Sunday, August 24, 2008

Growth through Failure

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In this morning’s gospel lesson (Matthew 17:14-23), we saw that the disciples of our Lord were unable to expel a demon from a severely troubled young man. As we consider this failure, we need to keep in mind that the disciples had previously been given authority by Christ to cast out demons, and had succeeded at this many times. Nevertheless, this particular demon proved too much for them, requiring Christ Himself to remove it and restore the boy to his father. Following this, the disciples met with the Lord privately to ask Him why they could not cast it out. As we heard, He gave them two reasons. First, that they lacked sufficient faith, and second, that this type of demon could be removed only through prayer and fasting.

Chances are most of us will never be called upon to perform any exorcisms in the course of our lives, but that doesn’t mean that any of us are exempt from what has been called the unseen war. Spiritual warfare is a characteristic of the Christian’s life in this fallen world, and no one of us is immune to this reality. We may not seek the fight, but it is brought to us on a daily basis and we must stand and answer or be destroyed.

St. Peter wrote, “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Far too many Christians ignore this warning and willingly engage in sinful deeds and habits as if they were not inviting their own destruction by the lion of souls.

St. Paul informed us that, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:1). And on a level a little closer to home and easier to understand, we wrestle also against our own sins and carnal passions, against the wrong desires and powerful urgings emanating from our broken humanity. We wrestle against every force or impulse, whether acting upon us internally or externally, that would have us abandon God and His path of healing to choose a way leading to our certain destruction.

Because the nature of Christianity is one of spiritual warfare and because the stakes for us are so high, the answer that Jesus gave to His disciples regarding why they failed their spiritual challenge is one that we should pay close attention to as well. It doesn’t matter if we’re apostles, monastics, or just ordinary Orthodox faithful, the principles He presented here are equally applicable and important to all of us.

Our Lord spoke first of the need for faith, telling the disciples that they failed to subdue the demon because they lacked faith. Now that might seem a bit strange since, as I pointed out, the disciples had been going about casting out demons in Christ’s name as well as healing all manners of disease. Why suddenly would they seem to lose faith? Perhaps the problem was that they never really had faith to begin with, and it took this incident to reveal that.

Is it possible to cast out demons or cause miraculous healings in the name of Jesus and not have faith? Let’s ask another question: is it possible to call oneself a Christian, to be baptized, to live morally, to go to church every week for years, and not have faith? Actually, that is entirely possible isn’t it? It is very easy for us to settle for a superficial Christian experience in place of anything truly transformational and sanctifying.

We might simply settle for emotional comfort, as if finally sensing the love of God for us makes everything right in our lives. We might settle for intellectual satisfaction, as if being the biblical or patristic expert made us all the more Orthodox. We might settle for a sense of duty and purpose by constantly volunteering in the parish, or by pursuing some ministry or “calling” we feel we have received. There are all kinds of things we settle for because on some level they meet a need within us and filling that need feels good. Many Christians become trapped by these things, mistaking them for an experience of God Himself.

The disciples had been given temporary power to cast out demons and to heal the sick. But the Lord knew that they were nowhere near being mature in their faith, that they did not yet truly know God and had not learned to trust in Him. He knew that they had many hidden sins within them, and that they were still men of the flesh more than men of the Spirit. Thus He allowed them to see the limitations of this “power” in order to open their hearts and minds to something better.

It’s as if the Lord said to them, “To be given authority over unclean spirits is a small thing. I will show you something greater, a life of faith and prayer and fasting, of ascetic discipline and spiritual struggle, a way by which you can put to death the old man and reveal the new man, formed by the Spirit of God. I will show you the way to become true warriors and victors over every form of evil, beginning first with that evil which still lingers within you. I will show you the way of salvation”.

When the Lord spoke to them of faith, prayer and fasting, He was introducing them to nothing less than the Christian life itself, which would be ushered in at Pentecost. And please notice He does not speak of faith only, but of faith and prayer and fasting. Asceticism is not something that was made up by later monks and church fathers looking for something to do; it was practiced and taught by our Lord Himself. Jesus prayed and fasted, not because He needed to, but as an example to us of what we need. Ascetical practices are just as important as faith to the renewal of man because transformation and salvation is an experience of the whole man, soul and body.

As an aside, I find it interesting that Jesus allowed His disciples to first involve themselves with the healing and exorcising of others before He directed them to the the greater work of the healing and spiritual cleansing of themselves. Over the years, I have observed that most Christians follow a nearly identical pattern, with our first instinct always being to try to change other people. We want to “save” others perhaps, or improve or correct them; we want to make them see things our way, or force them to act in ways we think are best. Some people live their entire lives this way and I fear that hell awaits them, for such never turn their attention inward toward their own repentance and salvation.

How much better it is when we become painfully aware of our own personal mix of sins and imperfections and bad habits and realize that it is these that are keeping us from God and from happiness in all our relationships. Although this can often prompt a period of crisis and turmoil, it is ultimately a good thing if it leads us away from focusing on externals, to focusing inward on dying to our own sins and changing ourselves.

One thing that today’s gospel lesson certainly teaches us is that something that may appear to be a failure may actually be the opportunity for great spiritual growth. The disciples learned this when they failed to cast out the demon, and brought their failure to Christ, enabling Him to teach them of far greater things to come. Our failures and frustrations in life may also be opportunities for great growth, if we follow the example of the disciples and bring them to Christ. Many times we don’t want to do that, we want to just keep banging our head against the wall, but this is wrong. Imagine if the disciples had pridefully refused to come to Jesus and just kept on trying to wage the spiritual war without Him. That’s when we realize how foolish it is for us to do the same.

Let us learn to give glory to God in all things, and to seek Him even in the midst of our failures, that He might be able to lead us to far greater things in the Christian life.

+To the glory of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Walking on Water

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From this morning’s gospel lesson we heard the account of our Lord Jesus Christ walking across the surface of the sea in the midst of a terrible storm to meet His disciples in their boat. Starting with verse 22 of Matthew 14 we see Jesus making his disciples get into the boat to sail across the sea while He remains behind to dismiss the multitudes that had just been miraculously fed from five loaves and two fishes. In the King James translation it says He constrained His disciples to leave. The word “constrain” means to compel or to force, and indicates that the disciples didn’t go willingly. Their desire was to remain in Jesus’ presence always and to never depart from Him.

By comparison we can see how imperfect our love for Jesus is. When our minds and hearts are constantly filled with other thoughts and other loves, when we can barely drag ourselves to church or to stand before our icons at home to pray, it is perhaps more accurate to say that we must be constrained to come into the presence of Jesus, rather than the other way around. And while that is truly a dreadful spiritual condition, it is better for us to acknowledge it than ignore it, to change it rather than perpetuate it.

One way to change it is to follow our Lord’s own example from this story, for Matthew tells us that immediately after dismissing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. We need to understand that He did this entirely for our benefit and our instruction, for the Lord Himself has no need of prayer. We however, do have need of prayer, and Jesus did this to show us that we simply must make time in our lives to be alone with God and to pray.

I know we are all very busy and think that we just don’t have the time to do this. But it is perhaps better for us to understand that our true problem is not a lack of time, but a lack of love. When we don’t love God as we should, prayer is always a chore, and one that is very easy to neglect. But prayer is exactly what we need to warm our cold souls and to bring the love of God into our lives. If we wait until we feel more love for God to begin to pray or be more faithful in coming to church, it will never happen. We pray in part in order to love God, and to gain that same desire to always be in the presence of Christ that the disciples knew so well.

As the disciples sailed across the sea, a great storm hit that frightened even the most experienced sailors aboard. Finally, Jesus came to them in the fourth watch of the night, which is the last watch, just before the break of dawn. This means that Jesus didn’t rush to their aid the moment the storm first hit, but allowed them to go through the dark night of their distress, seemingly alone.

Of course, the disciples were not alone, but were safely in the hands of God during the whole experience. Everything that happened to them, from being in the midst of the sea at that precise hour, to the storm itself, was preordained by God and allowed for a greater purpose. And that purpose was to teach us to have patience in our times of fear and struggle, to not despair and lose hope if our problems aren’t taken away instantly, to recognize that God’s good and loving will governs all, and that He always has a higher, more beneficial, and saving purpose for whatever we go through. The bottom line is that we need to learn to trust in the good and sovereign will of God in all things.

Unfortunately, the only way for us to learn to this kind of trust to go through our own storms; to suffer trials and difficulties and discover for ourselves that we truly are not alone, but that our Lord is right there with us. Life in this fallen world will inevitably bring forth pain and sorrow, fear and suffering. For many people these are destructive forces that extinguish hope and lead to despair. For the Christian who has anchored his hope upon God and upon the life of the world to come, these same forces can usher in our greatest joy and sense of peace. They can also bring spiritual growth and progress. We should notice that it was because of the storm that the disciples finally recognized Jesus as the true Son of God and became worshippers of Him. It is often because of our sufferings that we too finally come to know Jesus and truly worship Him in and through our lives.

Finally, there is the bit where Peter asked to join Jesus on the water. Was Peter merely an impulsive and adventurous man who wanted to try something that looked fun? I don’t think so. Notice that Peter didn’t say to Jesus, “Hey, Let me try that!” but rather, “Lord, permit me to come to You on the water”. In other words, Jesus was the object of Peter’s attention, not the stunt. His desire in the midst of the storm was to get as close to the Lord as possible.

This wasn’t thrill-seeking; this was courage, and spiritual desire. The other disciples were paralyzed with fear and were all hunkered down in the boat, which to them represented earthly safety and security in the raging sea. Peter left behind such flimsy security, not out of recklessness or foolishness, but out of a spiritual vision that Jesus alone is the true hope and salvation, and out of a desire to be near Him. People put their trust in so many things, such a money, good health, friendships and so on. But only Jesus is the hope that does not disappoint.

Peter's walking upon the waves toward his Lord is a vivid demonstration that God shares His glory and divine powers with the saints, and allows those who believe to accomplish what is otherwise impossible for men. Much later Peter would write that we are partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This he knew from first-hand experience. But when Peter saw the wind, he became frightened, and taking his eyes off of Jesus, he began to sink.

Notice that it wasn’t the fearsome storm or the giant waves that distracted Peter, but only the wind, a much lesser threat. Life is like that. We might be on our guard against the big and terrible sins, and still be taken down by a host of familiar sins we weren’t watching out for. It’s so easy to get comfortable with certain sins like judging others, talking about them, having wandering eyes and thoughts, always complaining rather than learning to give thanks, being spiritually lazy and careless. These things may not seem as bad as murder or adultery, but they are just as deadly to our souls, and they’ll sink us just as deep.

As Peter discovered, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus and stay focused each moment on Him. That’s not impossible to do. It’s certainly easier than walking on water! With practice and patience, with proper spiritual guidance, and with the help of tools like the Jesus Prayer, it is entirely possible to keep our Lord in the forefront of our thoughts at all times, and to judge every thought and potential action by what we know to be His will. When we make a habit of this, almost without our knowing it we begin to get used to the sweetness of the presence of Christ in our souls. When, due to our own carelessness He is momentarily absent from our thoughts, we soon discover that we miss Him as never before.

Perhaps this is why the disciples had to be constrained to leave Jesus, or why Peter willingly leapt overboard to be nearer to Christ. Imagine having that kind of love for your Lord. This is exactly the sort of love that He wants us to share.

+To the glory of God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.