|Homily for Thomas Sunday 2009|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen! Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
Today’s Gospel reading inspires many to write about doubt. Many will point to Thomas, Doubting Thomas, and show how he was brought from doubt to faith and how doubt and faith can coexist. This is true, and it is important to note. There is, however, a very important passage in today’s Gospel that doesn’t get as much “press” as it were. It is a very important passage to contemplate in a Gospel reading that is full of many deep theological truths. This passage is:
“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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.”
In this one sentence we hear the purpose for the writing of the Scriptures: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing you may have life in His name.” Encapsulated in these few words is the essence of the life in Christ. Note that I did not say the Christian life, but the life in Christ. Anyone can live a “Christian life,” that is, a life based on Christian ethics or ideas and practices, but the question is does everyone who lives a Christian life have a life in Christ?
Before we dig into that question, let us look at the purpose, again, of Scriptures and more specifically the New Testament, though all Scriptures serve the same purpose. The Scriptures were written so that we may believe and once we believed we’d live the life in Christ.
The first thing we note from today’s reading is that the Scriptures are incomplete…or rather they do not exhaust the actions and teachings of Christ to His disciples. This is important to note when we consider that part of the teaching of the Church comes from an unwritten Tradition, an oral Tradition. Indeed, it was a long time before the Scriptures were written down and then bound together into the recognizable Bible we have today. The Church got on for decades before a pen was put to paper (or papyrus or parchment) by any of the Apostles or their companions. The Scriptures do not tell us every historical detail, fact, impression, gesture or word of Christ. Just enough is given to guide us to belief. The Bible is a guide book, a travelogue, if you will. It is not the journey itself.
One of the most important things I ever read in my formation as an Orthodox Christian came from Fr. John Romanides of blessed memory. He wrote:
… the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, and the decisions of Synods are not revelation, but about revelation. Revelation itself transcends words and concepts, although it inspires those participating in divine glory to accurately express what is inexpressible in words and concepts.
These are words which stunned me when I first read them. Looking at the analogy of the Bible as a travel guide, though, helps in understanding them. Reading a book about traveling to a faraway land is not the same as visiting it. The travel guide can lead you to the right path, but we have to walk that path ourselves. We cannot call ourselves a pilgrim to the Hoy Land if we’ve only read about it in National Geographic. A poem about a sunset can inspire us to desire to see the sunset and to appreciate it when we do see it, but we have to see the sunset to have experienced it. In Scriptures we will not meet God face to face, but we will read about that meeting and will be given some teachings on how to go about that meeting. We can be led to belief, but belief is not the end of the journey. It is the beginning. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” writes John the Theologian. Then he adds the crucial part, “and that believing you may have life in His name.” Here we come to the important part, the life in Christ.
If the Bible is about the revelation of God and not the actual revelation, how does one go further? When the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading from Isaiah he was asked by the Deacon Philip if he understood what he read. The Eunuch answered “how can I unless someone guides me?” St. Philip then guided the Eunuch to faith and he was baptized and went his way rejoicing. He learned about Jesus in the Scriptures. He was united to Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism where, as we have just been recently singing, he put on Christ.
It is the God-bearing Fathers of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit that can guide us to our own experience of the Risen Christ. And by God-bearing Fathers, I do not mean just those Fathers of the past who have been long in their graves (and yet live in Christ still) and whom we quote so fondly, but also the living Fathers and Mothers who are living the life in Christ today and are illumined by the Holy Spirit. There are still holy people who live lives of illumination. Some are monks, though not all monks are holy or illumined; some are priests, though not all priests are holy or illumined (many are not); some are bishops, deacons, and some are among the laity living lives of humility and godly peace. These are people who have lived and continually live the experience of Pentecost. They are like St. Mary of Egypt who had never read the Scriptures but new them by heart. They are like the elders on Mount Athos who can see into a man’s heart, tell him with holy love what darkness resides in the man’s heart and what needs to be healed….and then those elders can help heal that man….
It is important to note, though, that while these God-inspired can lead people to the experience of God, it is the Holy Spirit that is the cause of the experience. The Spirit is not a faucet that can be turned on and off at our whim. The Fathers can teach us how to prepare ourselves to receive the gift. Fr. John Romanides says it better than I: “language can point to, but cannot convey, this experience. The spiritual father can guide a person to, but cannot produce, the experience which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.”
“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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.” Now that we believe (and pray, “help Thou my unbelief”), now that we struggle to live a Christian life, the life of prayer and fasting, the life of the ethics taught by Christ and His Apostles, now is the time for us to seek to truly live the life in Christ. In this we are not alone. We have guides in the writings of the Holy Fathers, we have guides in those who are living holy and God illumined lives. It is up to each of us to seek them out, and most of all to seek, with fervent love, for Christ in everything we do. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you,” says the Lord, but we must do the asking, do the seeking, and do the knocking. It won’t be done for us. Scriptures are part of the answer. They are the guidebook we will carry, but the journey is to be undertaken if we are to reach the destination.
CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos