On the Sunday of St. Thomas
Sermon by Fr. Antony Hughes for Sunday, May 4, 2008
The Reading is from John 20:19-31
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is Risen!
How does the Church view Thomas? Listen to the hymns of Orthros and Vespers. They speak volumes. “…thou didst not deem him unworthy for his lack of faith…” Another hymn recognizes that all the disciples were entertaining doubts, not Thomas alone. (Perhaps he was the one with the honesty to admit it.) In Thomas’ doubt the Church sees a remarkable opportunity. “Reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side. See and know; for thy lack of faith will teach everyone of my Passion and Resurrection.”
The Church also compares Thomas to the beloved apostle himself. “What a marvelous wonder! John leaned against the World’s bosom yet Thomas was made worthy to probe his side. Albeit that one drew from this the depths of theology and dread dispensation; this one was privileged to announce to us openly and reveal the mystery of Thy Resurrection, crying, My Lord and my God, glory to Thee.”
The Church sees in Thomas’ unbelief an opportunity for great faith. Thomas rose to the occasion recognizing Jesus and calling Him both Lord and God. In this example there is hope for all of us who find ourselves from time to time shaken by doubt. But doubt itself is not a sin because it can lead to a deeper and greater faith. If we choose to explore the doubt and search diligently for answers, then God will reveal Himself for doesn’t He tell us, “Seek and ye shall find; knock and the door will be opened for you”?
The Church views all human beings, even those hardened in sin, with great love and compassion. Did Jesus judge sinners with wrath and indignation? Never, except for hypocrites and Pharisees. Instead, with great tenderness, the Lord reaches out to bring light to their darkness like the woman caught in adultery, Zaccheus the unscrupulous tax collector and the adulteress who washed his feet with her tears. Does Jesus treat Thomas harshly? Not at all. I can almost see Jesus smile and wink at Thomas (whom He knew very well) when He said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” There is, I believe, remarkable love hidden in this personal exchange between Thomas and the Lord.
Jesus always ennobles the people He meets. There are, of course, those who refuse His love. Some leave troubled like the rich, young ruler who could not give up his attachment to his wealth to follow Jesus. Some leave with anger like the priests and Pharisees who saw in Jesus a threat to their power and position. Still Jesus reaches out to do or say something that potentially will bring life and illumination to those He meets. Those who accept His love find paradise and those who reject it find turmoil and suffering, but love is nonetheless what the Lord offers everyone. We are invited to share in His love, but we are free to reject it as well. Still He loves even those who reject Him. The choice is entirely ours.
We are called to imitate the Savior by loving everyone. The question we should always ask when dealing with another person is, “How can I ennoble this person? What can I do to make her life better? What blessing can I give? What can I share? How can I help?” If people reject the love we offer, what concern is that to us? The results are not in our hands. But if we refuse to offer love, then the problem clearly lies with us, not the other. God’s love is unconditional and so ours must be.
This is the source of the Orthodox Church’s understanding of heaven and hell. Thomas Merton wrote, “Our God...is a consuming fire. And if we, by love, become transformed into Him and burn as He burns, His fire will be our everlasting joy. But if we refuse His love and remain in the coldness of sin and opposition to Him and to other men then will His fire (by our own choice rather than His) become our everlasting enemy, and Love, instead of being our joy, will become our torment and our destruction.”
Fr. Thomas Hopko explains, “The final coming of Christ will be the judgment of all men. His very presence will be the judgment. For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death. According to the saints, the ‘fire’ that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom is the same ‘fire’ that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the fire of God’s love; the ‘fire’ of God Himself who is Love.” The cause of the weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell is Divine Love not Divine wrath. It is a punishment not imposed by God, but by us. The choice is entirely ours whether we will embrace God’s love or make the futile attempt to reject it. It is futile because nothing on heaven or earth can make God stop loving.
Further Fr. Thomas writes, “Thus it is the Church’s spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God’s splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject His radiant power and light.”
Thomas had this choice. He doubted, yes, but when presented with the Truth he immediately embraced it. He could have turned away and continued forever in the darkness of disbelief. The choice between heaven and hell was his that very day and he chose wisely. The same choice is presented to us day by day, moment by moment. If we refuse to love, then we have also chosen to reject God’s love. The anxiety we feel when we face those we will not love is the direct result of our personal rejection of God’s love in our lives.