The Epileptic Boy
Sermon by Fr. Antony Hughes from Sunday, August 24, 2008
The Reading is from Matthew 17:14-23
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
The Lord said that the disciples who were unable to heal the boy were faithless. What does it mean to have faith?
First, let us see what faith is not?
Faith is not the same as belief. Belief comes wrapped in words, concepts and creeds. As valuable as those might be they have little or nothing to do with faith. Faith is not about propositions at all, nor concepts, nor words, nor anything one can or can not do. Faith is not mental gymnastics. Faith is not achieved by working hard to convince oneself of something beyond all doubt. Faith is not a mental process at all. St. James writes in his general epistle that the demons believe and tremble, but this “belief” does not lead to salvation because it is not faith.
Also, we need to understand that faith demands nothing from God. Faith, like love, has only one desire: To give. We love God because He first loved us. We love others because the gift of love has been poured out in our hearts. Every good thing is a gift. The union we seek with God is not the result of asceticism, purgation or contemplation, writes Fr. Matthew El-Maskeen (Matthew the Poor), it comes as a result of the incarnation of the Word of God. What we seek is already within us. Our spiritual practice has the intent of conforming us to the indwelling Spirit. Everything from start to finish is a gift from the all-compassionate God who comes to us and lives within and among us for the kingdom of heaven is not only “within us”, but in the “midst of us.” Still, in an even larger sense, we recognize that the Lord by taking on human flesh and uniting it to His Divinity has accomplished redemption for the entire human race the majority of which still awaits that special, enlivening grace which comes through the action of the Holy Spirit in Baptism.
Remember, oh students of theology, that Orthodoxy begins speaking about God with this concept: God is fundamentally unintelligible. He dwells in unapproachable light. We can neither see, nor feel, nor know him with our minds. We begin by saying that God must be approached by way of negation, a stripping away of all concepts, words and propositions. If we say, as Scripture does, for example, that God is a rock, then we must also say that since God is beyond all thought, He really is not a rock. Rocks are strong, yes, and God is strong, but God is much more than strong. God’s strength is beyond our concept of strength, so we can say that God is almighty, but He is much more “almighty” than we can imagine in our wildest dreams. This is the stuff of faith rather than belief. Belief boxes God up, faith breaks the box open.
Faith is what comes of an encounter with the Lord beyond words and human concepts. It is the result of a face to face, heart to heart encounter with the living God. Faith is a gift given by God to those who have purified their hearts, to those who have learned how to sit at the feet of the Lord in silence and who practice moment by moment, day by day, month by month and year after year the constant remembrance of His presence.
Faith is a return to the truth of who we are as human beings created in His image and likeness. It is the rising within us of the rivers of living water promised by Christ to those who have, as St. Seraphim so beautifully taught, acquired the Holy Spirit. Faith is released in us from the depths of our souls when we have taken out the garbage that obstructs the image and let go of everything that is unhelpful, unloving and unhealthy.
The disciples could not cure the boy because they had still some way to go before the Spirit could move through them without hindrance. Jesus gently chides them in order to humble them. I can imagine the scene as they tried to cure the boy of his epilepsy. I wonder what methods they employed? Those who are acquainted with the big business of televangelism have no doubt seen some of the crazy tactics some evangelists use. I once worked at the Bank of Oklahoma in a section called “Church by mail” in which we counted the contributions being made to a certain television evangelist from California. He used many gimmicks. One of them was a holy shower cap. It was white with a red imprint of the evangelist’s hand on the top. He instructed his followers to put the cap on, take a shower in it (no joke), put the cap back in the self-addressed envelope with a nice donation and upon return the evangelist would put them on his head and pray the “prayer of faith” and miracles would happen! You can imagine what shape those things were in as we pulled them out of the envelopes! I do not know if miracles happened because of them. I do know that he made thousands upon thousands of dollars convincing gullible people that they would.
But faith has nothing to do with gimmicks, shower caps, money or even miracles. Faith embraces God Himself in an unmediated way demanding and asking for nothing except to see and experience the wonder of His presence. Even miracles are a distraction from the “one necessary thing” which is to sit at His feet, to feed on His words, to bask silently in His silence. The Holy Fathers say that if you see a vision during prayer, ignore it and return to prayer for there is only one “necessary thing.” Faith rests in the God who at all times “is everywhere present, filling all things” and is content to be alone with Him and to love Him. True faith simply knows that the goodness of the Lord overflows at all times to all creation whether times are good or bad or happy or sad. “To live is Christ, to die is Christ,” wrote St. Paul. That is all we need. The Hughes family motto is, “Without God, without anything, God and enough.” That is faith.
The sign of faith in a person may be miracles or not, but the one sure sign that faith is at work is love and humility. If they are present, then a variety of miracles are already occurring and the eyes of faith can see them.