Faith is Love , Faith is Trust
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, July 2, 2017 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (8:5-13)
Today’s Gospel gives us the opportunity to talk about what faith is, what faith means. I will be drawing from the book AGAINST RELIGION by the renowned philosopher/theologian Christos Yannaras who makes the argument that faith is not what we think it is. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to tell us that Jesus is the end of religion. Yannaras is saying the same thing. I never really understood it before.
And what do we usually think faith is? We think of it as a set of doctrines, laws, and practices that are obligatory for a “faithful” member of any religion to hold. But what if Orthodoxy is not a religion at all? What if Orthodoxy is something else or is supposed to be something else? And what is it then? The law came through Moses and Jesus brought something else: grace and truth. Grace and truth, not law, not rules, not dogma, or canons defines faith. Faith transcends religion and all boundaries and, as Yannaras writes, calls us to a new mode of existence, a new way of living. To manifest this new and transcendent life in the world is the sole reason for the Church’s existence. I think today’s Gospel points to this in dramatic fashion.
Jesus is astonished with what he sees and hears from the Centurion. The Lord says that he had not seen such faith in all of Israel. The Centurion was probably Roman, not a Jew, part of an occupying army, a man of a different religion. He was a man of authority and yet he humbled himself publically on behalf of a sick slave. Look, folks. This is not normal! Something is happening here that Jesus clearly did not expect and he marvels at it. “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel,” he said. And he continued with another comment to which we should pay close attention. “I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” The result was that the slave was healed that very hour.
What impressed Jesus? Not the Centurion’s religious convictions, nor his moral life, or his obedience to the law. That is the stuff of religion and didn’t enter the picture. What impressed Jesus was that he saw himself in the Centurion. The grace and truth that came through him he saw already operative in the Centurion’s life. This kind of faith is something that the status quo does not and cannot ever produce. It is always personal and relational. The Centurion was already in touch with it. At that moment he transcended himself, his own-interests and his ego. He laid down his life for his servant and he trusted Jesus to be there for him. That is faith. He thought nothing of himself as he humiliated himself. This new mode of existence, this new life, this transformation of normal human life into transcendence is the difference between religion and faith. That is what I see in this Roman soldier. I think it is also what Jesus saw.
Just as Christ emptied himself and became a servant the Centurion also emptied himself and became the servant of his servant. Thus, the Centurion and Christ mirrored each other. Deep called out to deep. That is why the Lord was astonished. They shared together at that moment a communion deeper than religion could ever accomplish, more profound than can be found in any law or dogma or system: a relationship of mutual trust, understanding, and love. From the emptiness of Jesus and the emptiness of the Centurion compassion and kindness flowed and set Capernaum on fire with miracles.
Yannaras gives us a great example of the difference between religion and faith in his critique of modern monasticism. He quotes St. Isaac of Syria as a counterpoint to the false monasticism of our time that, far from exuding transcendent love, often takes on the role of judge, jury, and policing authority of the Church and the world. St. Isaac represents monasticism as it was meant to be writing this, “You should know, brother, that the reason why we need to shut ourselves inside our cells is this: that we should not know the evil things that people do. We shall then regard them all as saints and as good through the purity of our minds.” Do you see the difference? What has happened? We have traded faith for religion. The difference is stark!
I have a little story that may or may not apply, but I want to share it because it is beautiful. I have a wonderful spiritual son in the minimum security prison in Concord. Last Tuesday he said to me a most amazing thing that brought tears to my eyes. He said, “Dad (he calls me that for he has never had a father), I realize now that I am not in prison.” And then he pointed to his forehead. “The prison is only in my mind.” Michael, at that moment was free. He showed me what faith is. He has learned something of self-transcendence. He has learned what it is like to be empty of ego and to believe and trust God in all things. Here is a little snippet from a poem by Rumi to cap the story.
“While the mind sees only boundaries, Love knows the secret way…”
Ego-transcending humility and evangelic love that mirrors the self-emptying of Christ himself is what we are all called to manifest in our lives. It is so very rare. Religious people often fail most spectacularly at the astonishing faith of the Centurion is that to which everyone of us is called. So, when people say that they are spiritual but not religious, I think I am beginning to understand. It may well be the beginning of faith.