joy.
I was baptized as a baby and grew up in the church, so I don’t know what it’s like to convert from another belief system into Christian faith, to come to believe in Jesus. I did go through a significant period of doubt and questioning during my college years, as many of us did, I’m sure. But I’ve often heard people tell their more dramatic conversion stories in a linear way: before, and after. Without Jesus, and with. These two texts can read like that: disciples before knowing about the resurrection, and disciples believing in it. Disciples with a dead leader, and disciples with a risen Lord.
Of course, we do progress and develop in our faith as we learn more and grow more and dig deeper into what it means to be a disciple of the one who is risen. And there is truth to the idea that these stories depict disciples in a moment of disarray and confusion, and disciples later who have come more fully into clarity, witness, and courage.
I’m also quite certain that the disciples would be the first to tell us that life doesn’t always move that way — from the shadows to the sunny hilltop — and that these two snapshots are merely that: glimpses of important moments, always more mixed than they seem at a quick glance. At a minimum, the disciples are juggling multiple emotions in both settings. In John, the disciples are afraid, and then rejoice when they see Jesus, then they receive his peace, and then they hear Thomas’s rejection, and a week later they’re back behind those closed doors again. When we get to our scene in Acts, Peter and John have just healed someone unable to walk, and then they are arrested, and then they are released, and then there is some kind of minor earthquake during their prayer of thanksgiving, and then they’re all of one heart and soul and receiving donations and sharing possessions.
I think part of why I was so struck by the contrasts and juxtapositions of these two stories this week is because of how they resonate with all that’s happened in our country and world in the past year, and what it means to be emerging from the pandemic right now. There is such a desire to move from the difficulties and losses of the past year and into the newness of…something else. Some of us may simply be hoping to get back to what was. Maybe there was something in the disciples in the locked room that wanted that, too — now that Jesus had died, maybe they could just go back to fishing and carpentry and tax collection. For other disciples, even before news of the resurrection, there was no going back. Too much had changed and too much had been unveiled for things to ever be the same. Maybe they were still hoping for something that looked like the vision of Acts — something yet unknown that would emerge from the new life Jesus had offered.
In this moment in our history, I find it strangely comforting to see all these images of the disciples and followers mashed up together. Hiding in the dark. Not knowing what to believe. Afraid of what might be coming. Wanting to help those in need. Torn by differences of belief. Placing hope in a God who is mysterious and confusing. Receiving a breath of peace. Remembering the power of forgiveness. Seeking common ground. Mourning what has been lost. Aching for new life. Giving of ourselves for others. Sharing what we have.
This past year has been such a mashup of images and feelings, and not only because of the pandemic:
· We experienced a momentous and tumultuous election, and its aftermath of chaos and lies and violence.
· Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and other people of color were murdered, which galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and brought many of us who are white to new consciousness and conviction.
· And then there was the disorientation and weirdness of protecting each other by keeping our distance and staying behind closed doors.
· There were possibilities created by technology we hadn’t imagined, from celebrating holiday meals online to developing exceptional vaccines in record time.
· In the west there were fires and rolling blackouts and smoke and ash and apocalyptic orange skies. In Nashville, there was a tornado, and a derecho, and a Christmas morning bombing.
· We were repeatedly exposed to the chasms between those with adequate paychecks and those struggling to keep crackers in the cupboard, between those who can get their shot in the arm, those who can’t even access the websites, and those who refuse to mask up.
· There were teachers and counselors and social workers and activists and civil servants who pioneered incredible, creative ways to stay connected to students and clients and communities.
· There was a startling recognition of something potent and powerful about being together, but that we are also bound to one another even when we are apart.
Our scriptures today, these biblical mashups of terror and disbelief and hope and fulfillment, offer us a particular gift in this particular moment. At the center of these texts is the power of the resurrection, the power of life to overturn death and its forces, and the choice to center ourselves in that reality. To live lives of resurrection hope that pour compassion and love and justice and forgiveness and healing into all the world’s wounds.
It was the resurrection itself that set the disciples’ course. Thomas is given the chance to see Jesus and believe, and the risen Christ offers peace and the Holy Spirit. There was no going back.
Similarly, the whole book of Acts is filled with stories of people who are given the chance to live lives of hope in the resurrection. Some are transformed by that resurrection hope. Others remain untouched. Right after today’s passage, we are told that the disciples did many signs and wonders and healed all kinds of people. But, the author points out, even though some who witnessed this held the disciples in high esteem, they remained fearful and didn’t dare join the gathered church.
But the invitation to resurrection hope still comes to us all the time, over and over, a reaffirmation of our call to shared, new life in Christ. When we are fearful behind locked doors. When we give up something for the sake of others. When we want to gather and can’t, or when some of us gather and others do not. When we witness injustices festering around us, and recognize our separation from others. When we seek wholeness for ourselves and our neighbors and even our enemies. The hope of the resurrection holds us fast, binding us to each other in the promise of new life and new possibility each day, each moment, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter what comes our way. Life, in Jesus’ name.
© 2021 Aimee Moiso, published here with permission