Sunday, May 8, 2016: Thomas Sunday; John the Apostle, Evangelist, & Theologian, Arsenios the Great, Emelia, mother of St. Basil the Great

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20/1 John 1:1-7
Gospel: John 20:19-31/John 19:25-27; 21:24-25

Christ is Risen!

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian offers us, as he says, a first-hand account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He tells us about things he as seen with his own eyes and touched with his own hands, “that eternal life which was with the Father” (1 John 1:2, NKJV). And he does this so that, through his testimony, we may have fellowship not only with him but also with “the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:4, NKJV).

But when we turn to the Gospel though the situation is more complex.

The Gospel as well refers to what is known, first-hand, by the Apostles (including, by the way, John). When Jesus appears for a second time to the Apostles He tells Thomas “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). Thomas refused to believe without evidence. When he is told that the Lord Jesus had appeared to his brother Thomas responds by telling them: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). For Thomas, faith requires not testimony but empirical validation. Thomas wants to see and to touch Jesus. The testimony of his brother Apostles, the testimony of the Church if you will, isn’t sufficient for him.

And so, because of His great mercy and love for Thomas, Jesus appears and offers His hands and His side for inspection. “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” As we hear in the hymnography of the Church, Jesus doesn’t “reject him for his faithlessness” but rather makes Thomas’s “faith … certain” by once again to the Apostles “through closed doors” (Vespers sticheron, Thomas Sunday). Or in the delightful and charming words of last night’s Aposticha: “Oh, most glorious wonder! Doubt bore certain faith.”

We might, however, want to pause for a moment and reflect on the events between the first and second appearance of our Lord to the Apostles.

Thomas, like maybe some of us, doesn’t believe the eyewitness testimony of the Church. Maybe he doesn’t believe because of “glorious wonder” of the Resurrection. Maybe his lack of faith reflects not their hardness of heart but the kind of blindness that comes from staring into the sun. Maybe his lack of faith reflected the magnitude of the mystery.

Again the Aposticha hints at this:
How art thou incarnate?
How art thou crucified,
For Thou hast not known sin!
Make us understand like Thomas,
that we may call out to Thee:
“My Lord and my God, glory to Thee!”

Sometimes faith is a struggle because we are so unaccustomed to joy. In this life, peace is often foreign to our experience and forgiveness rare. Sometimes, like Thomas, I doubt because of the brightness of the Divine Light.

At other times, though, let’s simply admit this, we can doubt not because the mystery is so great but because the witness of Christians is so poor. The Apostle John tells his readers that their faith, their salvation, their lives as disciples of Christ, completes his joy. “John the Apostle” who at the Last Supper “leaned on the Savior’s breast,” the one who “understood the depths of theology,” (Aposticha, Thomas Sunday) comes into the fullness of joy when others become believers, fellow disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of the Gospel. The “bosom friend and beloved” of God incarnate who “hast boldness before Him, never ceases to pray for our souls!” (Aposticha, John the Theologian)

Everything that is done in the Church is done, or rather should be done, so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing you may have life in His name.” This is why, as we read in Acts of the Apostle “believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:15, NKJV).

By this standard, how well are we doing? NMaybe not as well as we might want to think.

In the last several years more than 200,000 Orthodox Christians have left the Church. For every one adult who joins the Church, 2.5 adults who were raised in the Church have left. While some who have left have gone to other Christian communities, something like a fourth of those who have left no longer have any religious affiliation at all. As for those who have joined the Church as adults, one in four have left (Pew US Religious Landscape Surveys, 2014).

While some no doubt left because of hardness of heart, most I suspect left because they have not (for one reason or another) found the abundant life (see, John 10:10), the complete joy (see, 1 John 1:4) and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (see Philippians 4:7) that they have a right to expect—and find—in the Church.

This isn’t to blame anyone. My witness has often been poor. It is, however, to take serious the example laid out for us in the readings this morning.

We are called by Christ to “make disciples of all nations” (see Matthew 28:19) and to do so generously, sacrificially and joyfully. When that doesn’t happen—and the survey data suggests that it isn’t—people are kept out of the Kingdom of God and the Church withers away.

But it doesn’t need to be this way!

Our situation today is no worse, and in some ways quite a bit better, than what the Apostles faced on the first Pascha. God in Jesus Christ doesn’t turn away from me because of my lack of faithfulness. Rather, as He did with Thomas, He comes to me and renews in me “an upright spirit by the greatness of [His] mercy” (Troparion, Thomas Sunday) so that I can live as His disciple and be His witness!

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us reach out to Christ not just “with an eager hand” (Kontakion, Thomas Sunday) like Thomas but also with an open and willing heart like John so that each of us can live as “the true friend of the Trinity” (Litya, for John the Theologian).

And, as the friends of God, let us “proclaim the truths of the teachings of the wisdom of God” (Doxastikon for the Apostle John), in faith proclaim the Resurrection of Christ, and in love and joy invite all to join us as disciples of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Him be glory and honor forever!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory