Fourth Sunday in Great Lent: Sermon

30 March 2017

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 March 30, 2017
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Mark 9: 17-31

At that time, a man came to Jesus kneeling and saying: “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have any one know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

The story that comprises this Sunday’s Gospel begins at verse 14, when the Lord Jesus Christ was walking down Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John. These three Apostles, purified by prayer and fasting, had seen the Lord in the Transfiguration, along with Moses and Elijah. Again, by purification–prayer and fasting, these Apostles saw the Lord as he is, Transfigured. Following the Transfiguration, these illumined Apostles asked the Lord why the Scribes anticipated the coming of Elijah. The Lord explained John the Baptist, whom the Scribes also hated, held the office of Elijah. Now, at verse 17 where the Sunday Gospel begins, Peter, James, and John returned from Mount Tabor and hear an argument between the Scribes and the Lord’s disciples. Notably, these disciples had not seen the Transfiguration: they were not yet illumined.

The Scribes and the disciples of the Lord were arguing about their complete inability to cure a boy possessed by a devil. Neither the Scribes, nor these disciples, had faith to heal the boy. Then, the disciples saw the Lord and were amazed. Why were they amazed? The disciples were amazed, because they saw the Lord’s face as the people of Israel saw the face of Moses when he came down from the Mountain. “And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” (Exodus 34:30) After Moses received the Law, his face was illumined. Now, Christ, manifested on Mount Tabor as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and the Prophets—Elijah, appeared radiant, light, illumined. The people stopped arguing with the Scribes and gathered around the Lord Christ, because his face remained radiant from the Transfiguration, experienced fully only to those three Apostles—Peter, James, and John—who were purified and illumined by the Transfiguration.

Coming down from Mount Tabor, the Lord found his disciples arguing, fighting, and bickering with the Scribes. He asked the disciples, why are you arguing with the Scribes? Then a man, a father, came and kneeling before the Lord explained that he had brought his son, possessed by a devil, to the disciples but they were unable to cast it out. Presumably, the Scribes had also attempted to case out the devil but also failed. We may speculate that the Scribes and disciples were now arguing and fighting about how to cast out the devil. Neither Scribes, nor disciples, being purified or illumined, had the ability or faith to cast out the devil. So the disciples argued, made excuses, and were fighting. The Lord Christ responded, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”

Jesus Christ rebuked both the Scribes and the disciples, calling them a “faithless generation”. “How long will I be with you? How long must I bear with you? Faithless generation!” The Scribes were faithless in that they did not accept Christ; they wanted to kill the Lord. The disciples were faithless in that they refused to exercise the power Christ had given them. The disciples were faithless in that they did not pray and fast as the Lord had taught them. Dear Faithful in Christ, we too are faithless in that we do not exercise the power Christ gave us in Holy Baptism and Chrismation. We too are faithless in that we do not beg the Father to renew in us the Gift of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, knowledge, holy fear, counsel, and fortitude. We too are faithless in that we neglect pray and fasting, in that we have little zeal. We too are the disciples who do not see Christ in his Transfiguration, because we do not purify ourselves in Holy and Great Lent. And to the extent that we are faithless, we cannot cast out devils; we remain bound by the bonds of addictions, wicked habits, and of sins. We cannot help ourselves, we cannot exercise our priestly office to heal; we do not yet see the Transfiguration. Given our spiritual paucity, we are left only to wallow in our sinful habits, argue, make excuses, and fight with each other. Instead of purifying ourselves, we bicker, argue, and fight, as did the Scribes and disciples. “How long will I be with you? How long must I bear with you?” Put another way, the Lord Christ is only asking, when will you exercise your priestly office, to cast out devils, cure souls, and see the Light of Mount Tabor? When will we accept the faith that is given us? When will we live the Orthodox Christian life that is given us? We are called to embrace what is ours, what is given us in and through the Orthodox Church, prayer, fasting, the Holy Mysteries—our salvation, the Light of the Transfiguration.

The Lord ordered the father to bring his son: his son possessed by a devil. The man obeyed and brought his son. When the devil recognized Jesus Christ, the devil threw the boy into convulsions and left him almost dead. “[H]e fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.” (Mark 9:20) Christ inquired of the boy’s father, “How long has your son had this condition, this devil?” The father answered, “Since childhood, all his life.” (Mark 9: 21) Dear Faithful in Christ, we have sinned all our lives. As I said a few weeks ago, the society in which we live is spiritually paralyzed by addictions and a culture of sin—alcoholism and drug addiction, internet, gamming and social media, work and gambling, violence against Christian marriage and the family. The society in which we live institutionalizes sin, sells addiction to sin, and educates children in sin. And we Christians, we have struggled against sin since childhood. Again, The father answered, “Since childhood, all his life.” (Mark 9: 21) Since childhood… This means, the human condition is such, that from the infancy of humanity, we have been afflicted by sin. The sin of Adam is the sin we have had since childhood. We should not think that we have any special sins. We should not think our society has institutionalized, promotes, or sells any special sins. Too often we believe that we are special sinners. We believe that our society has gone down a uniquely evil path. We may believe we need to go to the monastery and find an Elder to be healed. We may believe life has dealt us a deck of sinful cards that leaves us without the possibility of repentance. These are all excuses. We are all sinners. None of us are really special sinners. None of us needs an Elder to repent. None of us really need anything other than the Orthodox Church, the Holy Mysteries, prayer and fasting, to repent. We are not special sinners. Our society has no special sin. We are all sons of Adam, in whom we have sinned since childhood, and in whom the Chosen People of God have sinned since the Fall. We are all children of Adam; we are all children of disobedience. As we read in Proverbs, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15)

The father explained to the Lord Christ, “And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him.” (Mark 9:22) Dear Faithful, the Enemy wants to kill us. The Enemy ruins those in whom he rules and works. Bonds of sin, habits and addictions to sin, separate us from Jesus Christ, and give the fallen angles authority in our lives. The Enemy rejoices at our falls. We must repent, fast, pray, and accept the faith Jesus Christ gave us through the Church in Holy Baptism and continues to give us in the Holy Mysteries.

The father of the boy pleaded with the Lord Christ, “[B]ut if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Surely the father was reflecting on the lack of faith in Christ’s disciples, for they could not cast out the devil. But now, Christ turns the question back on the father and strengthens his faith, “All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Put another way, the father begs the power of Christ to fill his unbelief; he sought the grace of Christ to fill what lacked in his own spiritual life. Christ alone possesses power to fill our unbelief. Dear Faithful, we experience the power of Christ in and through the Orthodox Church, namely in the holy Mysteries or sacraments. Faith is not an abstraction. Faith is not a sentimental feeling. Faith is not an imaginary relationship with Jesus. Faith is our trust in the redemptive power of the Jesus Christ, whom we encounter in and through the Divine Liturgy and the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church. We must have faith in the holy Mysteries, and the holy Mysteries will strengthen our faith. We cannot be healed by an imaginary relationship with Jesus or pious sentiments. We must understand this: only in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church can Christ say, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” (Mark 9:25)

Jesus Christ cast the devil out of the boy. Christ healed the boy, who had been possessed since infancy. Christ cured the sin of Adam, making himself the New Adam. In the Mysteries of Baptism, Repentance/Confession, and Holy Unction, Jesus Christ restores fallen human nature, forgives sin, heals the passions, and incorporates us into the Holy Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is truly the Body of Christ. Incorporated into the Church, grafted into the Church by the Holy Mysteries, we are no longer children of fallen Adam but truly become the Body of Christ, the New Adam. In the Church, we have power to do that which the Scribes and disciples could not accomplish; we have priestly authority to cast out devils and restore ourselves and the society in which we live to the true dignity of humanity.

But surely we must know, the Orthodox Christian life, the path of purification and illumination, is not easy. We must work and struggle for our salvation. Purification, uprooting sinful habits, is often painful, leaving us as a corpse. The bonds of sin, habits and addictions, are difficult to break. We have many arguments, defenses, and excuses. Society does nothing to encourage interior silence, chastity or sobriety, stillness or simplicity. We have many excuses to lay aside the fast, very little time to pray. Television, the internet, and noise are distractions, keep us from prayer, and separate us from ourselves. The Divine services are too long, even toilsome. It is easier to remain in sin. I can repent later. I have committed this sin a million times: once more will not hurt. Repentance is painful; purification will leave the habits and addictions to sin dead. When we renounce our sins, part of us dies—our sinful self dies. As we hear in the Holy Gospel, “And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it [the devil] came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, “He is dead.” Dear Faithful, we must renounce sin, no matter how attached we are to it; the habits of sin and addictions, the passions—all these must be uprooted. We must repent; repentance will hurt, leaving us dead like a corpse. We descend as children of Fallen Adam into the grave so that we might rise as the New Adam, purified, and Transfigured in Jesus Christ. Purification will leave us as a corpse, until we ascend Mount Tabor with Christ, Peter, James, and John.

“But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” (Mark 9:27) Repentance and purification challenges us to the core of our being, which is why the Orthodox Church strengthens us with the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and Gifts, Holy Confession, and extra services in Great Lent. Only in the Church, only in the Holy Mysteries/Sacraments and liturgy, can Jesus Christ take us by the hand and bring us to the fullness of Deification, grace, resurrection. Dear Faithful in Christ, please avail yourselves of the sacramental grace the Church offers you, which will surely strengthen your unbelief and heal your souls.

After the devil departed from the boy, the disciples asked why they had failed to cast it out. The Lord replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting”. (Mark 9: 29) Sins, addictions, and viscous habits are rooted in the soul; we must take extraordinary means to uproot them. The Church gives us the sacramental grace we need for repentance. But we must work out our own salvation. We must take extraordinary means to cure our souls. We have no special sins. We must lay aside excuses. The habit of sin is the punishment for sin, not its justification. We cannot be lazy. We must take extraordinary measures to purify our souls, which are prayer and fasting. What Jesus Christ could accomplish by His Word, we can only accomplish by prayer and fasting.

Priest Joseph Towne

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