Faith: Information or Relation?

St. Thomas was told by his fellow Apostles that they had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion.  They shared with him that information: “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25).  Having that information did nothing for Thomas as he declared he would never believe until he saw the risen Christ himself.  Perhaps he was miffed that Christ would appear to the rest and not to him.  He didn’t fully trust his fellow disciples or the Lord.  Perhaps just hearing that news was not enough to convince him of anything.  It takes more than information – even well attested information (!) – to believe.  Christian faith is a relationship with the risen Christ.  Theologian Christos Yannaras writes:

“The transmission of this knowledge to succeeding generations also presupposes an experience of relation–the Church’s gospel does not function as the communication of information…It is a relation of trust (faith) in those who once were eyewitnesses to his presence, in the persons who from generation to generation, in an unbroken chain of the same experiential participation, transmit the testimony of their encounter with the gospel’s signs.

Faith/trust is a constant struggle to maintain a relation, and the knowledge that faith conveys is the coherent articulation of that struggle. The struggle signifies an attempt to attain something without the certainty that one has attained it–however long the struggle lasts, nothing is sure or safe, nothing may be taken as given. The relation of life is gained or lost from moment to moment…

The only “objective” information compatible with the ecclesial event is the invitation “Come and see” (John 1:46), that is, a call for human beings to participate in specific relations, relations of communion with life, in a common struggle for each person’s individual self-transcendence and self-offering. And the goal is the knowledge that comes about when a person loves…

In a religion “faith” may mean the blind acceptance of principles, doctrines, axiomatic statements, the castration of thought and judgement. But in the Church faith (pistis) recovers its original meaning; it is the attainment of trust (in Greek, literally, “enfaithment,” epistosyne), the freedom of self-transcendance–a dynamic realization of relation, with knowledge as its experiential product.”  (Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, pp. 35-37)

 

Thomas Sunday: Thinking Outside the Box

Sermon Notes for St. Thomas Sunday 2017:  Thinking outside the box

  • Humans often think themselves into a corner, or into a box, from which they can see no way out. Sometimes we do that to ourselves, sometimes others force us into that box.
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  • At the incarnation, God put Himself into such a box. He willfully limited His omnipotence in becoming fully human.   God accepted all the limitations having a body and living in creation puts on any of us, including death.  God ended up not only as a human on earth, but as a corpse buried in a tomb.  That tomb was sealed by a heavy stone.  God thought Himself into such a “box” even finding His way to Hades, the place of the dead from which no one ever escaped.
  • Except God was not limited by any of these boxes – not the earth, not His body, not the tomb, not Hades.
  • 16481116539_a5b0081344_nToday’s Epistle concludes with the Apostles also in a box – The Sadducees have them arrested and put in a prison. This is the case of others putting us in a box of their choosing.  And yet that box, the prison, was not able to contain the Apostles – God helped them think outside the box!

 

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20

In those days, through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch. Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly. And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed. Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”

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  • Before the Apostles were put in that prison, they had put themselves in another box, but this was their own choice. The Apostles were terrified after the crucifixion of Jesus.  Terrified that they too might be killed, so they went into hiding.  They closed themselves in a room and locked the doors.  They thought themselves into this box and could see no way out.

 

Gospel: John 20:19-31

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to 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.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to 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.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

  • We Christians can think ourselves into such boxes. We think the society is against us and we can choose to hide in our churches or in our homes or in our hearts.  Each – church, home, heart – can become a box.  We might go into that box, like the Apostles into the upper room – for safety because we fear the society around us.
  • But there is another reality which the Scriptures teach us. ANY box which we find ourselves in – whether it is one we chose to go into for safety, one we thought our way into and can’t see a way out of, one that is imposed on us by those who against us – still is part of this creation and so still is within God’s realm.   “God is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28).  Whatever “box” we find ourselves in – God is still not far from us, and we are still in God.  All “boxes” humans experience – all limitations whether self-imposed or imposed on us by others – are still within God’s grace and power.   They cannot separate us from God.
  • And as the Apostles discovered – even if in a box – Christ can still find His way into that box and be with us. So not only are our “boxes” always still in God with God close by, but Christ is able to enter into our boxes and be with us.
  • 32797394455_e14a68fe9f_nThe Apostles discovered that Christ does not prevent them from boxing themselves in, nor does He promise them that there is nothing to fear out in the world, but He enters their box and tells them to go into the world anyway even if that world is terrifying.
  • We humans find ourselves in boxes of many kinds and we often think there is no way out of the box, or maybe even there is nothing outside the box! God is there.  We might think our way into a box out of fear, depression, loneliness, overwhelmed by problems, or because others are imposing that box on us for their own (even nefarious) reasons.  People these days think their way into political boxes as well, and this is often a self-imposed box.  We allow ourselves only to read or think about ideas we agree with and we become afraid of everything and everyone outside our boxes and hate them as threats to our thinking.  Political boxes also exist within God’s world and don’t contain it.  And just as Christ came to His Apostles in their locked room, he challenged them to live the Gospel.  He challenges us to do the same and not retreat into the imagined safety of our boxes.
  • We can remember Thomas and the Apostles and how Christ came into their presence – Christ entered into that upper room where they were hiding and was them with them in their box, in their fear, in their depression as they hid for their own safety and He helped them out of that box.   He didn’t bless them to stay hidden or afraid.   Neither did He  tell them “there is nothing to fear” because He after all was crucified by this world.
  • The truth remains: no box humans create is ever outside of God.  Every box and every prison is a human construct.  When we are in them, we still are within God’s creation and are still living and moving and having  our being in God.   Even those who are in a tomb or in Hades are not outside of God, and Christ comes to them in their boxes and saves them.

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St. Thomas: A Jewish Confession of Christ’s Divinity

St. Thomas Sunday:  John 20:19-31

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to 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.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to 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.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

One modern church historian comments on the confession which the Apostle Thomas utters upon seeing the Risen Jesus:  My Lord and my God!”

“How could a faithful Jew who had recited the Sh’ma since childhood, whose prayers were addressed to God the king of the universe, address Christ as God or Son of God, as the earliest Christians did? Hilary’s answer is that the Resurrection of Christ transfigured everything. When Jesus came and stood among the disciples and put his finger in his side, Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” When confronted by the risen Christ one does not say, “How interesting,” but “My Lord and my God!”

The terms used by Thomas, Lord and God, are significant, and they allow Hilary [d. 367AD] to Drive home his point. “Lord” and “God” are the terms that occur in the Sh’ma, yet here they are used not of God the creator of the world and the king of the universe, but of Christ. Because of the Resurrection Thomas recognized that the one he knew, who had lived among them, was not just an extraordinary human being but the living God. “No one except God is able to rise from death to life by its own power,” writes Hilary. But his argument runs deeper. He wishes to say not only that the Resurrection revealed something about Christ to His disciples, namely, that he is God; his more penetrating observation is that Resurrection caused them to think about God differently. Once Jesus was raised, writes Hilary, Thomas “understood the whole mystery of the faith,” for “now,” that is, in light of the Resurrection, Thomas was able to confess Christ as God “without abandoning his devotion to the one God.” After the Resurrection he could continue to recite the Sh’ma because he had begun to conceive of the oneness of God differently. Thomas’s confession “my Lord and my God” was not the “acknowledgement of a second God, nor a betrayal of the unity of the divine nature”: it was a recognition that God was not a “solitary God” or a “lonely God.” God is one, says Hilary, but not alone.”. (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, pp. 91-92)

St. Thomas: The Anti-Pascha

The first Sunday after Pascha is dedicated to the memory of the Apostle Thomas and his particular reaction to the Gospel of the resurrection of Christ.  It is a continuation of the Gospel lesson which was read at the Vespers of Pascha Sunday:  John 20:19-31.  The Gospel lesson for this Sunday is simply continuing a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ by dealing with the very real reactions of Christ’s own disciples to the Good News.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

Archbishop Job Getcha gives us some historical background for this Feast.

The second Sunday of Pascha, i.e., the Sunday following Easter, is dedicated to the encounter of Thomas with the risen Lord. It is also called ‘Antipascha’ or ‘Renewal Sunday’. It concludes the paschal octave, whose particular celebration in Jerusalem in the late fourth century is attested to by Egeria in her journal and by the Armenian Lectionary in the fifth century. In chapter 39 of her journal, Egeria tells us that ‘these feasts of Pascha are celebrated over eight days.’ She specified that, on the day of the octave,

The lucernare [vespers] is celebrated both at the Anastasis and at the Cross, and then all the people, without exception, with hymns escort the bishop to Sion. When they arrive there, they again sing hymns appropriate to the place and day, and the gospel passage is read again describing how, eight days after Pascha, the Lord entered where the disciples were and reproached Thomas for having been doubtful.”     (Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, p 239)

While the hymns of the day do mention the blessed doubt of Thomas which led to his fully believing in Jesus as Christ, doubt does not automatically lead to faith.  Jesus reproaches Thomas for his faithlessness, but doesn’t reject him.   The 7th Century St. Isaac of Nineveh notes there is a downside to doubt.

“Once someone has doubted God’s care for him, he immediately falls into a myriad of anxieties.” (The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, Sebastian P. Brock, p 34)

 Peter wept bitterly for his faithless denial of Christ.    Yet doubt does not mean absolute rejection of Christ.  It is a normal part of being human.  It can be healthy for us, as Thomas demonstrated, but we need to use it to lead us to Christ rather than allowing ourselves to become foolish cynics.  We often have to wrestle with our own thoughts on our way to God’s Kingdom.

 

Doubt and a Blessing

The doubt of Thomas did not prevent Your Resurrection,
nor was his unbelief without a use.
For now Thomas undoubtingly shows Your Resurrection to all the nations,
who before were unbelieving, but now are taught to say:
Blessed are You, our God, the Lord exalted by the fathers!

(Matins Hymn from Thomas Sunday)

A normal part of having faith in God in our fallen world is also doubting – God, ourselves, the witness of others.  The Gospel lesson of the doubting Thomas (John 20:19-31) is read in the Orthodox Church on the Sunday after Pascha.  We commemorate that hard reality that even the Twelve Apostles experienced a loss of faith and doubts despite being with Jesus on a daily basis and experiencing His words and miracles.

In the above hymn we encounter a truth of faith: our belief or doubts do not solely determine what God will do.  That Thomas did not believe Christ rose from the dead did not prevent Christ’s resurrection.  God freely chooses how to respond even to our doubts or disbelief or denial.  As the hymn notes, on the other had, doubt is not without purpose.  The hymn is not advocating predestination in which human behavior is inconsequential.  Thomas’ personal doubt led him to seek proof of the claimed resurrection.  He became convinced of the resurrection and then went forth into the world as an Apostle to proclaim the Gospel.

The doubt of Thomas honestly reveals the humanity of the Apostles – they are men and women like ourselves.  They had to deal with all the issues and problems created by having faith in God.  They had to deal with their own personal doubts.  Despite being with Christ daily, they sometimes doubted their own perceptions.  Their free will remained and they had to choose to believe, to follow Christ, to do His will.  They had to cooperate with God for their own salvation.  Faith still requires us to make choices.  And as long as their are choices there will be doubts about what to believe and what to do.  Faith is neither mindless or thoughtless.   And doubt can serve a purpose in a person’s life and in the Christian community.   Had the other disciples expelled Thomas from their fellowship when he expressed his unbelief they would have deprived the Church of an important witness.  We would not understand the role that a disciple like Thomas plays in our communities.  We would have failed to understand the blessedness which doubt can play in a believer’s life and in the life of the Church.

Death and Resurrection: Describable to Indescribable

Describable is Your being sealed in the tomb,

but indescribable is Your arising from there, O Christ!

For You appeared in the midst of Your disciples, O all‑powerful One.

 (From Matins of St. Thomas Sunday)

A part of faith is mystery.  Not everything involving God, even God’s own activity in the world, can be readily described or explained.  We say in our Liturgy that God is ineffable and indescribable.   We recognize our words about God are inadequate to the task of fully capturing the revelation of God and can only approximate Truth to the best of our human ability. So the above hymn from St. Thomas Sunday tells us Christ’s burial certainly can be described because it it well within human experience to give account of a person’s death and burial.  But what cannot be described – and in fact the Gospel don’t describe it – is Christ’s resurrection.  What is encountered in the Gospel is an empty tomb which is a sign of the resurrection.  Angels talking about Christ’s resurrection are also portrayed.   However there is no reporting about what happened to Jesus at the moment of His resurrection.

Whatever the resurrection might have looked like, is not illustrated in the canonical Gospels.  The resurrection is mystery, an action of the eternal God in space and time.  The gap between divinity and humanity is bridged.   Whatever distinguishes creation from the Creator is united in that event of the resurrection.  Its effects can be be known – Christ is seen living after His death and burial.   The implications of the resurrection can be discussed, and theology opens our minds to the joy of the Gospel of Pascha.  The event of the resurrection remains outside human description.   God’s activity is a new creation in which heaven and earth are united.

Our minds, hearts, souls and eyes are opened to something totally new.   We will never be able to describe this event, but we all can participate in it – through baptism and in the life in Christ.   Description will fail us, but experience is still possible.  This is the world of faith.  We can appreciate and even rejoice in things of God which we cannot fully describe or even comprehend.  God enters into the human condition and is both hidden and revealed in all that God does.

The Doubting Saint Thomas

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17)

St. Matthew in his Gospel account of the disciples encountering the Risen Lord Jesus reports that some of the disciples upon seeing Jesus were apparently doubtful about who they were encountering or about the resurrection itself.  Matthew offers us no detail about the nature of their doubt or about which disciples were dubious.  St. John in his Gospel (120:19-31) does describe for us one disciple, Thomas, and his doubts about the resurrection of Christ.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956AD) comments that we should never be ashamed of our friends who are weak in faith or who doubt God at times:

“The Lord appeared this second time for Thomas’s sake – for the sake of one man, one sinner. He who is surrounded by the angelic choirs that joyfully hail Him as the Conqueror of death, leaves His heavenly flock and hastens to save one wandering sheep. Let all those who, coming to great glory and power in this world, forget their weak and humble friends and, with shame and scorn, draw back from them, be ashamed at His example. In His love for mankind, He – glorified and almighty – came down a second time into one simple room in Jerusalem. Oh, that blessed room, out of which there poured more blessings on the human race than there could ever be from all the palaces of emperors! When the Lord appeared to Thomas, Thomas cried out with joy: ‘My Lord and my God!’ With these words, Thomas acknowledged Christ as both Man and God, both in one, living Person.” (HOMILIES VOL 1, pp 222-223)