Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Do you trust?

Only John’s Gospel makes Thomas a significant character. The other three Gospels merely list him as one of the disciples. In John’s version of the life and teachings of Jesus, Thomas figures in three episodes. In the Lazarus episode, when Jesus decides to go to raise Lazarus, Thomas says, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) A strange saying. Did he say it sarcastically?

At the last supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them, so that they might be with him. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:4-7)

And then there is the episode we read today, on this Sunday of Thomas. Thomas stands apart from the other disciples, because of his disbelief. Perhaps that is the reason why he went in the opposite direction from the other disciples. While they went north and west and south, church tradition tells us that he went east, to India. Most Christian churches in India claim Thomas as their founder. Maybe he even traveled as far as Missouri, the “Show Me State” – because Thomas is a show-me kind of person.

He refuses to accept resurrection on hearsay, he wants to experience it directly. He is very modern. And indeed, we the modern followers of Jesus, are blessed because we believe though we have not seen. Remember the Beatitudes in Matthew? Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…? Add another beatitude from today’s Gospel reading: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Belief is the central message. Note how John ends the narrative: 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. 

Believe in order to have life. Jesus did not come so that we would believe in certain statements about God and Jesus. Yes, the Creed is important and is valuable as a community statement of commitment – as we do at every Liturgy. But Jesus came with a message – and we are not called to believe the message, but rather to live the message! And that is why Jesus gave a new commandment: that we love one another, that we love as Christ loved us, that we love as the Father loves the Son!

When Jesus or the Gospel said “Believe” it meant “Trust”. Do you trust the Lord enough to do what he commands? That’s the key question for us today.

He breathed on them, Receive the holy spirit. This is not Pentecost, or a preview of Pentecost! This is an echo of Genesis, when God breathed into Adam, and Adam became a living being (Genesis 2:7). It was the breath of life in Genesis – it is the breath of new life here! Both in Hebrew (rûaḥ) and in Greek (pneuma), the word translated as spirit also means breath, wind.

Receive holy spirit (pneuma aghion) – receive the spirit that allows you to forgive one another. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. This is is not a granting of power to the disciples! This is a responsibility, a heavy responsibility! Think how serious it is if you don’t forgive! The spiritual damage that can result from an unforgiving heart – both to the person who is not forgiven and to the person who refuses to forgive. The consequences could very well be eternal. Human spirit cannot fathom this, only a spirit of holiness, a spirit of new life, a spirit of divine grace, can understand the meaning of forgiveness! This is powerful stuff, that has been turned into priestly authority by the church. “Sad” – as our President might tweet.

All translations use capitals: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But the Greek text of the New Testament never uses capitals, even for God. We add the capitals. And perhaps we miss the real weight of Jesus’ words and action. He breathed on them and said, “Receive holy spirit.” Only by a spirit that is holy can we truly live, truly love and forgive. Do we trust enough to live in holiness? May the breath of Christ give us life today!


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True Images

 

The book of Exodus describes the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the long journey through the wilderness. The people were quickly frustrated by their escape from Egypt and they turned against Moses and his god, lamenting that perhaps they were better off as slaves in Egypt! It’s perfectly normal in human nature to do this: After the exhilaration and the excitement of liberation comes the harsh reality. Faced with the harsh realities of life, most people are willing to give up even their freedom!

Idolatry is at the very heart of human existence, and we each have our own idols. Some are religious idols; some are idols of achievement; some are idols of physical appearance and attractiveness; etc. And the greatest idol, of course, is money. Almost every human being worships that idol. So when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, idolatry was confronted head on. You shall have no other god… You shall make no image… You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain… You shall honor the Sabbath… You shall not covet. Five of the ten commandments are explicitly against idolatry! No other gods… no images or statues… no use of God’s name the way idol-worshippers use the names of their gods, for magic and manipulation… honor the Sabbath – a protection against enslavement to money and earthly masters… do not covet – coveting is the root of the idolatry of money!

But when Moses went back up on the mountain to receive further instructions from God, the people quickly gave in to idolatry. He took too long up on the mountain; maybe he’s abandoned the people; maybe his god deceived them to take us out of Egypt so they can die of hunger and thirst in the desert. Build us an idol, Aaron, another god we may worship, a god we can see! This is the comfort that idols bring – they are gods we can see. Money is a god we can see. Images and statues we can see. A god who does not reveal himself and only speaks to one man – well, maybe that’s not a god we want to trust or believe in.

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The Old Testament injunction against images is something that the Orthodox Church has had to face throughout its history because icons are such an important part of our tradition. We have good theological reasons for icons, and we certainly are not bound to the commandments and laws of ancient Israel. But even though we can work our way around the commandments of Sinai, the danger of idolatry persists and is a constant temptation. And let’s face it: rules didn’t work for the ancient Israelites, they don’t work for us either. So God found another way – the way of Pentecost.

Back in the First Book of Kings we read of Elijah on a mountain. “And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12) – all external manifestations of power, but God was not in any of them; God was in the small voice instead. In the ancient world there were gods of thunder and storms; gods of earthquakes and fire. All the powers of nature were associated with gods. But not the God of Israel, who preferred the still small voice. 

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But notice what happened on the day of Pentecost. “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). A mighty wind and fire! Just as with Elijah – but with a difference, a big difference. The wind and the fire were no longer the weapons of fictional gods; they were now the message of the coming of the Holy Spirit. For pagans, the forces of nature were controlled by gods and were used to strike fear and superstition into people. On Pentecost, God chose these forces of wind and fire to announce a new way. Wind and fire, to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit to drive away evil from our hearts and to cleanse us and inspire us to new life, new hope and vision! And the Gospel gives us an even third image for the Holy Spirit: rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Water, the greatest power on earth; the power that can erode whole mountains and continents given enough time! Water destroys when its fury is unleashed; and yet water is the source of all life.

Wind, fire and water – images of God’s power to transform our lives. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may have appeared as a dove at the baptism of Jesus – but we do a great disservice when we turn the Holy Spirit into a bird! Not a bird, not a plane, not Superman – but the infinite power of God. Pentecost provides us with the truest images of God. Tongues of fire rested on each disciple in Jerusalem. May tongues of fire rest on every one of us today and every day: the Holy Spirit in our lives!