Thomas Sunday, April 19, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is risen!
Here we stand, at the end of Renewal Week, also called Bright Week, and it is Thomas Sunday. We gather with the eleven disciples in that room with the doors shut, and the risen Lord Jesus enters into that room, shows Thomas His hands and His side, and Thomas believes in the resurrection, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
I would like to talk some more today about the resurrection of Jesus which we have just celebrated. So often big events in life are experienced in an intense rush in the moment, and then we have to spend some time unpacking what we have just experienced. Pascha strikes me as the same kind of thing, and it therefore makes sense to me that we keep celebrating it until the Ascension on the fortieth day.
When we experience Pascha, we experience it as great joy, as a great moment in the life of the Church. It is after a period of intense effort, fasting and prayer, and that makes it almost a relief. So even if at 1AM on that Sunday morning my back is aching and my eyes are half-closed and I want to be nowhere but in my bed, I have finally “made it” to Pascha! Thank God.
But if we leave it there, then we have celebrated Pascha without asking why it all matters. Yes, it is a relief to get to the finish line, but why did we run the race at all? Why is the resurrection of Jesus Christ worth celebrating with such power and joy?
In order to understand Pascha, we have to understand death. We have to understand that it is not only the thing that ends human life but is the thing that informs every piece of it. Every moment of our lives is affected by death.
Anyone who reaches about thirty years old knows that death comes visiting the human body. Things begin to slow down and don’t work like they used to. By the time you’re forty, you probably start thinking about actively fighting to keep the body going like it used to—exercise, diet, vitamins, etc. You also start to think things like, “I am probably halfway through my life.” And when you reach fifty or sixty, you become acutely aware that there are more years behind than ahead.
Death touches us in other ways, too. We watch people die. We watch our grandparents, our parents and our friends die. We see people dying on the news, whether far away or near to us. We pass by cemeteries. We see national debates about abortion and assisted suicide. Death is everywhere. People’s lives are being snuffed out, and their presence as persons disappears from this earth. We have lost them. We ache for the loss. We cannot escape this world of death.
But death actually touches us in a way that is probably far deeper than most of us realize, and it is at this level that I think we need to make the resurrection much more present for us than it usually is. Yes, we as Christians believe that we will rise again at the last day. Yes, we believe that our friends and our family and even the people who die in some foreign country will all be raised on the last day. Our bodies will be reunited with our souls, and death as a universal physical experience will be over. But death as an all-pervasive spiritual experience will also be over.
What does that mean?
In Hebrews 2:15, Paul says that people are in lifetime bondage to Satan because of the “fear of death.” That bondage to Satan is the bondage of sin, a slavery to the things that separate us from God.
We don’t usually feel sin as slavery, of course—we usually feel it as freedom. I am “free” to have sex outside of Christian marriage. I am “free” to treat others with disdain. I am “free” to be angry and violent. I am “free” to take what I want. I am “free” to disobey God and the commandments given in His Church. I am “free” to neglect worship and prayer. I am “free” to eat as much as I like all the time. I am “free” not to care.
But let’s think about why we feel sin as freedom. It is because, if we accept limitations on what we ought to be doing and thinking, then we experience those limitations as an impingement on our own sense of identity, our own desires.
I have constructed a life for myself, an identity for myself, and if someone says I ought to be doing something different, he is a threat. It’s that sense of threat that is what Paul identifies as the “fear of death.” I fear that my life will not continue the way I want it to, whether it is because of imminent physical death or even just the little deaths of impingement on my identity. “How dare you tell me that I cannot do what I want? This is who I am! How dare you tell me that I must do something I do not want to do? This is who I am! How dare you ask me to change? This is who I am!” Is that not what we feel when someone impinges upon our desires? It is the threat of death, and we are afraid. So we lash out. The way that we react is out of self-preservation. The way that we react is out of the fear of death.
This is the all-pervasive spiritual death that we all experience, that we all feel from the time we begin to be aware of ourselves as our own persons with our own desires. It’s even in small children.
Why does Paul call it “bondage”? Think about how hard you have to work to keep up that defensive posture. Think about all the things you do to keep anything from impinging on your desires, your identity. Have you ever been in an argument where you suddenly realized that you were wrong? How easy was it to change direction and admit it? Ever kept arguing just because you wanted to be right, even though you realized you were wrong? Like the Apostle said, it’s bondage. It’s slavery.
But the resurrection changes all that.
Because Christ is risen, death is overthrown. Because Christ is risen, the demons who tempt us are fallen. Because Christ is risen, not one dead remains in the grave.
There will come a day when all the dead in the graves will hear the voice of the Son of God and live (John 5:25), some to the resurrection of life and some to the resurrection of judgment. And then, all the desires and false identities that I have constructed for myself will not matter one bit. They will have died, and I will be raised. We all will be raised.
Whether I am raised to the resurrection of life will depend on whether I made the resurrection part of my life right now—not just then, on the last day, but now. I do not have to live in this fear of death. I do not have to let my desires control me. Is Pascha a part of my daily life? Am I partaking of Christ’s resurrection now? Am I letting my own identity that I have created for myself decrease, so that His identity in me may increase (John 3:30)? Is it no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me (Gal. 2:20)?
This is why we call Christianity “life.” Being a Christian, being in Christ, means that we have a new life, that even though the general resurrection has not yet happened, we have in baptism nevertheless been raised to newness of life (Rom. 6:4). We have already partaken of the resurrection of Christ. And so we already have a life that has resurrection about it, even though not yet in its fullness as it will be at the end of days.
Christ is our life, and when He returns, we will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:4). At the end of our Gospel passage, John tells us that he wrote everything in his Gospel so that we would believe and that we would have “life in His Name” (John 20:31), in the name of Jesus. And at the end of the passage we read today from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke says that the angel who set the Apostles free from imprisonment after they had been arrested for preaching said to them, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life” (Acts 5:20).
Why do I feel the way that I do at Pascha? It is because we have received “all the words of this Life.” It is because we believe, and believing, we have life in His name.
Resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus 2000 years ago, something proving that He is God and which we remember every year. It is not just something that is going to happen to all of us someday at the end of time.
Resurrection is now. Resurrection is the end of death. Death no longer has dominion over Him (Rom. 6:9), and if we are in Christ, it no longer has any dominion over us, either. We do not have to be enslaved to our fear of death!
We can let it go, we can be humble, we can let all the impingements come, all the threats to our identity and our desires come. Let them be not just threatened, but obliterated! Let us die to the world, be crucified with Christ, that we may live in Christ, that Christ may live in us, that we may see Him with Thomas and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”
We sing “Christ is risen” for forty days, but we proclaim His death and resurrection throughout all our lives. We do not have to fear! We do not have to worry over what might happen today or tomorrow or next week or year. We are being raised with Christ. Christ is risen, and nothing else matters.
To Him be glory and honor and might, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Christ is risen!