St. Thomas Sunday Homily; A Meditation on Love (and doubt)

Gospel Reading:  St. John 20:19-31

Love is Always Personal

There is no such thing as love in the abstract; it is not a phenomenon that can be measured in a laboratory, isolated from everything else.  It is always personal. 

You all know what sacrifice looks like.  You have done it in your lives and you have seen it done with your own eyes.  Think of an example of sacrifice; an example that you know really well.  Now is it possible to imagine that act of sacrifice apart from the person who is doing it?  Of course not.  There is no sacrifice without someone – a living, breathing person – actually giving up blood, sweat, and tears on behalf of someone or something else.Our Homes and Parishes Must BE Safe

It is the same with love (indeed, sacrifice is a sort of synonym for love).  There must always be someone that has opened themselves up to another; someone that has opened themselves up to the extent that they would sacrifice for another; someone that has opened themselves up so that they could receive the sacrifice of another; someone that has opened themselves up so that the joys and hardships of another are felt as their own; someone that has opened themselves up so that a bond of shared life and shared identity could be nurtured and enjoyed. 

It is this simple truth about the personal nature of love and sacrifice that makes what we do here – what we call “Orthodoxy”, or “Christianity”, or, as the early practitioners did, simply “The Way” – both real and effective.  God’s love for us is personal.  It is sacrificial.  And it allows us to live a bond with Him, His mercy, His strength, and His joy, that will last forever.

The Relational Love of Mothers

“How wonderful is the relationship between mother and child! Love and sacrifice on the one side, and faith and dependence on the other. Has a child any other path to happiness than that of faith in its mother and obedience to her?  Is there anything more monstrous than a child that has no faith in its mother, and does not obey her?”  St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Homily for St. Thomas Sunday

Teachers often use this technique: they take something that is generally known and understood to help explain something that is not understood as well.  In this quote, St. Nikolai (a seminary professor at St. Tikhon’s) is using our experience of the relationship between a child and its mother to help us understand how love and faith work together for the proper development of the human person through Christ God.

As I was saying earlier, the love that a mother offers is not abstract, it is very personal.  It involves real connections, real pain, and very real joy.  It shows how the merging of two lives can be a blessing to both the mother and the child, but most especially to the child; for without a child a woman can still enjoy the fruits of love with other family members and friends, but children that grow up without a mother (or with a mother that constantly betrays their trust) have a hard time making healthy connections throughout their life.

The Role of Faith in Love and Development

The role of faith in this relationship between the mother and her child is critical.  I want you to note that the faith of a child in its mother is not an intellectual faith; it is something that is nurtured before rationality kicks in.  I am even willing to say that that it – and the safety it provides – allows for the healthy development of logic and investigation.  Healthy children can question everything because they know that there is a safe reality that is always there for them.  This reality is not something that they have deduced from evidence, but is the very context of their life; a reality that has been demonstrated and reinforced from the time they were conceived.

Ideally, this is how it is with us and our relationship with God. 

As St. John explained last week in the Paschal Gospel (and I am paraphrasing); “to as many as have faith, to them He has given the power to become the sons and daughters of God.” (St. John 1:12)

Again, the relationship between faith and the unity of the parent and child are underscored.  Orthodox practice is built with an understanding of this dynamic.  For example:

  • Want to know why we baptize, confirm, and commune infants and children?  It is because the Church is the home and family of those infants and children, and we want them to grow from the inside of the family, not have to petition at some “age of reason” to claim their inheritance and place at the family table (yes, there are high chairs at the Lord’s Banquet!).
  • Want to know why we call our priests “father” and their wives “mother” and why we have clerics to administer the mysteries of the Church in the first place?  It is because the Church is our home and family; and while God is the ultimate Father of this family, the priest acts as His surrogate in daily life (see St. John 20:23 from today’s Gospel reading).

The Place of Doubt in the Family and the Church

Here is something critical that flows from everything above: doubt is not our enemy.  It is not to be feared, admonished, or defeated. 

I talked with a Christian once who was really struggling with her faith.  Thank God, we were able to talk for quite a while.  Come to find out, the problem was not about the facts of Christianity, but a problem of belonging.  She did not feel as though she was part of the family of God.  Come to find out, when she was young, she took their questions and uncertainty to her priest.  His response was “have faith and it will be okay.”  From that time on, she thought their doubts represented a lack of faith and that this made her an outsider, as if she could only belong if their thoughts aligned in some perfect and expected way.  She felt like a fraud and a hypocrite when she came to church.  I gave this person some reading to help deal with the specifics of science and Orthodoxy, but the thing she really needed was to know that God’s love was not contingent on the way her mind works. 

I don’t think this woman is an isolated case.  I think we’ve generally handled doubt poorly.  That has to change.

One of the beautiful things about a loving home is the safety it provides.  This is especially true when it comes to doubt.  The healthy family provides a safe place for skepticism and questioning.  The mother and father provide guidance and limits; but mostly they provide a positive and secure environment where doing the right thing feels good and natural.  Science has demonstrated that this environment is by far the most important thing that parents can provide.  Doubts and how they are handled take place within that loving context.  Children are always the beloved of their parents, and parents are always willing to sacrifice and die for them.  No child should ever be made to feel that their safety or belonging is contingent on the questions they ask.   Properly handled, doubts give rise to better understanding; the mind has been designed to learn within the context of a loving family and a supportive community.  The mind thrives when the heart is protected, nurtured, and bolstered by the love of others.

It is the same with doubt in the Church.  The parish has to be a safe place for developing minds to ask questions.  Our Father provides guidance and sets limits for our protection; but most of all He has provided us with a place where doing the right thing – to include trusting Him and having faith in Him – feels natural and good.  Doubts are going to come up.  Properly handled, the addressing of doubts will give rise to better understanding; this is how the mind works.  And, to repeat the point, minds develop and work best when the heart is protected, nurtured, and bolstered by the love of others.

Conclusion: Thomas the Believer, His Doubt, and Parish Culture

Let me conclude with the example of Saint Thomas.  You heard his objections in today’s Gospel reading: he had spent the last three years with Jesus.  Now his fellow disciples shared their joy of being with the risen Lord.  No doubt the myrrh-bearing women and the two disciples who met him on the road to Emmaus also told them of their joy at seeing the risen Lord.  But Thomas was adamant: he would not accept this until he experienced it himself.

How did the other disciples react?  Did they throw him out from their midst?  Did they kick him out of their fellowship, telling him that he could not be their brother unless he believed them?  Did they attack him and question his faith in Christ? 

No.  In fact, he remained with them.  Their community – and the faith of the community – was strong enough to support him through his questioning.  Their fellowship was a loving one, a safe place where members could ask questions without other people getting defensive – or aggressive!  This was how he was able to be there with them the very next Sunday when Christ appeared and allayed Thomas’ doubts. 

This is the kind of fellowship, the kind of parish, that we are called to create.  In today’s Gospel, Christ commissions His disciples to continue the work His Father sent Him to do.  He confirms this “Great Commission” forty days after His Resurrection when He commands us to make disciples of “all nations”.  After all, it is God’s desire that “all be saved and come to a knowledge of the Truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4).  But knowing what we now know about the relationship of faith, doubt, and love, how should we proceed?  How can we introduce others to the “good news” of Christ’s resurrection God’s plan to adopt us all as His sons and daughters? 

Like sacrifice and other aspects of love, sharing the Gospel cannot take place in the abstract; it is always personal.  Words about God – true words! – cannot be treated as isolated facts to be shared like the results of some experiment.  They need to be shared within the context of fellowship and trust.  People argue about religion all the time on social media, but have you ever seen anything good come out of the resulting sharing of information?  Not a chance.  Ditto for beating people over the head with the Jesus Stick.  People are not impressed with our dogmas; Jesus did not say others would know us by what we know.  People are impressed with the way we live; Jesus said people would know us by our love (St. John 13:35)

The Lord tells us that He is present whenever two or more gather in His name.  This past Monday, we heard how He made Himself known in the “breaking of the bread”.  People do not decide to accept God’s offer of adoption because of arguments, they accept it because they have experienced it – or seen it – in the lives of others.  If Christ is in and among us, then people will know us by our love, and that love will be patient with their questions and give them the safe space they need to challenge the nature and Truth of what we have and offer to them.  And if we do it well, if we have fostered the kind of culture the disciples did and that every parish should, then the choice to live a life in Christ will seem natural and good.  People who know such love from the inside do not ask “do I have to believe this”, they ask “can I believe it”.  And the truth is that they can and will, just as we could and do.

This is the work we have before us.  May God strengthen us as we do this thing.