Friday, May 2, 2008

Thomas Sunday (part 1)

Christ is Risen!

I know it's a little late, but let me first wish you a belated blessed Pascha. I had hoped to have several articles posted since Pascha, but I just haven't been able to find the time. This is what I call a "Double Whammy Week," that is, a week in which I have to prepare both a sermon and a Sunday School lesson. Since I am an assistant priest, I rarely have such weeks. Also, I have had many other things pop up that required my attention.

At any rate, I am going to post the sermon that I will preach this Sunday, the Sunday of St. Thomas (which my pastor affectionally calls "Low Sunday," since so many people seem to stay away on that day). Because it is somewhat lengthy, I will break it into two parts. I hope that you find it helpful. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Reflections on the Sunday of St. Thomas

Part One: The Appearance to the Ten

Today’s Gospel reading opens with a truly sad scene. The disciples had just spent three years of their lives with the man that they believed to be the Messiah, the man anointed by God to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Roman conquerors and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. They had learned so much from Jesus and had grown to love him. They had seen how he loved them, and they had vowed that they would follow him anywhere, even dying for him if it became necessary. Then they had watched helplessly while Jesus had been taken away from them by force. To make things worse, all but one of them had fled for fear of their lives. They had heard of his trial and his hasty and disgraceful execution. In the space of a few days, all their hopes and dreams had been brutally crushed. And they knew that they had been seen with Jesus by thousands of witnesses. If the high priests and the Roman soldiers had seen Jesus as such a threat and had eliminated him, why should they stop at Jesus? Why would they not eliminate his “co-conspirators” as well?

And so, out of fear (and a very legitimate fear at that!), the disciples hid themselves away behind closed doors. The Greek word that is translated “closed” in most English translations implies that the door was also locked. The disciples thought that if they would just lay low for a while, if they would sequester themselves behind locked doors, surely no one would be able to find them. Imagine, then, their surprise and shock when Jesus suddenly stood before them and greeted them! Although two of them, Peter and John, had seen the empty tomb, none of them yet understood about the resurrection. How unnerving it must have been for someone who looked exactly like Jesus, whom they knew to be dead and buried, somehow appear despite the locked doors! What could this be other than a spirit? Seeing is not always believing, and it would have been next to impossible for them to understand that Jesus had risen from the dead. Because of this, the Lord immediately took steps to convince them of his identity and to take away their fear: he showed them his hands and his side. From John, they had heard about how Jesus had been crucified, and also how a Roman soldier had pierced his side with a spear. So, in spite of their amazement, they now knew that this had to be none other than Jesus himself.

And immediately upon seeing this blessed sight, their shock and fear changed to great joy! Fulfilled was Jesus’ prophecy, given to them on the night he was betrayed, that the disciples would have sorrow while the world rejoiced, but that they would see him again and their sorrow be turned to joy. They had not understood Jesus’ words at the time, but now the words were crystal clear. Jesus’ appearing brought them joy, but his words made that joy even greater. For although the disciples knew that they deserved rebuke and blame, they were instead greeted with peace, and not only once but twice. Jesus’ next words demonstrated his love for them still more. He had every right to tell them, “You’re fired! I am going to find myself a new group of followers who will REALLY be loyal to me!” Instead, he did just the opposite: he entrusted them with carrying out his work on earth. He said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus to earth to bring salvation to the world, now Jesus sent the disciples to carry the news of that salvation to the world. That is the kind of love for the disciples and trust in them that Jesus had. In spite of their failings, he entrusted them with his own work. And he does them same for us. When we fail him, he picks us up and says, “Try again, my child. I have not lost my faith in you. Keep fighting the good fight!”

Now if the disciples were to carry out Jesus’ work after he left, they would also have to have his power. So, as the Scripture tells us, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This saying of Jesus has led to a dispute. Some skeptics claim that there is a contradiction here. They would say, “Luke says that the Holy Spirit was given on the Day of Pentecost, but here John says that it was given on the day of the Resurrection.” How is this problem to be resolved? St. John Chrysostom, along with many modern scholars, proposes that this passage and the one in Acts refer to two different gifts of the Spirit to the apostles, each with a specific purpose. The one given at Pentecost was for the spreading of the Gospel through the miraculous gift of speaking in many languages and the working of miracles. This gift, however, was an endowing of the apostles, and therefore the Church, with the power to remit sins. For here Jesus says to them, “those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, but those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” This is why the Orthodox Church has always believed in the need to confess our sins to the Church, or more precisely, to the Church’s leaders. It is not that individual priests and bishops forgive sins, they do not. Only God can actually forgive. But the Lord Jesus gives the leaders of the Church a special gift of communicating God’s forgiveness to his people, just as he did the apostles on the day he rose from the grave.


Jessica Fulton said...

Dear Fr. James,

Indeed He is risen! We've missed you at St. Joseph's - looking forward to hearing the sermon live on Sunday.

I'm hoping that in the next section you'll delve further into the reason why the Spirit is given to the Apostles two occasions; I'm not sure I fully understood the distinction between the two, or the necessity of it happening twice. But hey, I'm probably just a little slow in my theological understanding!

Bless me, Father,

Clint said...

I have always loved the story of Jesus showing up in the closed room. Don't you know that the Apostles were overwhelmed?

Can't wait to read the rest of the lesson.

St. Thomas is a favorite. Of course, that would be why we named our youngest son after him.