4th Sunday of Lent – St. John Climacus, Mark 9: 17-31
Today is the 4th Sunday of Great Lent and we are celebrating St. John Climacus a.k.a. St. John of the Ladder as he is best known as for his rather enduring best selling classic, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” Any book that stays popular for 1400 years is probably well worth checking out. There is much wisdom that even we non-monastic’s can also glean from reading it. The icon of St. John of the Ladder, with the ladder with the saints ascending and being pulled from the ladder by the demons. With Christ welcoming us at the top wrung, and the hosts of saints cheering us on, is on the analogion today. This icon describes the battle we all face in following Christ. Each of the 30 chapters deals thoroughly with a struggle common to all of humanity, which if recognized and fought will bring us closer to union with Christ. Just to whet your appetite, I’ll give you a few of the chapter titles. Any chapter would take at least a separate homily to cover, so I just want to encourage you to read this classic at some point in your journey.
- * CH.1: On renunciation of the world
- * CH: 3: On exile or pilgrimage – Concerning dreams that beginners have
- * CH: 5: On painstaking and true repentance
- * CH 7: On mourning which causes joy
- * CH 8: On freedom from anger and on meekness
- * CH 9: On remembrance of wrong
- * CH 12: On lying
- * CH 13: On despondency
- * CH 14: On that clamorous but wicked master – the stomach
- * Ch 16: On love of money or avarice
- * CH 18: On insensibility of the soul and mind from slackness and negligence
- * CH 22: On the many forms of vainglory
- * CH 23: On mad pride and blasphemous thoughts
- * CH 24: On developing the habit of meekness, simplicity and guilelessness
- * CH 25: On spiritual humility – the destroyer of passions
- * CH 26: On discernment of thoughts, passions, and virtues
Is there anyone here who didn’t recognize something in one of the titles that they needed to deal with? If you did, see Jessie at lunch and get her to order you a copy.
Today’s Gospel follows directly after Christ is coming back down from Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John. They have just experienced the wonder of the Transfiguration. Their eyes were opened to true reality, to the ever-present radiance and glory that is always contained in Christ. Their faith and belief were running on all cylinders. However, the other nine apostles who were left behind while Christ was transfigured and conversed with Moses, Elijah and His Father, seem to be having a little struggle with their faith, as they could not cast out the demon afflicting the lad who had been brought to them by his desperate father. Remember, not long before Jesus had sent the apostles out in twos to minister on their own without Him, and He had given them all power over unclean spirits. They came back from that excursion full of faith and enthusiasm after casting out demons and healing the sick! Luke (10:17-20) reports them as saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Christ replies to them “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. Behold I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” So, the power to cast out evil spirits had already been given to and exercised by these apostles. Christ seems a little frustrated with their lack of faith and He exclaims “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”
We can learn a couple things from this. First, remember that Christ never sinned, yet here He rebukes His disciples; so we can learn not to be so sensitive about receiving criticism. Criticism is usually a much greater blessing than receiving a compliment. Our pride may initially be wounded when we are criticized, but having our pride bolstered is generally not particularly helpful in fostering spiritual growth. Second, even if we are initially hurt, staying offended or wounded is never a good option! Everything in the Christian life revolves around forgiveness and humility.
I think it’s a fair bet to say that if someone we know and love deeply said to us “how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” our first reaction would be to be offended, and we would tend to defend ourselves, rather than to accept the criticism. Notice that this however is not the reaction of the apostles. At first chance they asked Him privately “Why could we not cast it out?” We would do well and follow the apostle’s example. Instead of instinctively defending ourselves and jumping to our own defence when criticized, we would be choosing the better path by asking God to show us the truth of the criticism and perhaps even thanking our blessed criticiser. Especially when it is someone who knows us well. For those of us who are married our beloved “grinding stone,” or perhaps our boss or teacher or a faithful friend. We will all have some occasions to put these suggestions into practice over the rest of Lent I’m sure.
The main point of the passage however would be to demonstrate the great importance of “faith.” Even Jesus could do no great works when a strong anti-belief current was in place in His home town. Mark ((6:1-6) tells us that “He could do no mighty work there except that He laid His hand on a few sick people and healed them. And He marvelled because of their unbelief.” Remember He has given us free will and this is a very strong power that God respects while we are here on earth, working out our salvation. Our thoughts are very powerful and affect the whole environment around us, for good or for evil. Our thoughts can either bless or curse those to whom we direct them. We hear in James (3:10) “Out of the same mouth proceed both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things out not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?”
In today’s Gospel Christ is very upset at the lack of results demonstrated by the apostles because of their “faithless” ways. He has expected more faith from them after all they have seen and done. True faith generates good and godly thoughts and good and godly thoughts generate good and godly actions. When asked why they were so ineffective, Jesus tells His apostles “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Prayer and fasting (along with almsgiving and scripture reading) are the main tools we are given to cultivate as a permanent life-style, to transform our negative and unruly thoughts into faith. Paul tells us in Romans (10:17) “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” so we need to come to Church and hear God’s word. To read our bible, at least the daily readings the Orthodox Church which can be easily found on-line these days. A little later in Romans we are told (12:2,3) “not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” and that “…God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” So we are all given a measure of faith which we are to cultivate and grow, much like planting a tiny seed and watching it grow into a great plant as we nurture it. Receiving the body and blood of Christ, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and scripture reading, equate to the sunshine and water and fertilizer needed to grow our little seed of faith into a great and beautiful tree.
All through history we see over and over that seeing signs and wonders is not the recipe for increased faith. Abraham answers the request of the rich man in Hades to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers to pay attention to things of eternal importance, by saying that they have the reports of Moses and the Prophets and even if one raised from the dead comes to them they will not be persuaded. Even today we have the Holy Fire appearing at the Church of the Sepulchre every Pascha, the countless miracles of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, Saint Porphyries, St. Nectarios etc. yet faith is rare.
“I’ll believe it when I see it” is a well approved bit of worldly wisdom. The trouble is that even when we do “see it”, we still choose to believe what we wish, rather than believing God’s word which leads to faith in God. “I’ll see it when I believe it” is a better maxim to grow our faith. Faith is a gift from God and the way to increased faith is to pray and humbly ask Him for it, and then to walk in the faith He has already given us. We can only receive this heart knowledge by spending time in prayer and fasting and allowing this intellectual understanding to give way to true knowledge – that of the heart. Our heart is the organ of spiritual sensitivity where we see, hear, feel and taste and see that God is good! Fasting gives us wings, it increases our ability to encounter and perceive God in our heart, where we can truly encounter Him. St. John Chrysostom says, “He who prays with fasting has his wings double, and is lighter than the very winds…nothing is mightier than the man who prays sincerely…but if your body is too weak to fast continually…although you cannot fast, yet you can at least avoid luxurious living.”
When I was ordained a priest, Archbishop Irénée placed his hands upon me and prayed “The grace divine, which always heals that which is infirm, and completes that which is wanting, elevates through the laying on of hands Andrew the most devout Deacon to be a Priest. Therefore let us pray for him, that the grace of the all-holy Spirit may come upon him.” Although there is so much that is infirm and lacking, I trust through the faith that God has granted, that He will continue to be faithful to complete what is wanting, through your prayers and the ineffable wonder-working grace of our most precious Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. May He continue to complete each one of us.
“I believe God, help my unbelief” is the cry of the father with heartfelt tears, when Jesus tells him that “all things are possible to him that believes.” This is shown to be a very effective prayer. Immediately Christ dismisses the demon and his son is healed. May it also be our prayer. As we bring whatever faith we have to our Lord and we ask him to increase it and complete it, He is faithful to come and answer and grant our desire.