Living the Ancient Faith in the Modern World:
More than one of the patristic fathers make observations that, in the scriptural accounts, for every physical healing that Our Lord graces the human race with in the accounts of his time on earth, there is a corresponding spiritual illness. The healing of physical blindness. We need to be reminded that we are afflicted with spiritual blindness as well. Of the healing of deafness, that often we fail to hear the voice of God that’s constantly in all places and in all things. In the healing of paralysis, that often we allow the weight and encumbrances of the world to paralyze us spiritually as well. I think there is no physical illness and no healing that perhaps applies to most of us more than the one today.
And we hear it from Matthew: “And when they had come to the multitude a man came to him kneeling down to him and saying, Lord have mercy on my son for he is an epileptic.” It struck me that his son being described as an epileptic perhaps describes the disease that many of us suffer from. I don’t know how far outside of the south the term is common vernacular, but when I was growing up a very common statement that you heard as a child was the reference to somebody having a fit. ‘He’s having a fit.’ And actually, in the vernacular of where I grew up there were two levels. You could have a fit which was not good, but you could pitch a fit which was much much worse. And sometimes my mother would watch me having a fit and just sort of stand back. But if I was pitching a fit there was immediate intervention and cessation of all fitful activity! But this young man was having a fit, and when I think of having a fit growing up by the definition that I had as a little boy, it’s going from being normal to abnormal. Of all of a sudden appearing like a perfectly normal human being, and then all of a sudden something takes hold of us and we pitch a fit and fume and fuss and roll and scratch and claw and yell. We pitch a fit, we’re possessed. A seemingly normal human being all of a sudden becomes out of control. And I don’t know about you, but occasionally I pitch a fit. Something takes hold of me.
The father of the epileptic says, “He suffers severely and he often falls into the fire, and often into the water.” And again, in my fitfulness, sometimes I fall into the fire. Sometimes I pitch a fit of anger or judgment, or the passions take hold of me and I can’t control them. Other times the sins of water, the sins of the Church, the sins of judging others, of self-righteousness, of apathy and forgetfulness toward the things of God. Sometimes in a more subtle way I pitch a fit that way. But whether it’s being taken over by the fire or the water I suffer severely as this young man did. So I pitch my fit.
And in the Scriptures that go on this morning, the father says, “So I brought him to your disciples but thy could not cure him.” And how many times when I’m taking over, when I’m pitching a fit, when I’m angry, when I’m disappointed, when I’m discouraged, do I bring my fit to God and to His Church and say, ‘fix it for me’, then go away mad and angry and pitching a bigger fit because I’ve come to Church, or I’ve come before God, and it wasn’t fixed? I brought it but that confession, or that communion, or that unction stuff didn’t change anything, He can’t cure it. And we become more fitfull than we were to begin with. So I brought him to your disciples but they could not cure him. But then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation.”
Oftentimes in the midst of our fits and our desire to be freed from our possession we fail to see what the true cause of our problem is. We like to think that the problem is somebody else. We like to think that the problem is some circumstance, some limitation in our life. But Christ nails it on the head when He says it’s a lack of faith and perversity. And I’m convinced that in our lives and in our culture that faithfulness and perversity go hand in hand. And it’s not that we live, from my humble perspective, it’s not that we live in more perverse times than ever before, but what makes it so shameful is we’re so open about it. We don’t walk like the sons of Noah and cover up our father’s nakedness by walking backwards and not looking. And in our culture the fastest way to fame, notoriety and fortune is to expose your perversity through the media or a biography or a blog or a photograph or whatever it might be.
And, brothers and sisters, one of the reasons, one of the barriers that stands between us and us being cured, to hit the nail on the head, is to live as if, in truth and reality, there is no sin. I’m not really a sinful person. And the failure to recognize sin in the world and sin in our hearts makes cure impossible. And every day we are bombarded over and over and over again by the world in which we live in that there is no sin. There’s sociological aberration, there’s physical aberration, there are genetic and environmental causes that result in certain behaviors. But sin? How archaic and judgmental. But there is sin in the world, and not only that, but ultimately from our Orthodox perspective, the root cause of both the sociological and the genetic sources of sin, for the very cosmos fell. The stuff we are made of fell. And, brothers and sisters, until I recognize in my life that there is sin, I can’t be cured. And as long as I refuse to believe that there is sin in the world and in my life, I really can’t have faith because there’s no real need in my life to be faithful to anything beyond myself.
So, ultimately, sin stands between us and our cure. And it is not without reason that the few words that summarize our entire Orthodox faith have been, from the very beginning, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner. Not a victim of society, not a genetic mutation, but a sinner. And the true recognition of that sinfulness, and repentance, leads to a faith that results in cure. Christ goes on to say that this kind of sickness does not go out without much prayer and fasting. And I hope that we never lose sight in our prayer and in our fasting, that our prayer and our fasting are not simply actions that we take in hopes of moving God toward some desired result, whether it’s the granting of reward or the avoidance of punishment. But that prayer and fasting ultimately are the highest expressions of faith because, ultimately, what is prayer and fasting but the renunciation of ourselves. The recognition that, ultimately, on a spiritual level and on a physical level only God can cure us ultimately to salvation. So, when we pray, when we fast, brothers and sisters, let’s recognise it for what it is, not a work but a renunciation. Not so much an appeal as an acknowledgement. If we are repentant people, if through prayer and fasting we renounce ourselves then that faith can move mountains.
And what if we could have the faith that every morning we could wake up and say, “Whatever happens today God has the solution.” If we could renounce our sinfulness and our willfulness to the point that we could live life that way, then every mountain, every barrier, every sickness would fly away. Let us be people who repent. Let us be people of faith. If we can be, then we will also be people of joy.