May 5, 2019 – Sunday of Thomas the Apostle – St. John 20:19-31
New Sunday or Anti-Pascha, Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin”
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.
This morning we are faced with an amazing turn of events! We spent last week shouting and rejoicing about the resurrection of Christ. We sang about it. We chanted it! We proclaimed this joy in English, Greek, Arabic, Slavonic, Serbian and a whole host of languages I don’t know and can’t understand. Then this morning we are hit in the face with this account of one who doubted this glorious news. Not just some bystander or passer-by – but one of the 12 apostles. Thomas’ response to the joyous news of the resurrection of Christ whom he had followed for the past 3 years was, “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.” The Apostle Thomas was born in the Galilean city of Pansada and was a fisherman. Hearing the good tidings of Jesus Christ, he left all and followed after him.
Here we are on the eighth day after the Resurrection, and doors, interestingly were still shut as the disciples were lock-up in the house, unsure of what to do next, and now the Lord appeared to the Apostle Thomas and showed him His wounds. “My Lord and my God,” the Apostle cried out (John 20:28). “Thomas, being once weaker in faith than the other apostles,” says St John Chrysostom, “toiled through the grace of God more bravely, more zealously and tirelessly than them all, so that he went preaching over nearly all the earth, not fearing to proclaim the Word of God to savage nations.”
Some icons depicting this event are inscribed “The Doubting Thomas.” Some have suggested that this is incorrect. In Greek, the inscription reads, “The Touching of Thomas.” In Slavonic, it says, “The Belief of Thomas.” When St Thomas touched the Life-giving side of the Lord, he no longer had any doubts. What is more, in the English language, the nickname of “Doubting Thomas” can convey the false impression of Thomas as being timid, lacking the full conviction of faith, or even being cowardly; this concept of Thomas is neither historical nor Biblical, except in consideration of the vitally important moment in which Thomas touched the Resurrected Christ; the momentary sinful fluctuation in faith being spectacularly reversed through Divine Grace as an opportunity to validate the bodily Resurrection. In John 11:16, Thomas expressed a desire to die with the Lord, in response to the other disciples’ fear that the Pharisees would seek to kill Jesus should they re-enter Judea. The notion of Thomas as wavering or cowardly in his faith can be further dispelled in light of the Church Tradition regarding his evangelism, according to which, the holy Apostle founded Christian churches in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Ethiopia and India.
Preaching the Gospel earned the holy Apostle Thomas a martyr’s death. For having converted the wife and son of the prefect of the Indian city of Meliapur, the holy apostle was locked up in prison, suffered torture, and finally, pierced with five spears, he departed to the Lord. Part of the relics of the holy Apostle Thomas are in India, in Hungary and on Mt. Athos.
Due to his evangelism in Syria and Persia, the Holy Apostle is highly regarded within the Eastern Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Church of Antioch (Syriac), and in the Assyrian Church of the East. The Christian community in India is known as the St. Thomas Christians on account of the tradition that holds St. Thomas as their founder.
The Apostle Thomas should therefore be considered not merely as “Doubting Thomas”, but rather, as someone whose faith did waver at one crucial moment, yet through the divine grace of Christ, this wavering was reversed into an opportunity for the demonstration of the actual bodily resurrection of the Lord. The Apostle Thomas should also be remembered as a great evangelist; just as Peter and Paul made their way to Rome to evangelize the gentiles therein, and Andrew proceeded to the Northwest, Thomas ventured East in order to spread the same Gospel of peace. As we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we remember today how Thomas was transformed from a skeptic into a believer, and ultimately into a martyr who gave the ultimate witness for His Savior’s great victory over death. Since Thomas was not present when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, he doubted their testimony. That is why we know him as “doubting Thomas,” but we should also remember how the apostles had doubted the testimony of the women who first heard the news of the resurrection from the angel. No one had anticipated the Lord’s rising, and the news of someone’s resurrection from the dead after public crucifixion and burial for three days was simply outrageous.
People of that time and place were more familiar with death than most of us are today. In comparison with our society, their infant mortality rates were much higher, their lifespans were usually much shorter, and they themselves prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. They knew all about death. As well, they knew that Roman soldiers were seasoned professional experts in administering a long, painful execution. Joseph of Arimathea removed the Lord’s dead body from the cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him. The women went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Savior’s dead body. None of them had any illusions about what death meant. There could have been nothing more shocking to them in the world than the unexpected and unbelievably good news that “Christ is risen!” And quite understandably, Thomas did not believe in the resurrection until the Lord appeared to Him, still bearing His wounds, and invited Him to touch His Body. Then Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
It is my observation that there may be at least two different kinds of DOUBT. There is the DOUBT which says: “I don’t believe, and you can’t convince me!” That DOUBT is arrogant, self-assured and prideful. That doubt says, “I don’t believe and there’s nothing you can do to convince me otherwise. Don’t confuse me with the facts!” You and I, both, know people like this and these people break my heart. No matter what I might be able to say or do – this DOUBT is nearly inconvincible. These DOUBTERS are unaware of the facts and the truth and don’t want to risk knowing anything differently. Our response to these kinds of DOUBTERS is to pray for them and love them.
The second kind of DOUBTERS are like Thomas. They are without the facts. They simply want to see what others have already seen. They can be convinced with the right set of facts. Our response is to give them the truth and let God do a work in their hearts. They can become great evangelists and missionaries. They will help take the message to others if they can see the facts clearly – just like Thomas.
Last night in the hymns of Great Vespers Thomas’ DOUBT was called “beautiful unbelief”. The Church teaches of the importance of this encounter of Christ and Thomas was to show that Christ, even in His resurrected state, was still fully God and fully man. The scripture passage in the gospel of St. John says, “The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them”. No one knocked on the door. No one let Christ in. He was able to appear before them in a locked room – fully God. Yet, 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.” His body was able to be felt. His wounds were still there. He who was able to heal others and restore the imperfections of bodily wounds and illness was still wounded and Thomas was able to feel those wounds – fully man. Why? So that Thomas would believe and those throughout south Asia would hear the life-changing message throughout their lands and come to know and believe in Christ our Savior. This “DOUBTER was fully convinced once he saw the facts. He was willing to give it all up to take this message of the resurrected and life-changing Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, as Christ had commanded the disciples.
We should not be surprised that many people today continue to doubt the truth of Christ’s resurrection. Such a unique and astonishing event is a great challenge to accept, for it is contrary to what we know about death in this world. But perhaps it is precisely the difficulty of believing in the resurrection that invites us to deep, personal faith in our Savior’s great victory over the grave. We don’t need much faith in order to agree that water freezes at a certain temperature, as a little experimentation with a thermometer will remove all doubt. We don’t need much faith in order to believe that it is better to lead a morally decent life than one characterized by dishonesty and murder. In one way or another, virtually all cultures and religions teach that. But if we are going to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who rose victorious over death and made even the grave an entryway to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom, then we need the kind of faith that takes root to the very depths of our souls.
That kind of faith is not like the rational certainty that we have about the temperature at which water freezes. Instead, it is the kind of faith that requires trust in giving our lives to that which is not obvious; it requires profound commitment and sacrifice. For example, the love of spouses for one another and for their children is not a rational theory based on objective experimentation or historical research. It is known only through experience; it becomes real through a thousand acts of putting one another and the children before themselves. It changes them. It requires a kind of martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of others. There is a depth of love in marriage and family that it is simply impossible to know and experience without such sacrifice.
The same is true of our knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection. To say the least, it would be very hard to give an account of the origins of Christianity without Him actually rising in glory. A few questions make this point clear. For example, why would His followers have made up such an unbelievable story about a dead man, and then gone to their deaths out of faithfulness to a lie about a failed Messiah? Why would they have concocted a story in which women, who were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that culture, provided the foundational testimony to such an astounding miracle? Had they made up the resurrection, why would they have included in the gospels so much material that describes how they totally misunderstood Christ’s prediction of His own death and resurrection and then abandoned Him at the crucifixion? Apart from the truth of His resurrection, the rise of the Christian faith makes no sense.
Nonetheless, many skeptics will, like Thomas, still be doubtful that something so contrary to our experience of the world actually happened. Here we must remember that Thomas came to faith not due to rational arguments or historical research, but because of seeing the risen Lord before His own eyes. Since we live after the Ascension, we do not see Him in that way today. But the root meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and from the very origins of the faith countless people have given the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over death by going to their deaths out of faithfulness to Him. All the apostles, with the exception of John, did so. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Their powerful example has, and still does, bear witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection. In them, we see the Savior’s victory over death with our own eyes.
Today we also commemorate the Great-martyr Irene of Thessalonica, born in the city of Magedon in Persia during the fourth century. She was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Penelope was very beautiful, and her father kept her isolated in a high tower from the time she was six so that she would not be exposed to Christianity. He also placed thirteen young maidens in the tower with her. An old tutor by the name of Apellian was assigned to give her the best possible education. Apellian was a Christian, and during her lessons, he taught the girl about Christ the Savior, the Christian Faith, and Christian virtues. Penelope refused to marry, was baptized by the priest Timothy, and was renamed Irene (“peace”). She even urged her own parents to become Christians. Shortly afterwards, she destroyed all her father’s idols. Since St. Irene had dedicated herself to Christ, she refused to marry any of the suitors her father had chosen for her. When King Licinius learned that his daughter refused to worship the pagan gods, he was furious. He attempted to turn her from Christ by having her tortured. She was tied up and thrown beneath the hooves of wild horses so that they might trample her to death, but the horses remained motionless. Instead of harming her, one of the horses charged Licinius, seized his right hand, and tore it from his arm. The horse then knocked Licinius down and began to trample him. St. Irene demanded to be untied, and through her prayers, Licinius was unharmed with his hand still intact. Seeing such a miracle, Licinius, his wife, and over 3,000 others professed Christ and turned from the pagan gods. Resigning his administrative duties, Licinius devoted himself to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. For refusing to worship pagan gods, St. Irene endured horrible tortures and throughout her life for Christ. From the apostolic age to today, countless Christians have done what St. Thomas and St. Irene did in showing steadfast personal commitment to the Lord literally to the point of death. They do so because they know the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not as an abstract idea or merely something that they accepted as having happened long ago, but as the real spiritual experience of participating in eternal life. They see the Body of Christ, the Church, bearing witness to a life that shines brilliantly in holiness in contrast to the darkness of the world. Even when they died as a result, the early Christians cared for the sick with contagious diseases. They rescued abandoned children, gave generously to the poor, and pursued chastity in the relationship between man and woman. They refused to worship other gods, even when that led to certain torture and death. They loved and forgave their enemies, even as the persecuted Christians of the Middle East do to this very day in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and many other countries.
We may not be physical martyrs in the sense that they are, but we still must bear witness to the resurrection of Christ. We do that by providing evidence of His victory over death in how we live our lives. Thomas came to faith when He saw the glorified Body of the Risen Lord. We must live as those who have passed over in Him from slavery to sin and death to the glorious freedom of eternal life. Our lives must shine brightly with the holy joy of the resurrection if anyone is to believe that “Christ is risen!”
Indeed, we ourselves will not truly believe that glorious news unless we personally rise with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness. True faith in the risen Lord is not a mere idea but requires deep personal commitment and self-sacrifice. His astounding victory is neither a rational concept nor just another truth of the natural world known by experimentation. To know His resurrection is to know Him, and that requires dying to self out of love from the depths of our souls. It requires a form of martyrdom, an offering of our flesh and blood to the One Who makes us mystical participants in His Flesh and Blood in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. Even as we receive Him as our Lord and our God, just as Thomas boldly proclaimed in today’s gospel lesson, let us bear witness to His glorious resurrection in how we live each day. That is the only way to follow Thomas in moving from doubt to true faith. It is the only way to say with integrity “Christ is risen!”
(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”