Tag Archives: John 20:19-31

Love Casts Out Doubt

Sunday, May 5 (O.S., April 22), 2019: Antipascha; Sunday of St. Thomas; St. Theodore the Sykeote, Bishop of Anastasiopolis (613).; Apostles Nathaniel, Luke, and Clement. Martyrs Leonidas of Alexandria (202); St. Vitalis of the monastery of Abba Serid at Gaza (609-620).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

One of the best signs of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the willingness of the sacred authors to recount the moral failures of not just the apostles but all the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus and Judas betrays Him.

When the myrrh-bearing hear from the angel that Jesus is risen and are told to “tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7, NJKV), they instead run away in fear, saying “nothing to anyone” (v. 8).

Likewise in today’s Gospel, we see Peter and the disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” We need at this point to pause for a moment and consider more of the context–the timeline really–of what is happening.

Jesus appears to the disciples on Pascha, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” Earlier that day, He had appeared “to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). At first, she doesn’t recognize Jesus mistaking Him for the gardener. But when He says her name–”Mary!”–she immediately recognizes Him and hurries off to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen (see John 20:15-18).

Unfortunately, and this brings us to today’s Gospel, “they did not believe” Mary (Mark 16:11), her words “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Betrayers. Doubters, Cowards, Women. In the ancient world, none of these would have been considered credible witnesses because none could be honorable men. And yet, these are the witnesses that the Church offers us. Far from undermining the credibility of the Gospel, the weakness of the disciples highlights its power.

Turning now to the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostle, and even though “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” even though “the people held them in high honor” they were afraid to publicly follow the disciples. Like the disciples on Pascha, the people were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

Nevertheless, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The reason is because the disciples were eventually able to move beyond the crippling fear and they experienced on Pascha and so counteract the fear felt among the citizens of Jerusalem.

St John Chrysostom explains it this way (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 12): “Earth was becoming like heaven,” because of how the first Christians lived. It was their “boldness of speech,” the “wonders” they performed that cause the residence of Jerusalem to look on the followers of Jesus as they were angels.”

As for the disciples themselves, “They were unconcerned about ridicule, threats, perils.” Instead, “They were compassionate and beneficent. Some of them they helped with money, and some with words, and some with healing of their bodies and of their souls; they accomplished every kind of healing.”

How did the grace of God bring about this transformation in the disciples? How did fearful doubters become bold apostles?

Love.

Of all those first entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel, only one responded with obedience. It was only Mary Magdalene who did as she was told to do.

The reason, as St Mark highlights for us, is because of all the disciples of Jesus, only she knew evil and the power of the devil not simply as an external threat but an inner struggle. It was out of her that Jesus “had cast seven demons.” As Jesus tells us in another place, those “love much” who have been “forgiven much.” As for the one “to whom little is forgiven,” that is who repents only of minor sins leaving unmourned the more serious ones, “the same loves little.” (see Luke 7:47).

It was in her great love for Jesus that Mary found the courage to proclaim boldly the Gospel. This is important because, contrary to what we sometimes imagine, doubt is not a sin of the intellect but the will.

I doubt because I don’t love and I don’t love because I am afraid. I don’t trust God because I have not united myself to Him; I resist His will for my life, preferring my will to His. In its most extreme form, I prefer to fail of my terms to succeed on His.

But “perfect love drives out fear” and the “one who fears is not made perfect in love” (see 1 John 4:18). The apostles doubt, I doubt, because their love, my love, remains imperfect.

St John tells us that anyone who hates his neighbor is “a murder” (1 John 3:15) and that anyone who says he loves God but who hates his neighbor “is a liar: (1 John 4:20) and lives “in darkness” (1 John 2:11).

Jesus tells us what it means to love God perfectly when He says we are to love God with all that is in us and that we are to love our neighbor as our very self (see Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

The love of God is not an idea; much less is it a feeling. Rather, to love God is to unite our will to His. If I love God I will keep His commandments (see John 14:15). Love, in other words, is a matter of obedience.

And just as to love God is to be obedient to God, to love my neighbor means to want what God wants for him. I love you with a perfect love if I want for you all that God would give you.

To be sure, the will of God for me and for you is wider, deeper and broader than what we know. Nevertheless, we know what God doesn’t want. The Ten Commandments offer us a negative expression of God’s will for humanity.

And we know from the Scriptures and the fathers that God’s will for us is–in a positive sense–rooted in our participation in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4).

We come to share in the divine life through our participation in the sacraments of the Church. To share in God’s life means we must be baptized, confess our sins, receive Holy Communion. To these, we add daily prayer and the reading of Scripture and the keeping of the fasts as we are able.

Is there more to perfect love? Yes! But if we do at least these things, God will slowly reveal the fullness of His will for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The fearful, doubting disciples of Pascha we meet today will soon become bold witnesses for Christ through love! In these next few weeks, as we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we are preparing ourselves for a new outpouring of divine love into our hearts. We have this period of rest, in anticipation of the renewal of our witness to the world.

So get ready! There is more to come!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love Sustains and Strengths Faith in Christ

Sunday, April 15 (O.S., April 2), 2018: Antipascha; Second Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of St. Thomas; Ven. Titus the Wonderworker (9th c.). Martyrs Amphianus and Edesius of Lycia (306). Martyr Polycarp of Alexandria (4th c.).

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

From the beginning, doubt has traveled alongside the proclamation of the Gospel. Take the response of the disciples in the final moments before Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

We read in today’s Matin’s Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) that when the disciples saw, for what would be the last time, their once-dead Friend now clearly very much alive again “they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (v. 17). Even though they had spent 40 days with the Risen Lord Jesus and even though they worshipped Him as “Lord and God” (see John 20:28), some still struggled with doubt.

While the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead is often met with great joy by those closest to Him, some will respond with disbelief.

Look at Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus “had cast seven demons.” Though initially overcome with amazement and fear on that first Pascha morning, she quickly gets control of herself and goes to the other disciples “as they mourned and wept” and tells them that Jesus is alive. But, as St Mark says the apostles “did not believe” her (Mark 16:9-11). Or, as St Luke bluntly states, the Good News of the Resurrection seems to St Peter and the other apostles seems “an idle tale.” Mary and the other women are simply not believed (Luke 24:11).

Seen in the light of these events today’s Gospel is neither a surprise nor a scandal. We shouldn’t imagine that the apostles and disciples had an easier time of believing because they were witnesses to the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was not simply a new thing, it was unheard of. Yes, the disciples eventually became witnesses–even to the point of death–but for all of them, faith in the resurrection only came over time. Even when standing before the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, faith can be a struggle.

In the tradition of the Church, doubt isn’t fundamentally a matter of intellectual uncertainty. If it were, then proclaiming the Gospel would be simply a matter of presenting solid evidence in a logically and compelling fashion.

We think of doubt as intellectual uncertainty because we have confused the Church with the school room or the law court. This though makes faith in Jesus Christ not a gift of divine grace to be received with a humble and thankful heart but the work of human reason; not the work of God but of the skilled debaters of this age (see 1 Corinthians 1:20).

To say that faith is not the work of human reason doesn’t make faith in Jesus Christ unreasonable. Look at St Thomas in today’s Gospel. When his fellow disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord,” he demands a very particular kind of proof. He will not believe, he says “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.”

Thomas demands not biblical citations or philosophical arguments but empirical validation. He will only believe when the evidence of his senses confirms the Resurrection. In this, the Apostle Thomas is one of the first Christian scientists.

It’s worth noting that when Jesus again appears to the disciples–this time with Thomas among them–He doesn’t dismiss Thomas’s call for empirical evidence. Instead, Jesus freely offers it. This is why the icon for today’s feast is called in Greek, “The Touching of Thomas” and in The Slavonic “The Belief of Thomas.”

Thomas asks for and receives from Jesus the evidence he needs to believe.

The first lesson here for us is clear. Contrary to what we often hear, science and the Gospel are not opposed. Far from being the enemy of faith, science can support the Gospel and even lead us to faith. Yes, as St Thomas and the other disciples find out, the glory of the Resurrection transcends what empirical science can know; Jesus walks through locked doors; St Peter’s shadow, as we read in Acts, restores the sick to health.

To say that science supports and can even lead to faith in Jesus Christ is very different from saying that faith is dependent on human reason. While Jesus is willing to provide the evidence Thomas needs, our Lord immediately follows this with a caution: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The Apostle Thomas asks for a particular kind of evidence–in this case empirical–because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. In fairness, as we’ve seen and will see again next week, Thomas is not unique in this. Again, on that first Pascha morning, the apostles doubted the Myrrhbearing Women even as the women doubted the testimony of the angel.

Why didn’t Thomas trust his fellow apostles?

The answer is easy enough. He didn’t believe them because he knew them! St Peter denied Jesus three times. Except for John, all the apostles abandoned Jesus.

But even John’s witness was lacking. In the days leading up to Holy Week, he and his brother James try to promote themselves over the other disciples asking Jesus to allow them to sit at His right and left hands when He comes in glory (see Mark 10:35-37).

The very presence of the apostles in the upper room reflects their lack of faith. They were there, behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19).

So what does this all mean for us as Orthodox Christians as we gather together to pray in a small room on the campus of a sometimes aggressively secular university campus?

First, we must keep in mind that human reason and science are not the enemies of the Christian faith. This is so even when, as often happens, they are misused. As St Paul reminds us whatever is true, just as whatever is noble, … just, … pure, … lovely, … of good report,” virtuous or “praiseworthy” all these can and often do strengthen us in our faith even as they can lead those outside the Church to faith in Jesus Christ (see Philippians 4:8).

Second, I must attend to the moral integrity of my witness. By my actions, I can be a bridge to Christ or a wall that obscures Him. Am I a credible witness to divine love, mercy, and forgiveness or do my actions bear witness to some other god, a god of my own creation?

Third and for now last, what of the quality of our life as a community? Tertullian in his defense of the Gospel writes “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead” the pagans to recognize Christians as followers of Jesus. “See how they love one another,” he says the pagans say. For while the pagans “are animated by mutual hatred” Christians are “are ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our love for each other and for those outside the walls of the church this morning that leads others to faith in Jesus Christ. This mutual love also sustains and strengths our faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Distraction, Detachment, and Discipleship

Sunday, April 23, 2017: New Sunday or Anti-Pascha Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin” Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer.

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

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.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Do Not Be Faithless, but Believing!

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