St. Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry
A Labor of Love of Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC
Homily for Saint Thomas Sunday
Fr. Steven Webb
Christ is Risen!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the life of one of the most fascinating Apostles, Saint Thomas. Of course, we know from today’s Gospel, Thomas had doubts concerning the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s also important to note, as we heard in the Matins Gospel last night, that after the Resurrection, Christ appeared to the other Apostles and, even though He was right in front of them, some also doubted. They told Thomas, who had been absent, and he boldly stated that he would not believe until he put his fingers into the holes in our Savior’s body! When Doubting Thomas was offered this chance, he immediately proclaimed Christ’s true identity by saying, “My Lord, my God!”
The message of the Church and her Saints is clear: Whoever has not come to this point of total belief, and does not abide there, does not yet believe in the Lord as he should. For us Orthodox Christians the confession that Christ is Lord and God is, as they say, “baked in the cake “. It’s in our prayers, our services and it’s codified in our very Creed.
The confession that Jesus is Lord and God is the foundation of Orthodox Christian Faith. It’s born out of experience and, just as for St. Thomas, we also must have this experience, not just know it intellectually. In fact, if we don’t believe that Jesus Christ is both Lord and God, then we partake unworthily if we consume His Body and Blood. That’s how important this realization is for each one of us! This confession is easy to make the Sunday after Pascha. Christ has not only Risen indeed, He is risen in our hearts! This truth is the source of our Paschal Joy!
I submit to you that, if we want to retain the free gift of Paschal Joy which we’ve received at the service for the Bright Resurrection of Christ, then we must retain the wonderment that St. Thomas had when he realized that Christ is truly Lord and God. This is like the wonderment of a child discovering something amazing for the first time. It’s this kind of child-likeness that’s required to “enter into the Kingdom!” And it’s also how we keep it (the Kingdom) –we abide in the child-like wonderment that Jesus is indeed our Lord and our God!
It’s no mistake that Thomas Sunday follows the bright Resurrection of Christ—Pascha! So, this Paschal season, (which continues for 39 days after the Resurrection, the 40th being the Ascension of Our Lord)—let us keep our Paschal Joy so that, when Pentecost comes, the Holy Spirit can seal this joy in our hearts. It is through and by these experiences that we advance and our very being is transformed! Let’s not squander the grace of our Paschal Joy, but rather, let us increase it! In the cycle of services, we are called to advance in our spiritual life—that’s why our Saviour, in His love for us, gave us the Church. With each passing year, the Church keeps the cycle of services, which brings us again and again to the celebration of Pascha. Each time we increase in our faith, building upon this Paschal Joy to the next; from glory to glory to glory!
So, instead of going back to the old, tired life of the world which drains us, let us increase what we have been given! Let us build on our Paschal Joy and protect it with some much-needed layers of dispassion. In this way our Paschal Joy will be preserved, and nothing will be able to steal it away!
This is my prayer for everyone: that you preserve and increase your Paschal Joy, and that we all keep this goal, keep this Paschal Joy upon the “frontlets of our eyes”—while we now possess it. Pascha gives us a real taste of true Orthodoxy which is about abiding in the Risen Christ and then transmitting this joy to others. Indeed, we must abide in Christ and He in us, for we cannot give to others what we don’t have in ourselves!
As you pray, “Come and dwell in us, and save our souls, O good one”, let the joy of the risen Lord abide in your heart!
Do the Orthodox invite Jesus into their hearts?
By MJ Dukas
Many Western Christians give testimony of their conversion, that moment where they invited Jesus into their heart and were “saved”. To the Eastern Orthodox Christian, especially those born and raised in the faith, this can seem very odd. Timothy for example inherited his faith from his mother and grandmother, knowing no other way (2 Timothy 3:15, 2 Timothy 1:5). Unfortunately, some think being born into the Church is all it takes, and they just go through the motions of being an Orthodox Christian.
Either of these, being saved by the act of accepting Christ into one’s heart or being born into the faith, can be discouraging to those seeking salvation. Many of us, who long for God in our lives, don’t buy into instant salvation or the birthright requirement. The former makes changing into a new creation seem easy and, soon enough, we find that it isn’t. If you are like me, you tried it (5-10- 20 times) and failed to change instantly and permanently. Can I get an AMEN? The latter makes salvation seem like it is only for Greeks and Russians, or the good, the rich, or, as someone recently said, “the white” (Galatians 3:28-29). All of this can make salvation seem foreign and unobtainable and make us feel left out, while leading those who adopt these erroneous ideas to take their salvation for granted! How hard it is for anyone to enter the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:16-26)!
The Church teaches that salvation is a process, not a one-time event, and that it’s certainly not easy! Christ’s work to save mankind is done (John 19:30)! It is we who have to work to make salvation our own and fight to keep it (Matthew 11:12). We do this by establishing a relationship with God. Getting to know and trust Him is an ongoing process. Does it involve inviting Christ into our hearts? Yes! But not just once! As Father Steven pointed out in a recent homily, through the prayers of the Orthodox Church we constantly ask God to come dwell (live) in us! We feel both the longing and the love for Him in our center, our heart!
This request is part of the Trisagion or beginning prayers that we say every time we pray:
“O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”
Change isn’t instant! Not even for those who had walked with Jesus Christ and had witnessed all! The Apostles were with Christ for 3 years. They witnessed countless miracles and heard from His own lips that He was going to die and rise again. Nevertheless, they couldn’t comprehend it! They made a decision for Christ early on, inviting Him into their hearts while still naïve and unaware of all that following Him meant. When Christ was arrested they ran and hid. Peter denied Him 3 times! Thomas, who had seen Him raise Lazarus from the dead, refused to believe He could have risen from the dead Himself! They all still had doubts. But God sent Jesus to save us, not condemn us. He knows we are weak and that we are dust. His mercy is ever-ready to cover our sin—He didn’t reject His cowardly, doubting Apostles and He won’t reject you!
When we plant a seed, does a sturdy tree spring up right away? Is there fruit the next day? No! A seed can lie dormant under the ground for years! God planted a seed in your heart. Since then, a lot has happened as God helps your faith grow and the evil one tries to sow doubt and to kill it.
When Christ healed people He warned them to “go and sin no more”. He didn’t change them or their circumstances; that was their work to do! Although he healed them instantly of their physical disease, change was a process. Some of Christ’s followers abandoned Him (John 6:66) and Judas went so far as to betray Him (Matthew 26:24). Does that mean they weren’t among those that Christ died to save? or that they had not really had love for Him in their hearts? Salvation is freely given and easily lost! Saint Paul said, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and even feared he would lose his own salvation! When you fall, get up! Don’t die in sin or of despair like Judas.
Do the Orthodox invite Jesus into their hearts? Yes! But it is our work to make room for Him and to keep Him there! Tend to the garden of your heart! Weed it! Water it with tears! Let God’s light in! Read His Word! Stop poisoning your heart with blasphemy and cursing! Turn your eyes and protect your ears from filth, and profanity. Run from temptation! Fill your heart with constant prayer! Keep your hands busy doing good. Don’t be lazy or overconfident. Be vigilant against bugs and the weeds, and disease! Invite God into your heart today and every day and your efforts will bear fruit!
The Thief's "Instant" Conversion Took Over 30 Years!
By MJ Dukas
St. Dismas, as Fr. Steven stated at the end of the poem about the Cherub and the Thief, was saved in an instant, even without baptism! Father hints, however, that God had been working on Dismas all his life.
Saint Dismas encountered Christ at least twice in his life. The first time was when the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod. This detail is not in the Bible but, as we discussed recently, is remembered in Holy Tradition. He was the leader of a gang of Highwaymen. His gang ambushed Joseph and his family who were carrying the treasures given to them by the Wise Men, their provisions of food and water for the journey and, probably, Joseph’s carpentry tools. When Dismas saw Mary clutching a bundle to her chest, and how this was the thing the little group of travelers seemed most concerned in protecting, he demanded to see what this treasure was.
When Mary revealed the small child in her arms, His beauty radiated so magnificently, that Dismas stepped back in awe and ordered his men to stop and let this family pass unharmed and unrobbed. It is reported that he said, “If God were to be born in human form He could not be more beautiful!” Mary thanked Dismas for his mercy and promised that, one day, her Son would repay his kindness. Thirty or so years later, Dismas was one of the two criminals crucified with Christ. He defended Jesus of Nazareth to his fellow prisoner and was granted instant salvation (Luke 23: 39-43). One can only wonder if he knew it was that same mother, of the now-grown child he had spared all those years before, that stood at the foot of the cross? Did he remember her promise?
Dismas had had a hard life. A life that there was really no way out of. Even so, God had not forgotten him; he was not a lost soul condemned by his circumstances. He was, like Father said, “being ground down”, humbled by life. It all came together in that moment on the cross, when he acknowledged his unworthiness and recognized Christ. His eyes and heart were opened. Did he know that Christ’s suffering was a voluntary suffering? That it was for sinners like himself and us that Christ, Who had raised the dead, healed the blind, didn’t save Himself and them (Matthew 27:42)? Dismas, seen by many as just a thief on the cross, was the first to enter Paradise (Luke 23:43)! We revere him as a Saint and repeat his words at every service: “Lord, Remember me in your Kingdom!”
God has not forgotten you either, friend. Ask Him to remember you, to dwell in you, to save you. But don’t think it’s His work to do. His work is complete (John 19:30)! Accept His grinding down as intended, as LOVE! And work hard at opening your heart to Him. Develop a relationship through prayer. Prayer, as prescribed by the Church, is healing and grows your confidence in God’s love for you and your faith in Him (Mark 9:24). Ask Christ to remember you in His Kingdom! He is everywhere present—even there in the darkest prison—and he fills all things—all creation, even rocks cry out!—He does not force Himself on anyone but will dwell in you if you ask Him to. With time and effort, like being cured of a terrible disease, He will cleanse your wounds and heal your soul!
The Thief’s instant conversion took a lifetime! Be sober and diligent. Know that you are loved by a mighty and merciful God Who died to save you. Give all your suffering to Him and endure IN HIS NAME. Don’t be fooled! Don’t look elsewhere or forget the promise of the first time you met Him all those years ago! Your salvation, won by Christ on the Cross, is your life’s work! Turn back to Christ (as many times as necessary), only to Him, and say “Remember me, O Lord, In Thy Kingdom!
Dear Friend, Christ Is Risen!!! April 23, 2018
What a Glorious Pasha! I received so many great letters since the last GNL. I will answer them just as soon as this is in the mail. Also, new people have joined our little group. I updated the list last night and found that several of you have been moved—rearranged! With all the moving around, new members, and people missing their interpersonal connections with their friends and brothers, it’s time for a shout out issue! Send me your shout outs, pictures, drawings, short poems, etc. and I’ll get working on it. I have some contributions to it already that I’ll glean from your letters, but it’s okay to repeat what you already sent to help me out. ;o) Shout outs can be directed to a friend or to the whole group or both. We are all connected in some way and seeing your picture or just reading your name will make your friends smile. There are people in our group that know each other but don’t know they are both in this group! How funny is that?! I’ll tell you a story on that when I write you back in the upcoming weeks.
Your fellow struggler,
The Good News Letter (GNL) is a labor of love of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC. We send these letters to approximately 50 inmates free of charge, raising funds for postage and printing. As of February 2018, we have baptized 7 souls through this prison ministry! Contact us at [email protected] or visit our parish website at https://www.stnicholasoc.org/ Donations of books, time, and financial support are always welcome. Want to help or start a prison ministry at your parish? Write us at: St. Dismas Prison Ministry PO Box 19616 Asheville, NC 28815