Sunday, June 3, 2018

Abandonment to the Will of God

The brothers Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen. One day, while they were casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walks by and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, they leave their nets and follow him (Matt 4:18-20).

What did they leave behind really? A few nets and their little fishing boats? “Our holy merchants traded in their nets and vessels for the perpetual life of the angels,” says St. Gregory the Great. Not a bad trade, eh? Maybe this doesn't seem like so great a sacrifice. Others have given far more.

Christ calls Peter and Andrew to be his disciples.
Mosaic. Sant'Apollinare Nouvo, Ravenna, Italy.
Sixth century.

These simple fishing nets have more in common with the two copper coins - the two mites offered by the widow to the treasury of the Temple than with the large sums put in by the rich (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). So it's worth remembering what Jesus says about that paltry gift. He says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had" (Luke 21:3-4). Likewise, Simon and Andrew left behind all the living that they had. Those nets and boats were their means of living. That was all they had. And it wasn’t as if they didn’t care about fishing either. They weren’t looking for a new gig. Not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Simon Peter stands up and says, “I’m going fishing” (John 21:3). As soon as Jesus is out of sight for a minute, Peter goes back to fishing. So I think it’s something close to his heart. Anyway, it’s what he knows. And so it is a great gift of the heart that they offer to the Lord, even if it is of little material account. Our Lord asks us to give or leave behind what we have - not to worry about what the world accounts as great or significant. Saint Gregory says, "That person has left behind a lot who keeps nothing for himself - who, though he has little, gives up everything. We [on the other hand] tend to be attached to those things we own.”

Jesus and his apostles, including Peter, will later encounter a rich young man seeking eternal life, but he will not find what he seeks - because he is so attached to what he owns and is not willing to sell his possessions and give to the poor so that he may be free to follow Jesus. Jesus says the same thing to this rich young man that he says to Andrew and Simon. He offers them the same invitation: "Follow me" (Matt 19:16-22). He addresses a simple fisherman and a rich young ruler the same way. He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). He invites all to leave behind all they have and to follow him, but not all accept his invitation.

A good metaphor for this leaving all to follow Christ is that of marriage. Before we can cleave to our spouse, we must leave our parents. “A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). It’s definitely worth it, and we understand that when it comes to marriage. It’s even more worth it when it comes to union with God in Jesus Christ, to which marriage points and for which marriage is. But before the cleaving, first must come the leaving, and that’s the part we have some trouble with. Before the Church can cleave to her bridegroom Christ, she must leave behind worldly things. We must “set aside all earthly cares,” as we repeat in the Cherubic Hymn.

“Peter and Andrew left much behind,” says St. Gregory. They left behind “covetousness and the very desire to own. That person has left much behind who renounces - with the thing owned - the very coveting of that thing... You will leave much behind [in holy imitation of those who disdain this world], if you renounce earthly desires... This will be enough for the Lord, since he looks at the heart and not at our material goods."

This works in the inverse as well. If we are grasping and covetous, even if it is only over some small thing, that will be enough to destroy us and damn us to hell. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky retells a parable, which some of you will probably have heard also because Metropolitan Kallistos Ware loves to retell it as well:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; 'She once pulled up an onion in her garden,' said he, 'and gave it to a beggar woman.' And God answered: 'You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.' The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. 'Come,' said he, 'catch hold and I'll pull you out.' he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. 'I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.' As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away (Ch. 3).

It was only an onion the woman claimed as her own and would not share with others. That was enough to break it - to destroy its true salvific purpose. It’s not about how much we have to let go of - this was a peasant woman who didn’t have much. It’s about letting go of everything we do have - of whatever we’re attached to that isn’t the Lord - whether it is great or small in the eyes of the world. If it is more precious to us than the Lord and the image of God, which is in our neighbors and strangers, our enemies and our friends, then, even if it is only an onion, it is an idol and will drag us to hell.

If there's something we won't let go of, then when it comes time to meet the Lord in the air, we'll find we have a millstone tied around our neck weighing us down and preventing our ascent (1 Thess 4:17). If we’re going to be taken up to heaven, we're going to have to let go of our attachment to earthly things - to cut anchor even as our ship bobs like a cork in what seems like a treacherous sea.

I’m not just talking about things here - as in material possessions - although those are a frequent stumbling block for us - but also any of our earthly attachments or aspirations or desires or ambitions. I’m talking about our own will. If Andrew and Peter and James and John are good examples of self-abandonment to the will of God (and they are - look at the immediacy with which they left all to follow him), Jesus is a still better example.

Here is the Lord, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6). The Lord did not grasp even his equality with God, but emptied himself. And we hesitate even to walk away from fishnets – from our earthly toils and vain anxieties.

Jesus, on the other hand, “being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). And listen to what he says to his Father in Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39; Luke 22:42). Not as I will, but as you will. Total and perfect abandonment to the inscrutable and mysterious will of the Father. That’s what we’re called to.

Ultimately, it is not only things that we must leave behind, but even our own will. We must give up on trying to get our own way and follow instead the Lord, who is the way, and who says to us, “Follow me.” He alone will lead us to perfect love and to eternal life. All it will cost is everything.

Monday, May 28, 2018

For the Fallen of War

Not always, but sometimes, the instincts of the nation and the instincts of the Church come into harmony. And today - Memorial Day - is one of those times.

War disrupts and cuts off too many lives far too soon. More than forty million have died fighting for this country in its many wars beginning with the revolution. The nation’s instinct has been to honor and remember these fallen soldiers with ceremonies and by visiting and decorating their graves. This eventually became the annual civil holiday first known as Decoration Day and now known as Memorial Day.

This, as I say, harmonizes with the instincts of the Church.

War has been a part of human behavior for all of history. And even before the coming of Christ, the people of God knew to remember and pray for those whose lives it claimed.

Attributed arms of David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabeus,
three of the "Nine Worthies"

The Old Testament books of Maccabees tell of the Jewish Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire and against their oppression of the Jews. Many who died in one of the battles of this war had committed the sin of idolatry and when Judah Maccabee discovered this, he and his men “turned to prayer, begging that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out” (2 Macc 12:42). He then saw to it that a sin offering was made for them in Jerusalem (12:43). He did this because he expected the resurrection of the dead and he knew therefore that the men who had died were not without hope and had a future.

We also believe in the resurrection of the dead. We know that our fallen men and women whose lives were cut short by war will one day rise again and those who believe will rise in Christ and live in him forever. And so now today we pray for them, even as Judah Maccabee prayed for his fallen men.
Even if they had sinned, they can yet be forgiven by the mercy of God. For them and for all the Lord Jesus offers his one perfect holy sacrifice and oblation of the cross, death, burial, and resurrection. In his resurrection is their hope of resurrection and life. In his mercy, is their hope of forgiveness and salvation. Let us commend them all to him and to his grace.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Violent Prayer

“The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12). What does this mean?

This runs somewhat against our usual way of speaking as Christians, even though these are the words of Jesus Christ. This is no pacifist blurb, but a warcry! When Jesus says things like this, if we have a pacifist tendency, maybe we get embarrassed and don’t know how to respond. Or, if we are disposed the other way, maybe we get heated and take it as a justification for the violence we do or long to do or see done toward others. But I don’t think Jesus is talking about doing violence against others as a path to heaven.

I think he may be speaking rather about the spiritual warfare of the ascetic life. He’s talking about John the Baptist, after all - a great ascetic (for whom I’m named, by the way) who lives in the wasteland and not in a palace; who dresses in coarse robes of camel’s hair and nothing soft and luxurious; who fasts constantly - eating only locusts and wild honey (Matt 3:4; 11:7-8). (By the way, did you know that we can eat insects during fasting seasons? No one ever wants to take that up for some reason….) This ascetic way of life involves a kind of intense striving that may well be called violent.

St Gregory of Sinai says, “No bodily or spiritual activity without pain or toil ever brings fruit to him who practices it, because ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.”

He’s speaking of the effort involved in prayer. Our prayer must be joined to effort, to work, to toil, to striving, even to violent striving. We must pray even if it is inconvenient or uncomfortable - especially if it is inconvenient or uncomfortable! We must join our prayer to fasting and ascetic discipline. Otherwise, we’re telling ourselves and the whole world that other things are more important.

But nothing is more important than God and entering into union with him, entering the kingdom of heaven, taking it by force.

 Icon of the Third Finding of the Head of John the Baptist (bottom, center),
surrounded by St. Onesiphorus and other saints
Konetz, 19th century, Russia
Yet, today is a feast day. The Church feasts as well as fasts. Today is not a fast day, but a double feast day! It is the feast of the third finding of the head of John the Baptist and it is a post-festive day of Pentecost. Even though today is Friday, we do not fast even from meat today because of Pentecost. This is one of only a few Fridays of the year when we traditionally eat meat.

But we are celebrating a great faster! So that’s a bit paradoxical. We feast to celebrate finding the head of one who always fasted.

The other similar feast - the feast of the first and second findings of the head of John the Baptist, we also feast. (They kept losing his head! First he lost his head and then the Church kept losing it again!) It usually falls during the Great Fast, so we mitigate the fasting on that day if it does.

Then there is the day of his beheading. On that day we fast! Our Church commemorates the Beheading of John on August 29th with a strict fast - traditionally, we also eat nothing head-shaped on that day and nothing from a plate, in remembrance of John’s head, which was put on a platter for Salome.  

So, for losing his head we fast, but for finding his head we feast. There is death and there is also resurrection. The two are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. As Paul says today, “we are… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). This is a violence in us as Christians - the violent death of Jesus is always within us, because we are baptized into his body.  If we would rise with Christ, first we must die with Christ (Rom. 6). If we would enter the kingdom of heaven, first we must become a people of persistent, fervent, violent prayer, make war against our own sinful passions, and take it by force.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mystery of Good and Evil

Why do we suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is it that babies sometimes die before they get a chance to live? Why is it that sometimes they are born blind, like the man in today's Gospel?

Healing of the man born blind
Codex Egberti, Fol 50

Theologians know that God does not make death – that no evil comes from God – that God is the author of every good and only good. In other words, theologians know that God is not to blame for our suffering or for death or for blindness.

Whence come these things into the world, then? Well, the wages of sin is death, they also say with St. Paul (Rom 6:23). So, it would seem that sin, which is missing the mark, is the origin of every injustice – every instance of a good person suffering evil maybe rightly blamed on sin – either on their own sin or on someone else's sin. It's clear that it's not always our own sin that causes us to suffer, though it often is. But if someone persecutes or abuses you, you suffer even though you have done nothing wrong. Everything that Jesus suffers is like this. Jesus is altogether sinless. Yet, he suffers greatly from the sins of others who persecute him and mock him and torture him and crucify him. When we suffer at the hands of others, we do well to remember that Jesus has identified with us in that – and has taught us how to respond to it – with forgiveness.

Nonetheless, people usually do not respond that way to the injustices they suffer. Most people, when they get hurt, lash out and hurt others – often the ones they hurt aren't even people that did them any harm. Sometimes, for example, a boss will humiliate someone at work and, too fearful and cowardly to respond like a Christian to the one who has wronged him – with courage and honesty – and without animosity or resentment, instead they swallow the humiliation and shame and anger and resentment and bring that home to their spouse and their kids – snapping at them and humiliating them, though they're totally innocent and only want love and kindness.

Sometimes, we're not even good at revenge. Revenge is a bad thing but taking it out on the innocent is even worse. Yet many times this is what we do.

In this way, our sin sends out ripples of harm into the world. That's clear. When one person gets hurt, it often leads to them hurting others. Hurt people hurt people. It's not a justification, by the way. There is no justification for us to hurt each other – to be nasty to one another, or unforgiving, or judgmental. It's not a justification, it's just an observation. This can all be easily observed in our own lives.

Partly extrapolating from these experiences, many theologians have concluded that all suffering results from sin. I have often counted myself as one who agrees with them. There are the obvious ways in which this is the case, such as the examples I have described, but there are also hidden ways in which our sins hurt other people and ourselves.

We are spirits as well as bodies and so our sins have spiritual ramifications in the spiritual world as well as physical ramifications in the physical world. Sin is a break with our true created nature, which is both spiritual and material. We cannot even begin to imagine how much suffering each of our sins, voluntary and involuntary, brings into the world – into the whole cosmos. With our sin, which is unnatural, we disrupt the whole created order of nature.

So if we understand that sin is the cause of all human suffering, the disciples' question to Jesus about the man blind since birth seems to be a reasonable one: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). You see, they understood that blindness results from sin. That's true.  It's true of both physical blindness and spiritual blindness. 

And they understood that we suffer from one another's sins as well as from our own. In Exodus, the Lord says he will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Ex 20:5; 34:7). So they suggested that it might be the sins of his parents rather than his own sins that resulted in his blindness. Again, it’s not unreasonable, especially if we understand that this man's parents include not only his mother and his father but even all his ancestors back to his first parents Adam and Eve. Surely the world is broken and sometimes people are born blind into this broken world because of sin.

We might also add the sins of demons to our consideration. Their sins too – and not only the sins of us humans – yield great suffering in the cosmos. They too are at war with God and with their own created nature.

In any case, despite all of this, Jesus once again confounds conventional theology. He says, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). Jesus later says the same thing about the illness of Lazarus, saying that “it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).

I am left gasping at this explanation which confounds all my reason. I can dance around it with cleverness and point out that Jesus does not altogether deny the role of sin in the origin of blindness. He only says that it wasn't the sins of this man or his parents. One could argue that perhaps the sins of others or the sins of demons are to blame. But Jesus doesn't blame any sin at all in his etiology of the blindness. My reason wants to chirp, “If sin is not to blame, then what? If no sinner is at fault, then who? God?” I cannot blame God for this man's blindness. But Jesus says that he is blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him.

I understand very well that Jesus heals him – and that this is a work of God that reveals the divinity of Jesus. I understand very well that the Lord uses the man's blindness to teach the world to see. This is what the Lord does again and again. Out of the darkness, he brings light – as on the first day of creation. He says, “Let there be light.” And there is light. I see that, out of death, the Lord brings life. By death, he tramples death. And so, how fitting that through the blindness of one man, he gives many the eyes of faith. The man whose eyes are opened testifies to the healing and that Jesus is of God, and he believes and worships Jesus (9:11, 25, 30-33, 38).

The Lord brings good out of evil. That's what the Lord does. But he is the origin of no evil. So today, when he says that the man is blind so that God can heal him, I don't understand. That's a mystery to me. It's rather like the mystery of the cross.

I want to ask Jesus after he gives his explanation, "Yeah, but, had it not been for sin in the world, surely this man would not have been born blind?" But that's not the kind of question we're going to hear from Jesus or his disciples. That's the kind of speculative theology they don't get into. Maybe that kind of thinking is more Greek than Hebrew – or maybe it's more a curse of this age than that to be vexed by such questions. You won't hear them saying things like, "Well, if reality were other than it is, what then would this or that be?" That's not their shtick – not at all. Jesus is much more interested in healing this man than in theoretically analyzing his condition.

We ought to be like Jesus in this. Simply love, show compassion, heal, deliver, all to the glory of God, rather than trying to subject everything to our finite analytical human understanding, as if reality, or even God, were subject to us. If instead, we seek to glorify God, then God blesses us beyond all understanding.

The mystery of good and evil is beyond our comprehension. And there comes a time to accept that we cannot understand everything and that every answer we can give is a lie. Perhaps we can understand best in silent contemplation of the awesome mystery when we stop trying to figure everything out and abandon ourselves completely to God. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018


Jesus shines his light into the life of the Samaritan woman.

He comes to the well of their mutual father Jacob in the middle of the day - at the sixth hour, that is, at the height of noon - when the sun is at its highest in the sky and the day is at its hottest and brightest point. Given these conditions, it's no wonder that Jesus was weary at this time and that he sat down beside the well to rest (John 4:6).

That's no wonder, but here is a wonder: a woman comes to draw water from the well at the sixth hour. A sane woman would come to the well early in the morning, during the cool of the day, to draw the day's water. These are desert conditions, don't forget. Many have suggested that this Samaritan woman chooses this time to come to the well, in all this heat and brightness, because of a darkness in her life. That is, she comes at noon because no one else comes at noon. We can understand that a woman who had gone through five husbands and was now living with a man not her husband was perhaps outcast among the women of her community.  We don't really know this, but it may be that a woman so popular with the men was rather unpopular with the women. And so she wants to avoid them. Small wonder. That's understandable.

To escape the judgments, criticisms, and harassment of the other women, she comes to the well at the least popular time, when it's at its hottest and brightest and most physically uncomfortable. Better to be physically uncomfortable than to endure the judgmental looks of others - you know that's true. Better the staring eye of the noonday sun than the scornful eye of an enemy. 

So to keep herself in the dark, she comes to the well in the light and finds sitting there by the well the one who is light himself, weary from his journey and asking her for water.

They speak of water and eternal life, of Samaritans and Jews, and of worship. Jesus reveals to her the true worship, which is worship in spirit and truth. And he tells her everything she'd ever done, as she puts it (John 4:39). He shines his light into her life.

Trying to hide, she finds herself exposed - but not exposed by her judgmental rivals - rather, exposed to the light by her merciful and loving Lord.

Sin festers in the dark and dies in the light. We are healed from sin, which is really a disease, by exposing into the light. This is why confession is a sacrament of healing. When we sin, it's as though we've been bitten by a poisonous creature and our choice is to leave the poison in the wound to do its work killing us or to draw the poison out into the light where it can do us no harm.

 Truly, Jesus is the physician of our souls and bodies. And today,  he heals the Samaritan woman by drawing the poison of her secret sin out into the light. She doesn't quite confess it, though what she says is true when she says, 'I have no husband" (4:17). Nonetheless, when Jesus exposes the true meaning of her words to her she recognizes and admits the truth of them by confessing that Jesus is a prophet (4:19) - that is, that his words are the words of God and are the truth.

Hearing all that Jesus says and recognizing that he speaks the word of God, she leaves behind her water jar and hastens back to the very community she had been avoiding to tell them all that the long-expected Christ is sitting by their father's well. How can she, an outcast, go among those who have despised her to preach the gospel? But that is what she does. Like the apostles who leave their nets when they are called by Jesus, she leaves behind her water jar to go and preach the gospel to the whole city.[i] She is called by our tradition equal-to-the-apostles.

She is no longer afraid of what other people think of her. Christ frees her from her fear of others' judgment. I'm quite sure he doesn't free her from others' judgment. When this outcast woman of poor reputation comes into the city proclaiming that she has encountered the Christ, I'm sure she received more than one stink eye and suspicious glare. "Why should we trust a woman like you?" I expect many thought or even said. But she is freed from her fear of that judgment. She leaves that fear behind with her water jar at the well, because she has been freed from the darkness in her life by the light of the world, and no worldly power can stop the power of her God-given conviction. And so through her, many come to believe. She brings many into the light – to Christ – because Jesus is the light. She is like the first evangelist, bringing people to Christ even before he dies and rises from the dead.

By tradition, we know that she was baptized and brought her five sisters and her two sons into the faith and they all continued to evangelize. After the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, she and her family traveled to Carthage to preach the gospel there until they, too, were martyred.

And we also know the name she received in her baptism: Photini, the enlightened one, for she received the light of Christ and let it shine before all with neither fear nor shame again until the end of her life.

In some ways, Photini is the quintessential baptismal name. Some of the fathers of the Church regarded all the mysteries of initiation into the Church and into the body of Christ – baptism, chrismation, and eucharist - to be a single mystery, which they name illumination or enlightenment. The one thus received is, therefore, Photini and Photini becomes for us all an image of our baptism. Like Photini, we are all subject to death in our sins when Christ encounters us at the well, or at the font of our baptism, through which he shines his light into our darkness and illumines us. May we all, like Photini, having been filled with grace through the holy mysteries, live out our whole lives with evangelical fervor. Like her, let us proclaim to everyone we meet without fear of what they might think of us, the good news of Christ’s coming into the world and saving us from sin and death by his death and resurrection.

[i] (Chrysostom: As the apostles left their nets on being called, so she leaves her water jar to do the work of an evangelist by calling not one or two people, as Andrew and Philip did, but a whole city. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 34.1).

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Paralytic Church?

Our Church is dwindling – that is, our particular Church here in the United States: the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church sui iuris of Pittsburgh. We’re about one third the size we were in 1990.* There are also signs of diminishment in the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole. And, indeed, in all of Christianity in the United States as a whole. We're shrinking. Have you seen the numbers?

So, what can we do? Well, we can lie down and wait for death. That’s one option. Or, we can rise, take up our mat, and walk (John 5:8). In some ways, our Church is like the paralytic man lying by the sheep pool, who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:2-5).

Incidentally, that is a long time to be sick, don’t you think? That is my whole life – I turn thirty-eight this year. That helps gives me a sense of how long this man had waited for healing – my whole life.

In some ways, as a Church that’s been dwindling for about that long, we can identify with this paralytic man. Maybe we feel powerless as we sit here and watch our limbs wither. “What can we do about it?” we wonder. Sometimes we blame others and shift the responsibility, saying, "I have no one to put me into the pool when it is stirred up” (John 5:7).

Meanwhile, we sit by the sheep pool of healing. And we watch others get healed. After communism fell, our own Churches in Eastern Europe experienced enormous growth. Our seminaries there are bursting at the seams compared to here. And for another example, the Church in Africa is growing by leaps and bounds. We’re talking more than five thousand percent growth over the last century.

Meanwhile, we shrink. We say with the paralytic, “While I am going [to the pool to be healed], another steps down before me" (John 5:7). We sit paralyzed by the pool and wonder who will put us into the water so that we too can be healed.

Well, Jesus is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). Do we? Or, are we too comfortable as we are? Are we even aware that we stand in need of such healing? Or, are we so focused on our own problems, our own lives, our own parish, that we have no regard for the diminishment of our larger particular Church? Or even for the diminishment of Christianity as a whole across this nation?

Of course, we want to be healed, we say. Heal us, Lord Jesus! Descend upon us, O holy and life-creating Spirit, and give us new life and growth!

This is all well and good, but be advised, this healing and new life and growth may require breaking some of our own personal rules and dearly-held expectations (which are not to be confused with the commands of God).

For example, it was forbidden among the Jews to carry certain loads in certain ways on the Sabbath (John 5:10). This was a dearly-held custom or human tradition – part of the Mishnah around the Torah – but not the Torah itself. 

It is worth recalling that Torah nowhere explicitly forbids carrying an item from one place to another on the Sabbath. Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. But what is work? Later Mishnah strives to answer this question. Mishnah developed to serve as “a fence around Torah”– to make it so that if a pious Jew follows Mishnah, he cannot come even close to breaking Torah. These are human laws built around Torah and not Torah itself. They’re good inasmuch as they bring the people closer to the Lord. But, Jesus above all has the authority to supersede Mishnah because he himself is the word of God before all ages and is himself the source of Torah.

So it is meaningful when Jesus, the Word of God, says to the man on the Sabbath, “Rise, pick up your mat, and walk” (John 5:8). And he doesn't just say, “Rise and walk.” The command to go against Mishnah – to pick up his mat – is a necessary part of the healing. It demonstrates the totality of his healing. He carries that which had carried him.§

If we as a Church are going to grow in numbers and find new life – if we are going to rise and walk like the paralyzed man – it is going to come with some violation of our own expectations. We’re also going to have to pick up our mat.  God, as it so happens, is not obligated to fulfill our expectations. We are going to have to let certain things go – including things that we hold dear – maybe even things we falsely regard as central to our faith, our mission, or our identity.

Really, these things are idols. Any good thing can become an idol in our heart once we allow it to distract us from God rather than bringing us to God. Our teeth are good for chewing the bread of life. They are good things. But if one of them begins to decay irreversibly, at a certain point, it causes nothing but pain and becomes a hindrance and distraction rather than a help. At this point, the thing to do is extract it.

I know better than to start giving examples. And I know that there are idols in my own heart that need to topple, too. So, let's each of us in our own hearts consider what our own idols may be, which are distracting us from the divinely mandated purpose of evangelizing this nation and growing this Church.

None of us can do everything, of course. But each and every one of us can do something rather than nothing. Maybe some of us are already doing all we can, but let none of us be complacent. Let each of us prayerfully consider what we are doing to help the Lord bring healing and growth to this Church. Let each of us listen in our own hearts to the Spirit’s inspiration guiding us to new life for this Church. Through us, if we will let go of our own will and seek the kingdom of God instead of our own agendas, the Lord will restore the Church’s withered limbs so that she may begin to walk strongly in this nation.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Thomas of Great Faith

on John 20:19-31

Praise the Lord, who rescues us from our enemies (Ps. 29:2). “Sing psalms to the Lord, you who love him, give thanks to his holy name” (29:5). The maker of all things makes all things new, puts all things to right, turns all things to face him.

Sickness he turns into health (29:3)
Death he turns into life (29:4).
Tears he turns into joy (29:6).
Mourning he turns into dancing (29:12).
He removes our sackcloth and clothes us with joy (29:12).
He takes away fear and grants us peace.[i]
And today, he turns doubt into faith.  
“The lack of faith gives birth to a certainty of faith.”[ii]

Thomas doubts the word of his fellow apostles when they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” He says that unless he also sees, he will not believe it. Let us not imitate Thomas in this moment, for “blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).  

Yet, eight days later, on this day, the eighth day of Pascha, Thomas also sees the Lord, who appears among them again in the upper room even though the doors are locked. Jesus says to Thomas, offering himself and his wounds to be touched and probed, “Do not be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27).   

And upon seeing the risen Lord and hearing this, Thomas makes his statement of great faith: “My Lord and my God.” Thomas, if you will notice, is the first person in the gospels – perhaps the first person on this earth – to call Jesus “God” in so direct and unadorned a way.

By the grace of God, “Doubting Thomas” becomes Thomas of Great Faith.

Thomas is the first one bold enough to call Jesus, “God,” but he is not the last. The other apostles, led by Thomas, also begin to call Jesus “God.”

John is clear that Jesus is God. It is John alone who records this episode with Thomas. And, it was John who told us all last Sunday on Pascha, that Jesus is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and that the Word was in the beginning with God and that the Word was God.

At the Last Supper, “John leaned on the bosom of the Word” and today Thomas touches his side. “The first discovered the depth of theology,” and the other reveals “the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, saying, ‘My Lord and my God.’”[iii] To touch the body of Christ is to touch God and those who do so lovingly come away with an unshakeable faith in him and knowledge of his divinity.

Peter, who was also in that upper room and heard what Thomas said, addresses his second epistle “To those who have obtained a faith… in… our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:1). It seems that perhaps even the faith of Peter, whose faith made it possible for him to become the rock upon which Jesus builds his Church,[iv] is inspired by the faith of Thomas, whom we often call a doubter.  

The Lord Jesus can and does take the least and makes of that one the greatest. So, the one apostle who doubts the resurrection most of all, becomes the one whose faith inspires us all.

We all echo Thomas, in a sense, at every Divine Liturgy and at every Compline when we chant the Symbol of Faith and say that Jesus Christ is “true God from true God.” Through this doubter, the Lord reveals to us more plainly than through any other the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Thomas cuts to the chase. Seeing his risen Lord, and seeing the still-present wounds in his body, he cries out, “My Lord and my God.” He sees his God before him… and he believes and he worships him.

But isn’t it remarkable which proofs convince Thomas? Which proofs he demanded? Thomas doesn’t simply want to see that Jesus lives again. He doesn’t simply want to see him and hear him again – or to embrace him. He wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus. The marks of his death. “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” (20:25). These are proofs not only that Jesus is living, but that he has died. And it is these marks of his death that convince Thomas, not only of the resurrection but also of the divinity of the risen one.

This is somewhat confounding because God does not die – that is, the immutable divine nature does not experience death – and, yet, in looking at and touching the marks of death upon his risen and living Lord, Thomas sees his Lord and his God. And I call that an act of great faith. He sees God in his humanity, which does die. But when divinized humanity dies, it rises again and reveals its divinity to Thomas and to all those who have faith and cry out with him, “My Lord and my God.”

Our Lord and our God has done everything for us – gone everywhere, endured everything. He has made all things new. Touching the body of Christ and the marks of death, Thomas touches the life of all. Beholding the living man, Thomas sees the glory of God.[v]

God is with us, and we must learn to see him with the eyes of faith in our lives and in one another. When we see the wounded, let us realize we are seeing God, as Thomas saw God in the wounded Christ. Let us recognize each other as the same body of Christ that Thomas touches. When we see the sick, the mournful, the depressed, the downtrodden, the fearful, and the doubtful – or when we ourselves endure these things – let us remember Thomas and see God, who is in the midst of us bringing us healing, joy, love, peace, and faith.

Jesus breaks into every dark place – he enters even though the doors are locked – and fills all things with light, for he is “our Light, our Resurrection, and our peace.”[vi]

Nothing will keep the Lord away from us. He did not deem Thomas unworthy for his lack of faith, but “confirmed his faith by showing him [his] pure side and the wounds in [his] hands and feet. He touched them, and when he saw [Jesus], he confessed [Jesus] to be neither an abstract God nor merely human, [but], ‘My Lord and my God.’”[vii] He is the God who is personally with us, who loves us beyond all reason or expectation and who will do anything – whatever is necessary to reach us and unite us to himself. We are not abandoned. He is with us even in our abandonment – abandoned with us. Even the one place we think is defined by his absence – the darkest, deepest recess in hell – he’s there too. He has broken the gates of hell and gone through the doors we locked.

Now, the only thing that can separate me from God is me. We can still reject him and push him away because we are still free. But rather than allowing anything that we suffer to drive us away from God, let us be faithful and realize that mysteriously God is there with us in the midst of everything. With Thomas, let us see divinity even in the marks of death – even in our crosses. With Thomas of great faith, let us cry out, My Lord and my God!

[i] “Although the doors were closed he appeared to his disciples [and] took away their fear and granted them peace” (Stichera of Thomas Sunday).
[ii] Aposticha of Thomas Sunday
[iii] Aposticha of Thomas Sunday
[iv] Matt 16. John Meyendorff, ed., The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir, 1992), 70.
[v] “For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” – St. Irenaeus
[vi] Stichera of Thomas Sunday.
[vii] Stichera of Thomas Sunday 

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