Sunday, April 23, 2017: New Sunday or Anti-Pascha Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin” Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer.
Christ is Risen!
To follow the Person of Jesus Christ, to shape our lives around His teaching and the example of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us in faith (Hebrews 12:1), this is the essence of our life in Christ. While our particular vocations are different, as Orthodox Christians we share a common call to be His disciples and to preach the Gospel to all the world (Mark 15:16). Each of us follows a unique path in life but we have a common goal.
Because we have the same destination–the Kingdom of God–our personal vocations also share common features. Chief among these is the need to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments of the Church, the life of prayer and ascetical struggle. Apart from these, whatever else might be the value of what we do, what we do isn’t Christian.
Just as there are common sources for our unique vocations, there are common dangers. In the Gospel this morning we hear about the Apostle Thomas and his unwillingness–at Vespers last night we hear it referred to “the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas”–to believe that Christ is Risen. In a word, Thomas doubt.
Doubt is an interesting thing.
We tend to think that the solution to doubt is more information or a better, clearer explanation. If however you have ever struggled with doubt, or indeed any distraction in the spiritual life, you know that this solution is no solution.
The cause of doubt is not a poverty of information but of attention. Doubt, like fear, anxiety, despair and any number of other temptations in the spiritual life, is the fruit of distraction. Doubt arise when I shift my attention from Jesus to my own thoughts.
At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, it isn’t so much that Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus is Risen from the dead as it is he attached to his own thoughts. He is willing to believe in the Resurrection, if and only if, it is revealed to him on his own terms. “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”
In effect, Thomas will accept the Resurrection if it comes to him, not the free gift of God but as the fruit of his own effort. Thomas can’t believe because he is attached to his own thoughts.
This then is the heart of doubt and all the other distractions of the spiritual life: My attachment to my own will.
While this attachment might, at first, seem sweet, very quickly my thoughts come to torment me. My thoughts enslave me. I make myself a slave to myself. I am as bound by my own thoughts, as Peter was by his chains before the angel of the Lord freed him from prison.
I cannot live as a disciple of Christ if I am attached to my own will, my own thoughts about the spiritual life. It is my plans, my vision, that obscure Christ and so become the source of doubt and the other distractions.
What I need to learn to do–and this takes not only divine grace and real effort on my part but time–is to become detached from my own thoughts. Notice please, I didn’t say I need to NOT have my own thoughts, plans, or feelings. It is “proper and right” to have these. Where I go wrong is in my attachment to them, to caring more about my own thoughts and feelings than I do Christ.
Like I said, finding the balance between prayerful and obedient attention to Christ and respecting the integrity of not only my own thoughts and feelings but those of other people, is the work of a lifetime.
Too often Christians neglect this work and instead give themselves over to one form or another of fundamentalism. Or, to look at the other deformation, they neglect faith altogether and given themselves over to a life of self-aggrandizement.
The irony here is that whichever deformation they choose, in the end, what is chosen is the person’s own will. Both paths elevate the preferences of the individual above the love of God or neighbor.
So, to follow Christ, the be His disciple, I must like Thomas, take my eyes off myself and instead look to Jesus Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
I won’t lie to you. There will be times when doing this is hard, harder than anything you have ever done.
But there will also be times when shifting your focus to Jesus, will not only come easily but joyfully. Over time, what was once hard becomes, if not exactly easier, than to be a moment of liberation.
And with that renewed inner freedom comes not only a more mature, sober way of life in Christ but also an ability to, like Peter, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”