Thomas Sunday Sermon, 2008
For the forty days of Pascha we sing: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.
There are many consequences of the Resurrection: the Opening of Paradise, the harrowing of Hades, the defeat of Death as the final fate of man, all of these are essential aspects of the Resurrection. In today’s gospel, the reality of the Risen Christ is emphasized. He was flesh and blood, and yet a flesh and blood changed, transfigured, able to enter locked rooms. St. Paul tells us that we too shall be like him when our bodies are resurrected!
But there is another aspect, pointed out in today’s gospel that bears our attention. If we look at the first of the two appearances of the Risen Jesus mentioned, we read the following: “Jesus breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit, Whosoever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
This is amazing. Before, Jesus had given his apostles some authority to cast out demons, heal physical ailments and such. Only Jesus himself had ever said to anyone ‘your sins are forgiven.’ This was in fact one of His most provocative acts. His critics responded with an unintended prophetic question, “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” In forgiving sins, Jesus asserted Himself as the co-equal Son of God.
But now, after his Death and Resurrection, he gives this authority to the apostles!
This authority to forgiven or retain sins is intimately connected to the Resurrection in that it is given by Jesus to His first post-Resurrection appearance to the Apostles. He breathes on them, giving them a measure of the Holy Spirit and then shares His authority with them. The Spirit, of course would be necessary for such divine action.
In giving this authority to the Apostles, Jesus reveals the aspect of spiritual healing integral to the Resurrection. St Paul is clear in his letter to the Romans where he writes that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). So it would seem logical to say that sin is a big problem. Of course, the Crucifixion is the solution of the problem, a solution revealed in the Resurrection. However, the plain truth is that even baptized, believing Christians continue to sin. We need ongoing forgiveness. To put it another way, we are not only waiting for the Final Day (when all will be raised) to experience Resurrection. We are waiting for that Day, but we are also straining ahead to attain as much of the Resurrection as possible now.
This is why Jesus gave the authority to forgive and retain sins to his apostles and from the apostles this is passed down in the Church to the bishops and priests. It is a necessary part of our salvation, of our Resurrection. This authority is given to the Church for the benefit of the members.
The most important gifts of God we call Mysteries, or Sacraments, and this gift we usually call Holy Confession, but there are other names we should be familiar with: Reconciliation, Repentance, New Baptism. All of these apply. Reconciliation because our sin estranges us from God and our fellow man, Repentance because emotional guilt over sin is not enough, we must declare our hatred of sin and our determination to turn away from it and towards God, New Baptism because this Sacrament restores our baptismal purity and reminds us, nay re-presents to us the Christian life to which we must aspire.
So the Resurrection is not only a promise of eternal life, it is not only a promise that when this world passes away we will be raised with transfigured even spiritual bodies, it is participation in the Resurrected One even now. This is given to us in all of the mysteries/sacraments, but especially in Holy Confession, where the power of the Holy Spirit enables mere men (and unworthy ones at that) to administer the forgiveness of God Himself. Is not God generous and good beyond description?
Do you count yourself among those who believe in the Resurrection and are blessed by Jesus in today’s gospel, “those who have not seen and yet believe”? Then you should also believe in that gift given to us in gospel today: the loosing of our sins. It is a part of our Resurrection, let us thank God for it and avail ourselves of it.
And in so doing, let us say with St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Fr Michael Laffoon graduated from St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary in 1986 and has been the pastor of St. Mark Antiochian Orthodox Church of Irvine, California for nearly 22 years.