From its beginning, Christianity had to deal with those in the community who zeroed in on the intellectual dimension of their faith and ignored the actions Jesus expects His followers to perform.

As long as they believed in the salvation that Jesus' death and resurrection offered, they thought they didn't have to imitate His concrete actions, which actually brought about that salvation.

For the rest of their lives, they thought they could simply lean back in their recliners and "believe."

Loving acts

Luke didn't want anyone in his community to become "minimal action" Christians (Acts 4:32-35). That seems to be why, throughout the initial chapters of Acts, he inserts short narratives describing how members of the early Jerusalem church channeled their faith in the risen Jesus into specific acts of love.

"The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. They never claimed anything as their own. Everything was held in common....There were no needy among them....All who owned property or houses sold them and donated the proceeds...to be distributed to everyone according to their needs."

Luke is convinced that believing, life-giving communities exist only because their members are willing to die by generously giving themselves to one another. People's needs can be taken care of only if someone gives part of himself or herself to make up for what's lacking in the other.

According to those who study John's Gospel and the three letters bearing his name, the publication of a Gospel that constantly stressed faith in Jesus as divine opened the door to those who thought they could be saved by what they believed instead of how they loved and sacrificed themselves for others.

They rejected the life-giving tension that develops when someone both believes and acts, exchanging it for the false serenity that comes from just believing Jesus is Yahweh.

The I John author (I John 5:1-6) tries to counteract this tendency by stressing how our knowledge of the relationship between Jesus and the Father should prompt us not just to "ooh and aah" in amazement, but also to "do what God has commanded."

We're expected to conquer the world, but we can't do that by just meditating on the intellectual ramifications of Jesus' divinity. We must also reflect on and imitate the things He did for others. That seems to be why the writer contrasts "water and blood." It's a reference to Jesus' Baptism and the blood shed in His death.

Forgiving acts

Though there were misunderstandings about his Gospel, John the Evangelist never let his community overlook the dying aspect of Jesus saving us. Most of us concentrate on the "doubting Thomas" section of Sunday's Gospel (John 20:19-31). We smile at someone so sure that Jesus is dead that he has to eat crow a week later when the risen Jesus stands before him.

It's important to reflect on the criterion Thomas employs to prove the person in front of him actually is Jesus: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in His hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into His side, I will not believe."

During Jesus' first visit, He breathed on His followers and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retained."

It doesn't take a lot out of us to "retain" someone's sins. We keep them in mind, use them in our evaluations and contrast them with our own "sinless" personality. But those who forgive die to themselves; they destroy the power that retaining gives them over others.

Forgiving wounds us. But, like Jesus' wounds, they take away other people's pain. Only such wounded Christians can legitimately believe in the salvation Jesus offers.

(4/20/06)