Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, well known for his radio sermons, was for many years the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. Once Dr. Fosdick told a story of a man who came to him seeking membership in Riverside Church. The man’s reason for seeking membership was not because he had accepted Jesus Christ. Instead, the man said, “I am not even sure what I think about God, but I should like to work out my spiritual faith and life inside the Christian fellowship, not outside.”
All denominations, at almost all times, ask for a profession of faith before a person is admitted into full membership. But, for whatever reason, Dr. Fosdick decided to accept the man for membership anyway. A few years later the man said to Dr. Fosdick, “No words can estimate what this has meant to me; each year, clearer insights, deeper assurance, and life more and more worthwhile.”
It was within the community of faith, not outside it, that this man found Jesus Christ, and it was within this community of faith that the man completed Jesus’ command to “Reform your lives.”
This story is good for parents who delay their child’s baptism to when the child is much older, then they will let him decide whether or not to be a member of a church.
This may sound reasonable, but it is not. How can we know what faith is unless we live within a community of believing people? Faith is not a matter of intellectual study. It is not a math problem where people add up what they know about various religions and their beliefs and then join the religion that scores the highest number of points. This is to choose a religion that conforms to one’s own beliefs rather than choosing a religion that will challenge those beliefs.
It was into a room locked in order to keep people out that Jesus appeared. This experience with Jesus gave birth to the disciples’ deep faith that accepted that a man had risen from the dead. We again experience “Doubting Thomas,” which is an unfortunate nickname. Thomas did not doubt Christ. What Thomas doubted was the testimony of his friends and companions of several years. How could he believe in their experience when he himself had not shared it? We must not miss the point that Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared within the community of faith. Rather, when Thomas was within the community of faith, he shared in the experience of Christ’s presence.
The Gospel of John is very deliberate in placing the appearances of Jesus on Sundays. The Sabbath began on sundown Friday and continued through sundown on Saturday. Saturday was considered the seventh and last day of the week. It was on this day God rested. Sunday, the first day of the week, was a workday. The early Christians continued their worship in the Temple, and their presence in their synagogues on the Sabbath. Then, on Sunday, before the sun rose, they gathered before going to work to celebrate the Resurrection.
The Gospel relies on many symbols. The tomb of Jesus was found empty on the first day of the week. The day of the Resurrection was the first day of a new creation, so it was on the first day of the week that the followers of Jesus gathered for the breaking of bread. The number seven is often used to indicate that something is perfect. To say that God created the world in seven days is to say that what God created is perfect. To emphasize perfection, add one to seven and you get eight; therefore, the first Christians referred to Sunday as the Eighth Day because it was the day made perfect when Christ, the perfection of all creation, rose in glory. Sunday would forever more be a day of new beginning.
We might measure the depth of our commitment to our community of faith by comparing our behavior to that of the first Christians described in Acts. Luke describes four requirements for belonging to the community: that members devote themselves to studying the teachings of the apostles, which is nothing less than studying the teaching of Jesus; that members contribute to the support of the community; that members devote themselves to the breaking of bread, which means being present for the Eucharistic meal and whenever the community comes together in prayer, and finally, that members be devoted to prayer for the whole community.
It was these elements being practiced by the disciples in the locked room that opened for them an experience of Christ. Thomas was missing for the first moment, but once present, he too shared in Christ’s presence, and he most likely never missed again!