The tale of doubting Thomas will be heard from pulpits around the nation this second Sunday in Easter. The memorable tale displays a powerfully human character, one who shares our doubts about the great mystery of faith and who seeks to experience Christ’s new life with his own body. So through Thomas, the reader of John has an opportunity to enact the very test I suspect all want the risen Christ to pass. Is he really dead flesh returned to life. Has the crucified one truly returned after such a torturous death? If we believe the answer is yes, then the next question is: what does this knowledge require of us? Here we turn to Acts.
Acts 5 begins with those who withhold wealth from the community dropping dead in front of Peter. Sapphira and her husband Ananias have lied to the community about their resources, and so Peter tells them “You did not lie to us, but to God.” It is easy to see why the scene turns so quickly to show troubled civil authorities. This community of Jesus devotees, which demands its followers hold all things in common, is somehow sending people to their deaths who do not live up to this high ethical standard.
So the local authorities take action, summoning the apostles and reminding them: “we gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” Note what worries the authorities. It is not a theological quarrel, nor a political spat. The council fears that the apostles teaching will invite retribution from the empire. After all, it happened to Jesus, and a generation after his death the entire city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in retaliation for the messianic leaders and revolutionaries initiated a revolution against Rome. Speaking of Jesus is dangerous, it could invite the same peril to be visited on the community once again. “Are you determined to bring this man’s blood on us?” The apostles respond with the boldness that only comes from a community of martyrs: “We must obey God rather than and human authority.” The disagreement between the council and the apostles is, at the most basic level, over how much risk is acceptable. Those who follow the crucified God, it turns out, have a high threshold.
After the upper room and the breakfast on the beach, after Thomas’s bodily encounter with the risen Christ, how does Easter linger? In the United States, where the political process is choked by a dwindling capacity for imagination, and a narrowing vision of what is possible, perhaps the role of an Easter people is to have a high threshold for risk. To be willing to stand on principle even when people of higher pedigree insist that their values are imprudent.
It might look like the Human Rights Campaign taking a bold stand for transgender rights, even if they fear it might jeopardize their work for gay and lesbian inclusion. It could mean the federal government finally confronting the reality of climate change with serious legislation, no matter how many political contributions come from fossil fuels. It could mean local churches moving forward with all marriages, even if they fear retribution from denominations. In each of these circumstances, the Easter message of Acts is this: God accompanies all those who are courageous enough to risk telling the truth, even when doing so requires violating “strict orders.”