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Dissent Within, Dissent Without

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The Gospel story of Thomas is important for us in church world and it’s important in a society where political divisions are fracturing us in really serious and occasionally violent ways.

Today’s texts – Acts 5:27-32 and John 20:19-31

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

I suppose one lesson from today’s Gospel about Thomas missing the first appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection is that when you are hanging out with the Jesus gang, maybe let somebody else go out for the groceries – or whatever it was that Thomas was doing that evening.

I think there’s a more important lesson, though. It is how a community holds together in the midst of disagreement.

And this was not a minor disagreement. Jesus’ followers said they had seen the Lord. Thomas said, “I don’t believe you,” He might as well have called their leader, ”Lyin’ Peter.” Calling somebody a liar is usually not a good way to stay in good graces with your friends. Yet there Thomas was, still with them a week later, when Jesus stopped by for another visit.

eyoreIn a somewhat different version of the Gospel – this one featuring Winnie the Poor and Eyore – there’s a picture making the rounds these days of a dejected Eyore – you know, the gloomy donkey with the poor self-image – and Winnie the Poor – the bear of very little brain. They appear to have had a bit of a falling out.

Winnie looks quizzically at Eyore, who is saying, “It’s OK, we’ll still have lunch with you.”

I can kind of hear Jesus’ followers saying that to Thomas. Somehow, they kept him in the group even when he challenged their understanding of what was happening in their world. They kept him there for a whole week in the midst of what surely were some very strained conversations.

So we know this. From the very first days, there were disagreements among the followers of Jesus. There were disagreements in that secret place where they gathered after Jesus’ execution and there were disagreements as the way of Jesus began to spread – disagreements among Paul and James and Peter. Disagreements between the group gathered around John and the group gathered around Thomas – which may have something to do with how Thomas is portrayed in the Gospel according to John.

And centuries later, disagreements among Christians would lead to some bloody wars. Today, it still common for Christians to want to exclude those who think differently, they don’t want them to have the right to call themselves followers of Jesus.

Upper RoomThat’s why I think the Gospel story of this week is so important. It’s important for us in church world and it’s important in a society where political divisions are fracturing us in really serious and occasionally violent ways.

In that first week, when Thomas challenged the others on the most fundamental reality of their lives – whether Jesus was still in their midst – they managed to hang together. I’m not exactly sure how they managed to do that. God’s grace, Jesus’ teaching – those things may have helped. But they showed the rest of us that it can be done.

Let me offer a little more contemporary example. It’s an example involving our own denomination – the United Church of Christ – grappling with one of the really divisive issues of our era – marriage equality.

And let me concede that this is not a perfect example. There have been fractures in the UCC over this issue. And the UCC shared some common beliefs in God and Jesus that allowed it to navigate these waters that may not apply in, say, the U.S. Congress. But still, I think there is a lesson here – maybe a lesson reflective of what happened in that room in Jerusalem so long ago.

The UCC’s debates over marriage equality came to a head in 2005 – over a decade ago – when representatives of the denomination from all over the nation gathered in what is called a General Synod. That year, it was in Atlanta, Georgia.

The vote was on whether to put the UCC on record in favor of marriage equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation. If it adopted that position, it would be the first Christian denomination in the U.S. to do so. There had been debates in congregations all across the nation before this, but the momentum was clearly on the side of those favoring marriage equality.

So the vulnerable people at this gathering were those who did not want the UCC to change its stand on marriage. You might think of them as the Thomases in the room.

2005When the voting was done, some 80 percent of the delegates had voted in favor of marriage equality. Applause started to ripple through the auditorium. But the moderator quickly asked the national leader of the UCC, Rev. John Thomas, to lead a prayer. Clearly, this was something they had thought of ahead of time.

During the debate, the opponents of the move toward marriage equality had argued their case firmly and concisely, drawing on their understanding of the Bible. Those favoring the change talked passionately but respectfully of how they understood the message of the Bible in a different way. The moderator made sure that the outnumbered opponents were treated fairly in the debate.

And now that the vote was over, John Thomas – an interesting combination of names in the context of today’s reading from the Gospel of John about Thomas – walked to the microphone and said, “Let us find words that comfort rather than congratulate. Let us use our hands not to clap but to wipe away every tear.”

In recognizing the agony some of the delegates felt, he gave them permission to grieve and invited others not to gloat but to empathize.

In that prayer and in comments afterwards, John Thomas sought to make sure those who disagreed knew they still had a place in the UCC. He said at a press conference that “today’s word is not the last word in the UCC about marriage. It is a crucial and groundbreaking first word in a difficult but important church-wide discussion.”

And then at the closing worship, John Thomas held up decanters of oil and talked about how through the centuries, oil has been used for its healing properties. Delegates took oil and anointed everyone in the hall as a symbol of the healing they hoped was already underway.

Imagine how our society could be different, how our politics could be different if we brought that spirit to some of the contested issues of our day? At that meeting in Atlanta, the UCC showed one way to deal with dissent. It showed that differing opinions can be treated with respect and the people who hold them can be embraced.

As I said, this was not perfect. Some congregations left the UCC after this vote. Some congregations still debate issues of marriage equality. But the example of this moment in Atlanta strikes me as a beacon of how things could be.

So that’s a useful image of dealing with dissent within. But there is another place for dissent in our lives – not when we are reaching out to those who see things differently to hold them in our care but when we are the dissenters challenging those who hold power.

That’s what was happening in the first reading we heard today from the Acts of the Apostles.

PeterJust before the passage that we heard, Peter and some other apostles had been healing people in part of the great expanse of the Temple. The Temple leaders had Peter and those with him arrested, but overnight, they left the jail and went back to healing. They were arrested again and today’s scene has Peter and the others standing before the high priest and other Temple leaders.

Talk about speaking truth to power. They stood by their commitment to Jesus and his way. As this story continues, one of the leaders convinces the others to free Peter, arguing that if what the apostles was doing was of human origin it would fail and if it was of God, “you will not be able to overthrow them.”

So we get to the last sentence in this chapter: “And every day in the temple and at home, they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.”

Things have changed a bit over 2,000 years. Tomorrow, Jewish religious leaders and Christian religious leaders will stand together – not apart – in downtown Madison to join others across the nation in calling for a national examination of conscience on some of the key moral issues of our day.

This is tricky stuff on the eve of our primary election on Tuesday. Addressing moral issues can seem to give support or opposition to particular candidates. But staying silent on these issues suggests indifference. There is plenty of room for thinking about different ways to approach these issues, some embraced by Republicans, some embraced by Democrats, some embraced by independents.

But these issues do have moral dimensions that we hear in our ancient scriptures and in our contemporary reflections. When there is sharp economic inequality, we can hear the thundering of the Jewish prophets. When there is indifference to what is happening to our climate and its affect on our planet, we can hear repeated Biblical exhortations to care for creation. When people’s race or ethnicity is thrown at them to oppress them or lock them out of the opportunities of our society, we can hear the words of how we are all made in God’s image and how we are all one in Christ.

You know the issues – gun violence, terrorism, mass incarceration, poverty, violence against women – and many of you are personally involved in working on these issues.

Many of you are concerned about them.

So I hope when the faith leaders speak out on Monday, they help add a moral dimension to the political dialogue while recognizing that there is room for many different approaches.

One of the things that attracted me to the UCC 16 years ago was its willingness to wrestle with the tough issues of religion and society, respecting and even encouraging disagreement from individuals and congregations without giving ground on its willingness to speak out on those issues.

Peter was never shy about speaking out, of course. Thomas stood his ground even when all his friends must have wondered where his loyalty was. But Peter stayed connected to the Temple and to his Jewish faith. Thomas stayed connected to the closest followers of Jesus and eventually had his own experience with the risen Christ to reinforce his belief.

For us, I hope we can take from these stories – the story of Thomas, the story of the UCC, the story of Peter in the Temple and the story of the faith leaders addressing today’s issues – I hope we can take with us the value of working our way through the tough issues of our day without demonizing one another, without excluding those who disagree with us, without shying away from taking a stand, but to do so in a way that respects the patchwork quilt of experiences and viewpoints that make up our church and our society.

There’s a hymn about us all working together as we follow Jesus and as we seek to bring the world closer to our understanding of God’s vision for it. It’s number 314 in our hymnals and its called “Community of Christ.” Let’s sing the first three verses.