|13 - A Lesson on Faith, December 1, 2013|
The Lord says to the rich ruler in this morning’s Gospel: “You lack one thing. Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and, come, follow Me.” This is really the same command that Christ gave earlier to His disciples: “Let him who would be my disciple deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Lk 9:
When the rich ruler heard this, it says that he was very sad, because he was very rich. When Jesus sees the sorrow of the rich ruler, He says, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When they hear this, those around Him ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” The Lord answers, “What is impossible with men is possible for God.”
What is it that makes salvation so hard? Why do the disciples say, “Who, then, can be saved?”
Now, St Paul tells us what salvation is in our epistle lesson this morning: “Even when we were dead through our sins, God made us alive together with Christ. He raised us up with Him and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places.”
From this, we could say that it is so hard, even impossible, for anyone to be saved except by the grace of God because we are all spiritually dead in our sins. Since we’re dead, we can’t make ourselves live the Life of God. Only God can make us live and raise us up from spiritual death to spiritual life and make us sit with Christ in the heavenly places.”
But the Gospel this morning seems to locate the reason salvation is so hard elsewhere. In this morning’s epistle, salvation is impossible for us to gain by ourselves because we are spiritually dead and we can’t make ourselves spiritually alive. But, in this morning’s Gospel, salvation is so hard because we don’t want to give up our riches in order to follow Christ. The epistle this morning points to the spiritual state of our soul. The Gospel points to our will and to the love of our heart. But, perhaps these two are the same thing. Perhaps it is the sign of our spiritual death that we love our worldly riches more than we love Christ.
Because, where is Christ leading us if we were to follow Him? He is leading us to His death on the Cross and His burial in the tomb. And, if we are going to follow Him, it means that we will die with Him; and if we are united with Him in the likeness of His death, that means we will lose our worldly riches.
In very real terms, we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ through the ascetic disciplines of the Church; prayer without ceasing, constant vigilance, fasting, and practicing the commandments of Christ. But, this is very hard. Most if not all of us fail. It is very hard to pray without ceasing. At best, we pray only sporadically. It is very hard to be constantly vigilant. I dare say, probably we are hardly ever vigilant. And, to keep the fast is very, very hard. Many don’t keep it at all – and think nothing of it. The fact is, we don’t want to deny ourselves and take up our cross. We don’t want to do the ascetic disciplines of the Church. They are hard, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. We want to give our time to indulging all we can in the comforts and pleasures of our worldly lives: the TV, Netflix, the internet, the malls, so forth and so on. Someone curses us we want to curse them back. Someone reviles us, we want to revile them back.
St Paul says to us in our epistle lesson this morning. “You are saved by grace through faith.” Can you see how this is illustrated for us in this morning’s Gospel? The rich ruler was not saved. Why? Because he did not want to give up his worldly riches to follow Christ. Mark’s Gospel tells us that when he heard the Lord’s word, he went away sorrowful. Do you see? The rich ruler was not saved because he did not believe. That means he did not take up his cross; he did not practice any of the Church’s ascetic disciplines. My point is this: faith is wanting to follow Christ; it is expressed in taking up our cross: i.e., in praying, fasting, keeping vigilance, and practicing the commandments of Christ, because we want to follow Him. Faith is not a static intellectual belief in Christ as a religious idea or principle. Faith is love expressed actively in denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Christ. Faith is personal, not abstract.
I know of a young woman who wants to take a break from the Church to explore other religions. If I could, I would say to her: “Have you talked to Christ about this?” My point is that she most certainly has not talked to Christ about it, because she treats the Christian Faith as though it were a set of religious ideas that you can prove or disprove with the rational mind; not as a personal relationship. This is not the Christian Faith. The Christian Faith is the work of following Christ, not as an idea in the abstract, but as a “Person” you love.
This is not to say that Faith has nothing to do with knowledge. Faith is knowledge. It is not guess work, or wishful thinking, or the suspension of the intellect. It is a knowledge that is higher than and superior to ordinary worldly knowledge. It is, specifically, the knowledge of God that is born in the heart from obedience to the commandments of Christ, an obedience that transforms the soul. Faith, we could say, is the sanctification, the glorification, even the deificationof the mind. To know God is to love God, and to love God is to know God. This is Faith. Faith, therefore, is not a scientific activity of the mind, but the movement of the heart towards God that produces the knowledge of love. It proceeds from the mind when the mind has descended into and is united with the heart in Christ.
Through faith, i.e., through following Christ, one comes to know the truth of the Christian Faith not by the logic of its theology, but by the power of the Cross. And, what is that power? It is the power of the Resurrection, the power to make you into a new creation, to create in you a clean heart, to put in you a new and right spirit.
Can you see how keeping all the commandments that this rich ruler kept does not make us into a new creation? We can keep them and still be rich in the world, we can still be spiritually dead. So, you do not commit adultery; but, do you lust after women in your heart? So, you do not commit murder; but, do you hate your brother in your heart? So, you do not bear false witness; but, in your heart do you think only on what is true, what is honest, what is pure, what is lovely, what is of good report and what is of virtue. (Phil 4:8) So, you honor your father and mother; but, in your heart do you love the Lord more than father, mother so that you live for the Gospel and not for the nostalgia or ethnic traditions of family? When we deny ourselves and follow Christ, then He re-creates us in our heart, and we keep His commandments as our very being.
Can we be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that, even if we’re not millionaires, we still are very rich in our love for nostalgia, and for the comforts and pleasures, the diversions and entertainments of the world so that it is these that we take up and not the cross, the ascetic disciplines, of the Church?
Most likely, none of us are able or ready to sell all that we have, to deny ourselves and to lose our life for Christ’s sake. But, even so, we don’t have to turn away from Christ in sorrow. We can turn towards Him in humility and contrition, and ask Him to help us in the words of that one disciple who said: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” And then, we get to work by believing as much as we can – not by getting caught up in intellectual arguments over a religious idea – but by praying, at least a little bit, reading Scripture, at least a little bit, confessing our sins, at least once a year, trying to be watchful, at least some of the time. For, when we turn to God even in a faith that is as small as a mustard seed, then what is not possible for us is possible with God. He will work with us like a gardener tending His garden, and he will help us to deny ourselves, bit by bit, until finally, one day, we will be able to sell all that we have, even our life, for His sake, and He will raise us up with Him in His Resurrection that He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen!