St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Lessons of Failure and the Substance of Faith

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 19, 2012

In our last episode, the priest was so overwhelmed with the Gospel of the healing of the epileptic boy that he postponed his sermon for a week. In today’s episode, he attempts to rectify his lapse in consciousness.

To recap that Gospel briefly: the father of an epileptic boy comes to Jesus for two reasons, to ask for healing and to complain that the disciples failed to heal him. Jesus rebukes his disciples when they ask him why they couldn’t do it telling them it was because they had no faith. Then Jesus makes his famous remark about being able to move mountains with faith as small as the size of a grain of mustard seed. At the end he tells them of his coming death and resurrection. The disciples thought they understood Jesus and his message. They were sure in their own certainty. That is why they failed.

First, we don’t know what the disciples did when they tried to heal the boy. We know only that it didn’t work. I have two images in my mind: one of Barney Fife making a complete fool of himself in front of the good citizens of Mayberry; and the other of the priests of Baal in their shootout with Elijah over who worshipped the true God. When Baal didn’t send fire down after they had done all “the right things”, said all the “right prayers”, and completed the requisite rituals, they got a little crazy with frustration and started cutting themselves. That also did not work.

The Lord’s rebuke, I believe, was done with his tongue firmly in his cheek. I don’t think he was the least bit surprised they failed. Why? He had something to teach them. He pulled the rug out from under them. They experienced the emptiness and groundlessness you feel when the world seems to crash down around you. Failure is one of the best ways we have to learn. The disciples did not yet comprehend who Jesus was and what he had been teaching. So, Matthew, realizing this in hindsight, ends this episode with Jesus telling them of his coming death and Resurrection, which would shed light on everything Jesus taught and who he was.

What did they not understand? First that power is not the point. The love of and desire for Power is a distraction. Once Jesus gave his 70 disciples power to heal and cast out demons and they rejoiced that he had given them this power. But Jesus rebuked them, redirecting their minds, by saying, “Rather, you should rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is always the point.

It is very important for seekers of truth to have an uncompromising commitment to admitting when they are wrong. 

Jesus did not come to impart power, but to open the eyes of the blind. In this Gospel it was the disciples who were blind. They did not know that the kingdom of heaven was right before them and that it is not power that heals, but light, illumination, and compassion. Had the disciples been focusing on the little boy, had their eyes and hearts been open to the cause of his illness, had they looked deeply with compassion and sensitivity, then they would have known how to heal him. They did not understand the power of compassion which rests upon a foundation of self-denial and humility.

Jesus uses different approaches for each person who came to him for healing because for him, at that moment, there was nothing else in the world more important to him than that person right in front of him. Being God he could see deeply into the mind, heart, soul, and body and prescribe the necessary thing. What the disciples had yet to understand is that the image of God in them, and the presence of the kingdom Himself right there in their midst was all that was needed, but they were children, immature in the ways of God. They were distracted, by their own misunderstanding and by their desires in some way that we do not exactly know, but all we need to have a clue to what went wrong in them is to look at ourselves and what goes wrong with us when we miss the point and fail in our own endeavors. From their questioning it may well have been that they were more concerned about their success or failure than the condition of the little boy and the sadness of his father. They had not yet assimilated what it means to have your name written in heaven. Once that is understood, nothing else matters.

Then Jesus throws a curve ball that seems to have nothing to do with their failure or with their lack of faith. He tells them he will be killed and rise from the dead. One of the reasons they did not know that the kingdom was fully present in Christ was that their poor souls were still clogged with the debris of this world ; they had not yet had the clarifying experience of the Lord’s crucifixion and Resurrection. That would be the essential eye-opener. Then they would understand all that Jesus had been trying to teach them. The living water cannot flow from within as long as the soul is clogged. They would begin to see that where Jesus is the kingdom is fully present, and since the power of death is no more, his way is not the way of clinging to power, but of utter humility, compassion, and self-denial.

The failure of the disciples was necessary. They experienced uncertainty, weakness, the emptiness of their own egoic confidence, failure and humiliation - and all that was necessary for their illumination. This was a little cross for them that pointed to the bigger one to come. John Sanford puts it so well, “If we wish certainties in life, we should not seek to become whole. Those who are convinced they possess the whole truth are precisely those who will miss it, for only those who know they lack the truth will seek if. If we are to become whole, life will send us, not what we want, but what we need in order to grow. Becoming whole does not mean being perfect, but being completed. It does not necessarily mean happiness, but growth. It is often painful, but, fortunately, it is never boring. It is not getting out of life what we want, but is the development and purification of the soul.”

Perhaps this quote from St. John’s First Epistle will help shed light on this: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life - is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17). When we realize that the kingdom is here and that our names are written in it, what is their left to lust after?

Finally, a little poem I wrote about the kingdom of heaven and faith.

The more we give up
The false idea
That the kingdom is somewhere else
Not here
The more the kingdom will appear.

Perhaps to those who
Have the faith
To move tall mountains
Place to place
Those obstacles
That loomed so fierce
Will start to fade and disappear.