There’s a conspiracy at work, undermining the institutions of power, subverting politics, threatening the markets, turning the tables on all those who feel secure in the status quo.
It’s a conspiracy that began long ago, behind locked doors. It started in the fear of those early disciples who were thrown into confusion by the cross. Their leader was dead. It looked like that was that. But now the word was spreading that somehow Jesus is back from the grave, that what God did for Lazarus, God now did for Jesus–that even death couldn’t contain this life that had come into the world in all its abundance.
These rumors, tenuous at best, only added to their confusion. The powers that had put Jesus to death could have been easily satisfied that his end was the end of this particular troublesome cult. But now, with rumors of an empty grave, they would have been looking around for others to capture and kill. More than ever, they needed to put an end to this nonsense.
So it is that the conspiracy starts, as so many do, in a huddled room where the normal terms of life, and the paths forward, seem not to make sense. But what to do? The answers begin to come when Jesus suddenly enters their midst, offering them peace. He begins by showing them his wounds.
Of all the things to begin with, why start there? We can’t know exactly, but I think it has something to do with bearing witness. “This is what the Powers can do to you,” a look at the wounds would say, “this is all they can do to you.” We must remember that Jesus isn’t there to promise them all comfort and joy. He’d always told his disciples that their own crosses would come. The witness of his wounds offer a martyr’s battle scars. These scars show that Jesus has already experienced what following him will lead his disciples to experience.
The disciples rejoice as they begin to witness the power in this person who has just been raised from the dead. But Jesus doesn’t let that joy simply remain a momentary response. Instead Jesus gives their joy a job, a mission. “As the father sent me, so I send you,” Jesus tells them. He then breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit. It is here that confusion turns to conspiracy, quite literally–all of them breathing the breath of Christ together.
The legal definition of a conspiracy requires that two or more people come together with the intent of committing a crime. This does, in fact, seem to be the outcome of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples in the locked room. Even though Thomas is a little late joining the plot, by the time we get to our reading in Acts, the disciples seem fully committed to their criminal enterprise.
Willie James Jennings brilliantly explores this theme in his commentary on Acts, where he places his reflections on Acts 4 under the heading, “The Criminal-Disciple Emerges!” Jennings writes that “The great illusion of followers of Jesus, especially those who imagine themselves leaders, is that they could live a path different from Jesus and his disciples. They believe that they can be loved or at least liked or at least tolerated or even ignored by those with real power in the world.”
Jennings says that this illusion is rooted in our forgetfulness of where we are as disciples. We imagine that we are among the powerful when in fact we are with the powerless. But these who are powerless have now discovered in Jesus a power that goes beyond all of the threats Empire can issue against us. The disciples in Acts are then able to say that “Jesus is the power of God” which places them at odds with the religious authorities who see such a claim as heresy. Against those with political power the disciples claim that “Jesus is Lord” which speaks of sedition. People like this clearly must be arrested and just before where this Sunday’s reading picks up, that is exactly what happens.
Jennings writes that “Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality.” To be a follower of Jesus is to put one at odds with the social codes and political arrangements that exist in the status quo. While the particular crime is always a bit ambiguous (Pilate, clearly, can’t figure out what charge to pin to Jesus), the underlying crime of the New Testament that results in the imprisonment, torture, and execution of so many in the early church is the crime of conspiracy. The disciples have gathered to breath-together a new life and embody a new way of relationship–a relationship that results in their subversion of the very means by which the dominant order maintains divisions and distinctions–money and property.
Our reading in Acts says that the disciples were of one heart and mind and that this was manifest in their sharing in common the property that had once been personal. This act is an outcome of their common-breath, their minds and hearts brought together through the indwelling of that Holy Breath that empowered them to bear witness to the resurrection, the proof positive that the powers of current political order won’t have the last word.
If those of us who now call ourselves disciples long to have the same kind of power our ancestors in the faith had, the same sort of common life, then we need to begin breathing together. We must all join in that conspiracy that began with Jesus breathing on those disciples huddled behind locked doors in Jerusalem. The only alternative is to live in confusion about what the resurrection means for this troubled, divided world.