Friday, April 9, 2010

Sermon: Thomas Sunday (11 April 2010)

Sermon: Thomas Sunday (11 April 2010)
(Acts 5:27-32/Psalm 150/Revelation 1:4-8/John 20:19-31)

Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the week past (Pascha through the following Saturday) as Bright Week. It is the celebration – in time – of the Paschal’s candle’s witness in fire and light and the Exsultet’s proclamation in word and melody:

Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.

Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,
and let your holy courts, in radiant light,
resound with the praises of your people (BCP 286).

In an Eastern Orthodox church, the Royal Doors on the iconostasis – which conceal the altar and are kept closed throughout the year – are thrown open throughout Bright Week, a visible symbol that the stone sealing the tomb has been rolled away and that the glory of God in the face of the resurrected Christ is even now and will be evermore streaming forth and enlightening the world.

In chronos – clock-time – Bright Week lasts seven calendar days. In kairos – the time of God’s acting – Bright Week is but a single day, the eighth day of the week. In the creation account, God rested from his labors on the Sabbath, on the seventh day. The next day, Sunday, marked a commemoration of the first day of creation – a one-week anniversary. Likewise, in the Passion account, Christ’s body rested in the tomb on the Sabbath, on the seventh day. The next day – Pascha Sunday, the day of resurrection – is not just a commemoration of the first day of the old creation, but is the beginning of God’s new creation in Christ: if any man is in Christ – Behold! new creation (cf 2 Cor 5:17). The church found the existing calendar too small, too restrictive to account for this beginning of new creation and so itself created a new day – the eighth day – Bright Week to herald the restoration of all things through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Bright Week marks the day of God’s new creation.

No fasting is allowed during Bright Week, only feasting. The normal round of daily prayer services is replaced with the Paschal Hours, including these praises:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tombs bestowing life.

Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One. We worship Thy cross, O Christ, and Thy Holy Resurrection we hymn and glorify; for Thou art our God, and we know none other beside Thee, and we call upon Thy name. O come, all ye faithful, let us worship Christ’s holy Resurrection, for behold, through the Cross joy hath come to all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, we hymn His Resurrection; for, having endured crucifixion He hath destroyed death by death.

Bright Week is the church’s proclamation – in time – that in Christ new creation has begun: death has been conquered, hell has been vanquished, sin has been overcome, and man has been reconciled to God. Bright Week is the church’s proclamation – in time – that through his resurrection our Lord Jesus Christ has defeated all those powers – whether spiritual or earthly – arrayed against him and has become King and Lord of all creation.

Bright Week ushers in a new reality seen by those in Christ, seen by those who have seen the resurrection, a new reality that changes our relationship with all the powers that be. So, when Peter and the other apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest (cf Acts 5:27-32) – the religious powers that be – brought before the Sanhedrin for violating the council’s command to refrain from teaching in the name of Jesus, Peter gives a Bright Week response:

“We ought to obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. 31 Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:29b-32, NKJV).

And when John – who was certainly with Peter that day before the council – is exiled to Patmos by command of Imperial Rome, he greets the seven churches with a Bright Week doxology and blessing:

Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, 6 and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:4b-6, NKJV).

Peter and John see the new reality that the world cannot see – new creation and Jesus enthroned – because they have seen the resurrection. Peter and John live in Bright Week because they live in the reality of the resurrection.

Bright Week comes to a close – liturgically – today, on Thomas Sunday. The Royal Doors are closed, the Paschal Hours are no longer chanted daily, and the weekly fast days return. This liturgical practice presents a twist on history. For seven days the apostles, and other disciples as well, had lived in their own Bright Week; they had seen their resurrected Lord on Pascha. But not Thomas: Thomas still lived in the darkness of the crucifixion, in the gloom of a reality in which corrupt powers dominate and old creation winds down toward corruption and non-being. The others had told him of the resurrection; they had tried to usher him into Bright Week, but to no avail.

25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25, NKJV).
So Thomas, at least for the moment, shuts the doors on Bright Week. But, bidden or unbidden, doors open or shut, the resurrected Jesus has a way of breaking through.

26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And, just at the moment Bright Weeks ends for the church, it begins for Thomas – a twist of history: 28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:26-28, NKJV)!

Regardless of liturgical practice, in a sense the church lives continually in Bright Week: Christ, having risen from the dead will never die again; the gates of hell having been broken open will neither be rebuilt nor shut; new creation having begun will not cease until all is renewed and there is a new heaven and a new earth, a new and holy Jerusalem with God dwelling in the midst of his people. Each Sunday is a bright day, a liturgical reminder that we live our lives in Bright Week. And yet, the annual contrast of Bright Week and Thomas Sunday, the contrast of this day’s lessons, is a valuable reminder that much of the world still lives not in Bright Week, but as Thomas did: in a reality very different from ours, in a reality where sin dominates and the powers oppress and death is an ever-present companion, in a reality that has never experienced the resurrection. And so, Jesus commissions his church.

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18b-20, NKJV).

It is our vocation and our joy to announce the gospel – the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ – to all the world, to show to all those dwelling still in darkness the glories of Bright Week.

As tragic as it is for the world to dwell in darkness when Bright Week beckons, it is more tragic still when the church does so: when the church lives as if the resurrection never occurred, when the church lives as if new creation had not begun.

The church lives in darkness when it becomes re-entangled in the sin from which Christ’s death and resurrection set it free, when the church compromises with the culture to the extent that holiness is no longer the church’s driving passion.

The church lives in darkness when it bends the knee in worship before any authority save its resurrected Lord and Christ, when its chief loyalty is to nation or political party or social ideology or self-interest.

The church lives in darkness when it quakes in fear of any defeated enemy, even of death itself.

The church lives in darkness when it places its hope and trust in anything or anyone but Christ, whether in money or power or family or nation.

The church lives in darkness anytime it fails to lift its voice in the triumphant song: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. How appropriate and powerful it would be if the church – and those of us blessed to be part of the body of Christ – developed the habit of greeting any news – good and bad alike – with Christos anesti! Christ is risen! What proper perspective that would give everything. My wife and I exchanged the following brief emails during this Bright Week:

“The rain has come through Maryville. I have my windows open, the air is clean and cool, and the birds are singing. Christos anesti!”


“It is still raining in Oak Ridge. My nose is still stuffed up. The door is leaking. Alithos anesti!”

Yes, exactly.

Truth be told, though, it is hard sometimes to live in Bright Week, to insist that the true reality is the one hidden from human sight, the one perceived only by the purified heart, not least because Bright Week is an eschatological reality, a last-days reality: already present but not yet realized in its fullness. It is not unlike our own salvation: We are saved; we are being saved; and we hope one day to be saved completely. With the resurrection of Christ new creation has begun and is moving toward its fullness when Christ will return and God will be all and in all. But it is not there yet. With the resurrection of Christ all rival powers have been defeated and Christ has begun his reign. But the powers that be have not yet yielded or disarmed. With the resurrection of Christ death has been overcome by life. But death still has its brief moment in each life, before the final resurrection when we shall be forever with the Lord. And so we live in Bright Week in fits and starts, here and there catching a glimmer of the glory ahead, holding on to the hope the resurrection gives us. We need reminding that all this talk of resurrection and victory and new creation is true. So each year we light the Paschal candle and chant the Exsultet. Each year we greet one another with Christos Anesti! Alithos Anesti! Each year we break the Lenten fast with a week-long Paschal feast. Each year – in churches that have them – we throw open the Royal Doors and pray the Paschal Hours. In a Thomas world, we live – for a time at least – in Bright Week. And, as Bright Week draws to a close, we kneel with Thomas in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth and exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” because he is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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