Triumph and Transformation

Christianity is peculiar, there’s no doubt about that. We serve the crucified and risen Christ, who revealed Himself as God in the way that He died. Instead of self-fulfillment Christ offers us self-sacrifice; instead of power he offers us a cross. As Holy Week expertly teaches: we must go through the cross to get to the resurrection; there is no empty tomb without Golgotha. We learn that with God our expectations often go unmet, yet if we have patience, his plan transcends our expectations. The Jewish religious leaders of Christ’s day, and many of his own followers, did not grasp this concept. They wanted military triumph over the Romans and instead were offered a kingdom not of this world. They were so bent on victory in this life that they unwittingly rejected victory over sin and death.

I was thinking of these things as the Church celebrated the Sunday of St. Thomas, because a mere week after we share in the great Paschal triumph we are immediately confronted with the question of doubt. Courtesy of St. Thomas, our own doubts about Christ’s resurrection are brought to the forefront. But something different and altogether new sprang to my mind as I listened to the juxtaposition of the Epistle and Gospel readings. I found an entirely new way of thinking about the nature of doubt and the role it plays in our lives.

In the Epistle we are presented with the early days of the apostolic ministry and we are able to see the disciples, especially Peter, anew. They are boldly proclaiming Christ with little care of the consequences. It is even said that the sick were carried out on pallets that “as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” It was only a little over a week ago, during the Gospel readings of Holy Thursday, that we saw Peter, weak of will and overcome with cowardice, deny Christ three times. Yet here he is, so infused with the grace of the Holy Spirit that people crave a brief encounter with him. The Sadducees are so overcome with jealousy at this development that they throw the apostles in prison, yet again rejecting the work of God within their midst. Even this doesn’t dissuade the apostles from their work. They are set free from prison by an angel of the Lord, only to be charged: “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”

How powerfully this speaks to our own fears and doubts. It’s as if we instinctively want to turn victory into defeat. It’s one thing to believe in the reality of the crucified and risen Lord and quite another to act on that belief. And yet here we have a powerful testament to God’s ability to transform our doubts and us with them. We are often like Peter in the Gospels, unable to see God’s hand in the chaos and tragedy around us, so ready to give in to fear and doubt. We are more like the Jewish leaders than we give ourselves credit for, too…ready to abandon Christ when God’s plan doesn’t conform to our expectations. We forget that God is more than the God of triumph; he is also the God of transformation. To truly reflect Christ, we must take up our cross. We must also see our doubts about God’s ability to work in the trials and tragedies of our lives for the imposters they are. When St. Peter stood between Christ and the cross, Christ admonished him saying, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Similarly, we must not let our doubts get between us and the cross. For God’s grace to transform us, we must fight through our doubts, knowing that the cross always comes before the empty tomb. It isn’t the doubts that count, it’s our reaction to them. God is always waiting to transform us the way he transformed St. Peter.

Fr. John Ballard (SVOTS ’10) is the assistant priest at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in North Royalton, Ohio. He currently lives in Cleveland with his wife, Rebecca, who is a neonatology fellow at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. They have one child named Max and are expecting their second child at the end of May.

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