The Sunday after the Feast of the Dormition
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on August 16, 2009
Matthew 17:14-23 (10th Sunday after Pentecost)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The father was surprised that the disciples were unable to heal his son, but undeterred he turned to Jesus. The Lord's response was blunt. He lumped his impotent disciples together with what he calls a "faithless and perverse generation" and exclaims, "How long am I to bear with you?" When the disciples ask why they were unable to heal the boy the Lord's response was direct, "Because you have no faith."
So we must ask ourselves, "What is faith?"
First, faith is not an emotion or a feeling. It is not a kind of excitement we whip up inside ourselves like people when they get worked up about a football game, a good meal, romance or rock concert. It is not the same thing as belief although belief must have an element of faith in it. Belief is how we try to explain and express our faith. Belief is the way we explain what it is we have come to accept as true. But faith is more than an unshakable adherence to a list of beliefs. It is much, much more than that and often includes the letting go of the same propositions since the more we grow in faith the more they fail to express the deep truths we discover. Faith that does not grow and change is not a living faith and cannot, therefore, be an authentic faith in the Living God.
Faith is above all a personal relationship with God. It is the opening of the eye of the soul and of the heart to see what cannot be seen, to know what cannot be known. Faith above all is communion with the Divine, the transformation of our mortality into immortality, the deification of human flesh, the transfiguration of the mind.
In all of us faith is partial, incomplete and often inadequate. We need to enter more and more deeply into a relationship with God which demands a humbling of ourselves, a dying to ourselves, a crucifixion of the mind. It is risky. Faith leads us into uncharted territory, into a mystery that cannot be explained or described. The only power we have, once we have begun, is the power to stop or continue; other than that we cannot determine what will happen along the way. That can be a scary thing. To come closer to God is to realize more and more just how distant we are. It is a paradox. Fr. Hopko says, "God cannot be known, but you have to know Him to know that."
So what do we do? We take the plunge. We allow ourselves to swim away from shore, from what we think we know so well into the deep waters where we know nothing, where there is nothing to hold on to, where it might just be too far to swim back if we get tired. That is faith. To swim away from shore, to let go of our boats, our life-preservers, our safety nets is where faith becomes real. Faith is ultimately the trust that God is really there and that our fear of the unknown is really only a lack of faith. Casting aside our fears we keep going. Then we learn as we swim out into the deep that the strength to reach the shore comes just when we need it. The Zen masters say, "Jump and the net will appear."
Perhaps this quote from a modern saint, Joseph the Hesychast will give you an idea of what I mean.
"At last, I was completely changed, and forgot myself. I was filled with light in my heart and outside and everywhere, not being aware that I even had a body."
Key in this quote are the three words, I "forgot myself." The Elder had made himself a living sacrifice, holding nothing back, letting everything go for the sake of being in Communion with God. What would come as a result he did not know, but he did find out. The Elder passed from mere belief about God to faith in God, a living experience beyond his imagination, quite beyond his control.
When the endless activity of the mind halts in adoration, the senses are completely taken over, infused with divine light and the physical body becomes no longer heavy and cumbersome, but luminous and filled with divine energy, then we know we are in deep water, over our heads, in that unpredictable territory where the only thing is God who is all in all. Completely at His mercy we come to realize what faith really is.
Faith is communion.
In the hymns for the Feast of the Transfiguration we chant these words:
Those of us who long to see
that inexplicable beauty,
let us acquire hearts
in which we shall receive its shining.
Leaving behind the desire for this world, its pleasures, its distractions we prepare our hearts to open to God. Stripping away all idolatrous images, our opinions, our smallness we at last find the door upon which the Lord of All has been knocking and knocking.
The mystic poet writes:
Deafened by the voice of desire
You are unaware that the Beloved lives
In the core of your heart.
Stop the noise and
You will hear His voice
In the silence.
This is the path of faith.