Chapter 34

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Chapter 34

An Uprising of Fellowship

Psalm 133
John 20

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

Acts 8:26–40


Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus in ways similar to one another (which is why they’re often called the Synoptic Gospels – with a similar optic, or viewpoint). Many details differ (and the differences are quite fascinating), but it’s clear the three compositions share common sources. The Fourth Gospel tells the story quite differently. These differences might disturb people who don’t understand that storytelling in the ancient world was driven less by a duty to convey true details accurately and more by a desire to proclaim true meaning powerfully. The ancient editors who put the New Testament together let the differences stand as they were, so each story can convey its intended meanings in its own unique ways.

One place where details differ among the Gospels is in what happened right after the resurrection. Mark’s Gospel, which scholars agree was the earliest one to be written down, ends abruptly without any details about the days and weeks after the resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, Jesus explicitly tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. In contrast, in Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus greets only some female disciples in Jerusalem. He tells these women to instruct the male disciples to go to Galilee, over sixty miles away, where he will appear to them later. In John’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to the disciples in Jerusalem on the evening of resurrection Sunday and then again a week later. And some time after that, the disciples leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee, where he appears to them once more.

For the next two weeks, we’ll imagine ourselves with the disciples in the Fourth Gospel, this week in Jerusalem and next week in Galilee.

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We were afraid that first Sunday night, just three days after Jesus died. Really afraid. We were afraid to go outside in case someone might recognise us as Jesus’ friends and notify the authorities. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a troublemaker and rabblerouser. The rumours about Jesus rising from the dead, spread by some of the women among us, only made matters worse. The authorities would know by those rumours that dreams of an uprising hadn’t completely died. Which meant that we were in danger. Real danger. So we locked ourselves in a room. But even there we were afraid, because at any moment some temple guards or Roman soldiers might bang on the door.

So there we remained, tense, jumpy, simmering with anxiety. What happened on Friday had been ugly, and we didn’t want it to happen to the rest of us. Every sound startled us. Suddenly, we all felt something, a presence, familiar yet . . . impossible. How could Jesus be among us?

‘Peace be with you,’ he said. He showed us his scarred hands and feet. It started to dawn on us: the women’s reports were not just wishful thinking – they were true, and we too were experiencing the risen Christ. ‘I give you my peace,’ he said again. And then he did three things that changed us for ever.

First he said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Here we were, huddled in our little safe house like a bunch of cowards, and he was still interested in sending cowards like us to continue his mission!

Next he came close to us and breathed on us. ‘Welcome the Holy Spirit,’ he said. Of course, this reminded us all of the story in Genesis when God breathed life into Adam and Eve. It was a new beginning, he was telling us. It was a new Genesis, and we were to be the prototypes of a new kind of human community.

Next came the greatest shock of all. After what happened on Friday, anyone with scars like his would have been expected to say, ‘Go and get revenge on those evil beasts who did this to me.’ But Jesus said, ‘I’m sending you with the power to forgive.’

Peace! Forgiveness! Those aren’t the responses you expect from someone who had suffered what Jesus suffered. But in that brief moment when our locked hideout was filled with his presence, that was the message we all received.

All of us except Thomas, that is. Thomas wasn’t with us that night. When we saw Thomas later and told him what we had experienced, he was his typical sceptical self. ‘I want to touch those scars with my own hands and see for myself, or I won’t believe,’ he said. A week later, we were all together again, this time with Thomas. We were still nervous about the authorities, so we were careful to keep the doors locked.

Just as before, Jesus’ presence suddenly became real among us – visible, palpable. He spoke peace to us, and then he went straight to Thomas, inviting him to see, touch, believe. He did not criticise Thomas for doubting. He wanted to help him believe.

‘My Lord and my God,’ Thomas replied. We couldn’t help but remember back on Thursday night, when Thomas asked Jesus where he was going and what was the way to get there. Jesus replied, ‘I am the way.’ Philip then asked Jesus to show us the Father, and Jesus said, ‘If you have seen me, you’ve seen the Father.’ Now, ten days later, it seemed as if Thomas was beginning to understand what Jesus had meant. He saw God in a scarred man whose holy aliveness is more powerful than human cruelty.

That’s one thing you have to say about Thomas: even though he didn’t believe at first, he stayed with us, open to the possibility that his doubt could be transformed into faith. He kept coming back. He kept showing up. If he hadn’t wanted to believe, he had a week to leave and go back home. But he didn’t. He stayed. Not believing, but wanting to believe.

And from that night, we learned something essential about what this uprising is going to be about.

It isn’t just for brave people, but for scared folk like us who are willing to become brave. It isn’t just for believers, but for doubting folk like Thomas who want to believe in spite of their scepticism. It isn’t just for good people, but for normal, flawed people like you and me and Thomas and Peter.

And I should add that it isn’t just for men, either. It’s no secret that men in our culture often treat women as inferior. Even on resurrection morning, when Mary Magdalene breathlessly claimed that the Lord was risen, the men among us didn’t offer her much in the way of respect. There were all sorts of ignorant comments about ‘the way women are’. Now we realise the Lord was telling us something by bypassing all the male disciples and appearing first to a woman. As we look back, we realise he’s been treating women with more respect than the rest of us have right from the start.

We have a term for what we began to experience that night: fellowship. Fellowship is a kind of belonging that isn’t based on status, achievement or gender, but instead is based on a deep belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome and everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions. It’s not the kind of belonging you find at the top of the ladder among those who think they are the best, but at the bottom among all the rest, with all the other failures and losers who have either climbed the ladder and fallen, or never got up enough gumption to climb in the first place. Whatever else this uprising will become, from that night we’ve known it is an uprising of fellowship, a community where anyone who wants to be part of us will be welcome. Jesus showed us his scars, and we’re starting to realise we don’t have to hide ours.

So fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe. When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again. Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world. In that space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air.

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This week and in the weeks to come, your Table gathering host will introduce this concluding ritual:

Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about an experience of true fellowship.

3. How do you respond to the idea that Christian fellowship is for scarred and scared people – without regard to gender, status or achievement?

4. For children: Tell us about your best friends and why they’re so special to you.

5. Activate: This week, aim to create spaces for an uprising of fellowship where people feel unconditionally welcome and included – whether in your home, in an office, on public transport, in a restaurant, on the street, or wherever.

6. Meditate: Imagine you’re Thomas at the moment Jesus shows his scarred hands, feet and side. See where Thomas’s experience from that night would resonate with your life today.