|44 - Faith of a Centurion, July 5, 2020|
It seems that a major teaching given to us on these Sundays following Pentecost is on faith. This morning, the Gospel story of the centurion illustrates St Paul’s teaching on faith in his letter to the Romans that has been our daily assigned reading now for the last three weeks.
I would summarize St Paul’s teaching on faith something like this: now that you have been set free in the baptismal font of Christ’s Holy Church from sin and its end, death and corruption, you are no longer a slave to death. You are no longer ‘dead’. Even your dying now is ‘living’ if you are presenting yourself to Christ and not to sin. That is, if in your ‘inner man’, in your mind and in your heart, you are making yourself to stand beside Christ and not beside sin; for through your baptism, you have been united to Christ in the likeness of His death. Your dying is now, in Christ, the putting to death of all that is dead in you. And so, your dying is now become, in your union with Christ, the beginning of your resurrection in Christ.
Before, your heart was a tomb. For, in the Garden, i.e., in the human heart, the venomous seed of the serpent was injected into our life through the sin of our first parents. It is the poisonous seed of greed or self-love that now paralyzes everyone from birth. Even if we want to, we simply cannot walk or live in the eternal life of God, zoe, outside of Christ; for, all of us spring forth from the root of Adam that is corrupted, deadened, by greed or self-love.
On the ‘surface’, in our ‘flesh’, we are free to make choices; e.g., what career path we’ll pursue, who or if we will marry, to what degree we will give ourselves to discipline and morality, or to laziness and indulgence. But, what mom and dad has not observed how their children, even from infancy, are so inclined to self-will and covetousness that they are virtually imprisoned by it? Is this not the evidence that we are corrupted by greed in the root of our being, our heart?
So, St Paul is not setting before us a religious theory with his teaching on death and how we are enslaved to it. We can observe for ourselves our enslavement to death in the greed or self-interest that governs us long before we have reached the age of accountability.
And, when we become teen-agers, we begin the tortured process of emancipating ourselves from the strictures of our parents and teachers in the certainty of arrogance that we know better than they. We come into adulthood thoroughly enslaved to our own reasonings, well-rehearsed in listening to and following only the wisdom of our own opinions, our own speculations, our own theories and ideas as though they were wisdom from heaven.
How are we not like the idols the LORD complained about through the Psalmist and His prophets? We have eyes but we see only the wisdom of our own opinions and we believe we see God. We have ears but we hear only the ruminations of our own heads and we believe it is the LORD talking to us. We are spiritual corpses living in darkness and we believe we are spiritual when we feel a surge of emotion. Beneath the surface of the flesh, in our heart, we are wholly turned in on ourselves, seeing and hearing only our own reasonings inside the so-called ‘circle of life’ that looks more like a tomb because we are wholly closed off from God in the deep beyond us where we would find our heart, our true selves.
What we are describing here, of course, is not faith but self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is insidious and extremely subtle, perhaps the most subtle of all subtleties. It deludes us into believing we are believers; but, we’re not, and so we are darkened, paralyzed, deadened even more. The Hebrew reading of Jeremiah 17.9 captures it: ‘The heart is deceitful beyond all things, and desperately (or incurably, according to the Hebrew) wicked. Who can know it?’ The seed of the serpent’s venom has been knit into our heart so that in our heart, we are inclined so easily to the pleasures of self-indulgence, self-will, self-affirmation, self-pity that we take this to be naturally human. To err is human, we say, wholly deluded by the wisdom of the world. In fact, to err, to sin, to be governed by greed and self-love, to die, is not human. It is not natural. Sin, manifested in idolatry and covetousness and finally in death, according to the teaching of the Church, is unnatural. It is against not according to human nature. To be truly human is to be like God. It is to be holy as God is holy. It is to live forever in the righteousness of God.
The heart’s wickedness is ‘incurable,’ says the Hebrew of Jer 17.9, as we see for ourselves in the fact that every ‘living’ thing in this world dies. This is the very point St Macarius of Egypt made 1700 years ago (Hom 15). That means, of course, that I cannot heal it in myself. No power on earth can heal it. Only the LORD Jesus Christ incarnate can heal it; that is, only God in the Body of His Church, in the mysteries of the Church’s sacraments where, as the loving Bride of Christ, she opens onto the deep beyond all things. For, the Body of Christ that is the Church is our human body into which God descended from His home in the deep beyond all things in order to come into the prison of death and corruption that holds us mercilessly. In our body, God healed the incurable sore by His death and resurrection, and He filled our body with Himself so that the fullness of God dwells bodily in His Church and in those who are united to His Church in the mystery of the Church’s Baptism.
Deep in our heart, the LORD, Christ our God, has freed us from death. He has cured the incurable sore, as St Macarius calls it. In our heart, we have been raised from the bed of our paralysis, our spiritual death, and made to stand up in the Tomb of Christ where death has been put to death. The stone that sealed our heart and shut us out from the deep beyond all things—following now the Greek reading of Jeremiah 17.9—has been rolled away. The LORD Jesus by His Resurrection has opened our heart onto the Garden of His Resurrection in the ‘deep beyond all things’.
Let’s say that the ‘door of our heart,’ an image we find in St John’s Apocalypse, represents the power of self-determination, which the fathers say is the ‘essence’ of the ‘image of God’ in whom we are created. So also, we can take the centurion in this morning’s Gospel as an image of the power of our self-determination.
Let us note, then, that the centurion this morning chooses to put his trust not in princes or in sons of men. That means also that he does not put his trust in his own reasonings. Instead, he does as the prophet directs: ‘Whoever calls on the Name of the LORD shall be delivered’ (Joel 2.32); that is, saved (sozo in the Greek), set free from death, healed of the heart’s incurable wickedness.
I believe we are seeing here an image of faith in action: the centurion, an image here of my own power of self-determination, is choosing to trust not in himself but in the LORD. I am a believer, a ‘man’ of faith as I choose not to talk to myself, to scheme and strategize in the belief that the solution rests wholly on the power of my own reasonings; but by choosing to call on the Name of the LORD and then working to grow still inside so that I can hear the LORD answering me. Can you see here an image of prayer, specifically, the ‘prayer of the heart’: LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ Prayer comes into view now, does it not, as the essential work of faith. Can you see in this image how faith is the hidden action of the heart choosing to pray, choosing to turn toward the LORD, to present herself—this is the verb that St Paul uses—that is, to make the thoughts of her mind and the feelings of her soul to stand in the presence of the LORD and not in her own reasonings or in her own moods and emotions? Faith, then, is not static. It is active; it is the active turning of the heart, the heart willfully choosing to turn herself toward the LORD by talking with Him in prayer, listening to hear beneath the whisperings of her own thoughts, coming from who knows where, the still, small voice of God. He spoke to us through His prophets; but He now speaks to us definitively, once for all, in His Church, in the prayers and worship of the Church, in the Holy Scriptures of the Church as they are read in the Spirit of the Church, in the teachings and writings of the holy fathers. That is, the LORD does not speak to us apart from the Church—through tea leaves, the stars, or from out of the blue in whatever thought enters my head.
I do not have the power to heal myself; but, as a centurion, I have the power to choose to whom I will present myself, whose slave I will be, to whom I will open the door of my heart and on whom I will set the eyes and ears of my mind. By this faith that is an active faith, active in the prayer of the heart, I present myself to God who alone can deliver me from death and heal me in the resurrection of the Christ who is in me; and I become a blessed slave of life and joy. Amen!