The Art of Discernment

Acts 5:27-32
John 20:19-31
This season, when we boldly proclaim our Lord’s resurrection, doesn’t seem like prime discernment time. Surely, that’s for the anticipatory seasons of Advent, and maybe Lent? Surely, in the face of something as amazing as the resurrection, we are no longer at the point of careful discernment but rather at the point of charging ahead! Yet I suggest that this week’s readings speak to us of the importance of discernment and of careful reflection, even and especially in the midst of the excitement of the resurrection. Perhaps this is all the more important in our contemporary, fast-paced, efficient culture!

The first reading from Acts shows us the apostles appearing before the Sanhedrin because they’ve been doing “signs and wonders” (verse 12) among the people and proclaiming Jesus’ name. Of course, we can read this passage as being primarily about the courage and strength of the apostles for boldly and continuously proclaiming the Messiah even in the face of a potential death sentence. Such a reading is surely in keeping with the resurrection message! Take courage, be bold, for Jesus Christ is risen!

Yet for all that, I am struck by the words and speech of Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin – and the one who also has a crucial role in this story. It is Gamaliel whom we have to thank for sparing the apostles’ lives. Gamaliel appears to be a level-headed chap, one who is struggling to discern where God’s action is. He’s not quite convinced by all the “signs and wonders” of the apostles, but he’s also not quite sure they’re not legit, either. Moreover, his past experience leads him to think: stuff like this has happened before. So Gamaliel wisely says, why put these people to death? If they come from God, we do not want to be responsible for acting against God! Gamaliel practices a mode of discernment that acknowledges that full-blown action is not always the best course.

Today’s Gospel reading (John 20:19-31) is the well-known story of Doubting Thomas. One possible way to read the Gospel in juxtaposition to Acts is to see that Thomas is demanding action. Maybe he even feels (rather justifiably) entitled to seeing Jesus, because after all, the other disciples had seen him. Yet while we sympathize with Thomas, and perhaps even identify with him, we also must recognize that from Jesus’ perspective, Thomas’ problem is a failure of discernment. He fails at discerning the truth of God’s presence in his friends’ witness (even all eleven of his closest friends)! He wants gratification, much like we do. Jesus gives him the satisfaction of being like his apostle brothers – he too sees Jesus’ hands and side. Yet Jesus also gives the cautionary note: “blessed are the ones who have not seen and yet believe.” In other words, discernment about the witnesses who speak to us of God’s presence is a way to learn to see God, even if we don’t physically see God.

In our culture driven by social media,discernment becomes all the more crucial. Being level-headed is tough in these times, but such thoughtfulness and careful reflection are precisely the practices to cultivate, so that we can allow the fullness of truth to manifest. We need to remember, as Jesus proclaimed, that God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed, growing among things so small as to seem imperceptible. So timefulness is important for being able to encounter God. We must remember that in these times when many people doubt in the truth of the resurrection, even so amazing an event must be given time to manifest to people.

Today’s scriptures suggest that a primary task for us Christians and members of the Ekklesia Project is to cultivate spaces for discernment, reflection, and meditation. Such cultivation is part of the counter-cultural witness we offer in service to the Risen Christ!

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