32 Fourth Sunday of Great Lent - April 6, 2008

Hebrews 6:13-20

Mark 9:17-31

Many take the Christian faith as a set of religious ideas that one must believe; and to believe is taken to mean to accept these religious ideas as true without proof, on pure “faith”. Certainly we believe that the claims of the Church are true, but to believe goes so much deeper than this that if one goes no further than accepting the claims of the Church as true, one is not really believing. One is not truly a person of faith. My effort this morning is to open our understanding to this deeper dimension of faith.

Consider: on what basis do you accept the claims of the Church as true? Why do you accept the idea, for example, that God is three Persons but not three Gods; that he is one God in three Persons? Why do you accept the idea that Jesus is God the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became man, who was born of a Virgin, and who rose again from the dead, and who is the Savior of the world? How can God be born of a Virgin? How can the uncreated God exist in created nature? How can God who is Life Immortal die? The mind cannot understand these things. Why, then, would one believe them?

There are whole religious movements, many of them even calling themselves Christian, that were begun by rejecting this religion of “faith” for a religion of common sense. They felt that this “faith” based religion was, you might say an oligarchic religion, i.e. a religion of power held by a few men to exercise tyranny over the masses by threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t accept these religious claims as true. Those who embraced this religion of common sense, who “believed” in it, felt they had liberated themselves from religious tyranny by setting reason up as their authority in place of the religious assertions of the Church hierarchy. There is an irony to their liberation, however. They exchanged one human tyranny for another: from the tyranny of the few men to the tyranny of their own opinions.

Having rejected the Church in the belief that it had become a front for power-hungry men, they set up their own religion whose authority was not Scripture, as they claimed, but their own reasoning; for it was the wisdom of their own opinions masquerading as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that was deciding for them what Holy Scripture means.  Soon after human opinion had been set up on the altar of Truth, the disintegration of the Christian religion began. Christianity became a plethora of many “denominations,” each one distinguished from the other by the “opinions” it held regarding the meaning of Holy Scripture, but all of them springing from the same root of human reason or the wisdom of man’s own opinions.

Liberated from the tyranny of religious belief, some, unable to comprehend how three can be one, saw no reason to believe in the idea of the Holy Trinity, and so they dismissed it. Then, they dismissed the idea of the Incarnation. Jesus was an ordinary man like the rest of us, extraordinary only in that he was gripped in a peculiar way by religious fervor. And so they dismissed as well the idea of the Virgin Birth and the idea of the resurrection. In the last two hundred years, a growing number have even rejected the idea that the man, Jesus, existed at all.

The final step in the disintegration of this religion rooted in the wisdom of human opinion has been to reject the idea of God; and with that, to reject religion altogether and to replace its religious ideas with the reasonable findings of science, the discipline par excellence of reason. Safely entrenched behind the fortress of human reason, man has finally secured himself against the tyranny of Christianity’s religious ideas and the threat of damnation that goes along with the refusal to believe them.

It might be said, however, that rational consistency is not just a luxury but a necessity, even a categorical imperative, of the human mind. To be consistent with their dismissal of the Church and finally the idea of God himself, those who rejected the ideas of the Christian Faith had no choice, in order to remain consistent, but to dismiss man himself. Utterly blind to the fact that science has no way to measure spiritual realities, and having put their faith in science rather than in religion, they concluded that man is but a biological collection of chemicals and electrolytes. His destiny is that of his body. The atoms that make up his body may migrate somewhere else after he dies and disintegrates into the dust, but the individual himself will be no more. Only Man exists; men and women do not.

Perhaps we, too, secretly or not so secretly, are bound to the wisdom of our own opinions, unable to believe the claims of the Church because they seem to be contrary to reason and common sense: ideas such as the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of the dead, even the idea of God himself. I will make another religious claim not as a rebuke but as a diagnosis of spiritual or religious fact. We are sick. We are blind, we are deaf, we are crippled in soul, we are ignorant. Finally, we are infected with arrogance and conceit, the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. This is not said as a rebuke because the Church understands that we take refuge in our own ideas in order to protect ourselves from the arrogance of another’s opinion asserting itself as Truth, for the secret purpose of exercising power over us. And we, in the helplessness of our blindness and ignorance, have had no recourse but to reject any claims of Truth as empty religious ideas.

On this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, when we celebrate the memory of St John Climacus, let me do what I can to speak in the Spirit of St John Climacus and set before us the Church’s prescription for our malady.

As you know, the serum that renders one immune to sickness contains a little bit of the poison that causes the sickness, just enough so that our body can develop antibodies specifically against that poison. Since the infection of modern man has been caused by this notion that to believe is a rational act of accepting as true religious ideas that are irrational, let me inject our minds with the serum of the Church that contains within it two religious ideas that in their own way are irrational, and yet which we know intuitively have the ring of Truth. And then I will leave it to this serum of the Church to do its work on our mind and our heart, to see if it doesn’t bring about the cure of this sickness caused by a false notion of faith by which man has rejected the claims of the Church.

 Here’s the first idea. The Scriptures say that God is love. So, you who doubt even the existence of God, do you believe in love? Here’s the second idea. The Scriptures say that we are made in the image of God. If God is love, we are love.

How can you know love without loving? Love is not an idea that you come to know through logical reasoning. It is a reality that you come to know only by doing it. Jesus Christ, writes St Paul, is the Love of God and the Wisdom of God. If that is true, how can you come to know Jesus Christ as he truly is, the Son of God, apart from love? Jesus himself says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” If Jesus is the love of God, how can you know him as the way, the truth, and the life, and how can you hope to come to the knowledge of the Father, apart from love? For, God is love, and Jesus is the Love of God.

Let’s apply this “God is love” idea to the idea of God. It is self-evident that there is no love if there is no other to love. How can God be love if he is one only? It is self-evident that love is personal, for persons, not things, love. If God is love, then God is personal not in the singular but in the plural for a person cannot love if there isn’t another person to love. It is self-evident that persons who love are one even as they are many. This is self evident. You know it in your heart. But I challenge you to explain it rationally without losing it altogether.

Love is higher than reason. Reason is not the master of love. Love is the master of reason. The Church does not claim that God is Holy Trinity. She proclaims it, not on the basis of philosophical reasoning but on the basis of her own experience of divine love. This knowledge that is of the heart, not the mind, is called, properly, theology.

It is in love that the Church comes to us and calls us to this God who is love because he is one in three, three in one. He is Holy Trinity in a way the mind cannot know. Only the heart can know that he is one in three, three in one; only the heart can know that Jesus is God the Word who who was born of a Virgin and who became man and who suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified for us men and for our salvation, who was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead, and who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Only the heart can know this history because this is a history of God who is love, and these historical acts of the Savior are the acts of love by which he has manifested to the world his love for the world. Only the heart can know this, because it is from the heart not from the mind that we love. The mind of faith follows the heart of love, and informed by what it sees in the heart, the mind of faith proclaims to the heart of you and me the ineffable joy of divine love that has been poured out upon you and me through the Cross of Jesus Christ.

In these terms, we begin to see that faith is not to accept a religious idea as true. To believe is to love. To believe in God is to believe in love. But you don’t love abstractly; you love concretely, in word and in deed. In order to come to a knowledge, or rather to faith in the Holy Trinity we must believe in or rather we must love the Lord Jesus Christ by loving our neighbor; i.e., by taking up our cross to follow him. We must love as he has loved us; we must show mercy as he has had mercy on us; we must forgive as he has forgiven us. This is the way of faith that leads to the knowledge of God. It is the way of love, not the way of reason that verifies the claims of the Church. To submit to the Church is not to submit to the tyranny of human authority. It is to submit to the love of God.

“He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me,” says the Savior. His commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself. “And he who loves me will be loved by my Father,” says the Lord, “and I will love him and manifest myself to him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”[1] The Christian faith is not a religion of ideas but of divine love. The Church as the body of Christ is a “School of Divine Love”. To be a Christian is to matriculate in this school in order to become a student of the divine love it teaches in order to graduate as a saint: one who practices this divine love. But because we are disciples of divine love, and because of the very nature of love, when we love we don’t just come to a rational understanding of God. We enter into living, personal communion with God, and we know him not as an idea that we accept or reject, but as a personal reality whom we know immediately in the living experience of personal communion with God himself in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, in the communion of his holy Mother the Theotokos, the holy apostles, and all the saints. Amen. 

[1] Jn 14:21-23