Growth in Faith
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 25, 2019 at St. Mary Orthodox Church
The Reading is from the Gospel of Matthew 17:14-23
Once again we come to the story of the epileptic boy that the disciples were unable to heal. It appears in two Gospels. First in Matthew 17:14-23 and second in Mark chapter 9:17-29. There are differences in these accounts, but the message is the same. The lack of faith was the problem. In Matthew’s account it was the lack of faith in the disciples. In Mark’s Gospel the father is the focus of the problem.
I don’t think it was because the disciples and the father had no faith at all. In fact, Christ says explicitly that they had very little faith, I think it was because all of them had faith that was insufficient for the task at hand. I do not know if you know this, but there are stages of faith. Faith grows, changes, and matures or it lies stagnant and ineffective.
Think about it like this. The revelation of God was revealed slowly through many centuries until at long last we come to Jesus who is the perfect image of the Father. Paul writes to the Colossians, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Col. 2:9)
Who knew this before the Incarnation? The prophets saw only in part. So did the disciples while they were with Jesus. The revelation of God is revealed in us personally when we are ready to receive it just as it was in history. So, I think today’s Gospel shows the limits of the disciples’ faith at that point.
Let’s look for a brief moment at James Fowler’s famous elucidation of the stages of faith stopping at a couple of the more interesting ones.
James Fowler wrote that the stages of faith begin at birth. The first stage, Stage 0 goes from birth to 2 years of age; stage 1 from ages 3 to 7; stage 2:school children.
Stage 2 is interesting for us. It is called the Mythic-Literal stage in which the language, metaphors, and symbols of faith of religion are confused with literal truth, taking what was meant as metaphor for reality. Many people of faith get stuck at this stage. They never recognize that behind the literal meaning lies something far more wonderful. Many never progress beyond this stage.
Some progress to stage 3, the Synthetic-Conventional stage marked by conformity to authority in the development of religious identity. Conflicts and inconsistencies in belief systems are ignored because they are too uncomfortable to deal with. There is a fear of triggering authority figures. The need here is for certainty and security. This is another stage at which people often get stuck.
Stage 4 is the Individuative - Reflective stage (mid-twenties to late thirties). It is marked by questions, doubts, and struggle. Here people begin to take personal responsibility for their beliefs. Certainty begins to fade as a value. At this point young people (and adults) often exit the Church when their questions and doubts are not engaged or taken seriously. Panic often sets in when people who reach stage four start asking hard questions. Most of the time, we don’t know what to do about it except try to force them back to stage two or three. That clearly does not work.
Stage 5, the Conjunctive stage (around mid-life), is when paradox and transcendence are folded into the mix. Previous conflicts are resolved with higher thinking, acknowledging that “truth” is multidimensional and resistant to exact explanation.
Finally, Stage 6 is the stage of Universalizing Faith, the stage marked by enlightenment. Truth broadens. The heart and mind expand. Metaphor is recognized as metaphor and the deeper meanings are explored. Compassion for others regardless of faith, ethnicity, or any other thing becomes operative. Truth and justice become more important than agreement and conformity. Needless to say most people do not reach this stage.
So, I wonder where the disciples in today’s Gospel were in these stages. Certainly not very far along, I imagine. Perhaps this was why Jesus spoke to them about having little faith. Maybe it was just immature faith, childish (not childlike) faith. Jesus was perhaps frustrated with them because their faith had not progressed enough to fulfill the mission he sent them to do. We don’t really know do we?
What we do know is that faith, to become truly operative and effective, needs to grow and mature. We need to leave behind childish things, as St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthian 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
I think, as a Church, we need to learn how to work with people at all stages of faith. We need to take them seriously and encourage everything necessary to help them navigate each stage and progress to the next one. Not telling them what to do or even believe, but allowing the mystery of faith to unfold in them as it will. The hemorrhaging of people from the Church, especially young people, calls for a much more enlightened response from us. All questions are good and should be met with openness and flexibility. At least that’s what I believe. We must learn to allow people room to grow.
When faith changes and is questioned, we must stop panicking and learn how to use these changes, doubts, and questions to help propel our children and our people, ourselves, and, yes, our leaders, to look deeply at themselves and allow necessary growth to occur from a childish faith to something that is more mature. We all need to grow up and become filled with faith that mirrors the faith of our Lord and Savior, that is, to really put on the mind of Christ whose faith is all-encompassing and unlimited, and truly unfathomable and mysterious. If we think we’ve got it, it is a sure sign that we’re stuck in an early stage of faith. Growth in Christ is an eternal process.