Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.
St. John iv. 48
Have you ever noticed how many people live their lives in search of miraculous signs and wonders? What I mean is that most men are looking for some evidence of a supernatural interruption in their lives to confirm God’s existence, or to solve some overwhelming plague, sickness, or disappointment. Most men –including no small number of Christians, await the one miracle that they think will confirm their belief or overcome their sorrows. And yet how strange it is that no sooner are the miracles performed than their recipients will fall back into the usual course of life, forgetting about it all until the next divine irruption is needed! The novelty of miracles wears off almost as quickly as a new pair of shoes –no sooner have we purchased them than, in some mysterious way, they rapidly lose their value. And it shouldn’t surprise us since miracles and new shoes tend to fall under a common category of what satisfies the senses and earthly existence. Miracle-seeking in itself would seems to be flawed from the get-go. We are searching for the wrong thing.
We find this in today’s Gospel. Jesus has just finished rebuking men for being miracle-seekers in the first place. The text reads that Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he made water wine. And there was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum… [who]went unto him, and besought him that he would come down and heal his son, who was at the point of death. (St. John iv. 46, 47) Jesus had just come out of a teaching session with pagan Samaritans, who had been much more interested in what he said than in proving to them what he could do by way of miracles or wonders. But now back in Jewish Galilee, He is confronted once again by a miracle-seeker. Jesus has returned to His own land in which He had made water wine and where the general population seems more taken up with ephemeral signs and wonders than with the Word which He longs to speak to them also. So, Jesus is approached by a nobleman who entreats the Lord to come down to heal his son. Jesus rebukes the nobleman, saying Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. (Ibid, 48) The nobleman exclaims, Sir come down, ere my child die. (Ibid, 49) He believes that unless Jesus comes down in the flesh, his son has no hope of living. Like the Galilean Jews, his hope hangs on perpetuating earthly life. And, because he is not spiritually minded, he believes that Jesus must come down literally if his son is to be healed. He has no deeper sense of the transcendent and invisible power that can heal a man either from a distance or in a deeper, inward, and spiritual way. The end he seeks and the means to it are wholly caught up in earthly life.
In short, the man is rebuked for thinking first and foremost of his son’s physical and earthly healing. Signs and wonders are paranormal events sought out by those weak in faith for the relief of temporary problems! The nobleman cannot imagine saying speak and send the Word only and my servant shall be healed (St. Matthew viii.8), as the Centurion does in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Absent also from this man’s heart is the belief that Christ can raise the dead: Come down before my son dies (Ibid, 49). Because he is so moved and defined by the earthly good, he takes no thought for his son’s spiritual future! If he knew who Christ was and what He was bringing into the world, he would have asked Jesus to come down to heal his son spiritually, so that he might die a good death in anticipation of a better reward in the future. Nevertheless, having rebuked the man, Jesus will not leave him there without any hope.
Jesus will take the man in that state that he finds him and makes him better. He knows that in the future, wherever and whenever this story would be told, there will be ample opportunity for to find spiritual truth in it. To earthly problems, Jesus always brings spiritual remedies. Jesus takes this man’s earthly desire and transforms it to his spiritual advantage. The nobleman is not bereft of good intentions or even virtue. He believes that Jesus alone has the power to heal and he persists in obtaining it for his son. His persistence reveals the inward yearning for a truth that he does not yet possess. If his son is anything like him, they are both in need of the true spiritual life that only Jesus can give. So Jesus says to him, Go thy way, thy son liveth. (St. John iv. 50) What he means is this: Trust the Word that I give to you. Embrace it in your heart, believe it in your soul, and follow it to its end and conclusion. Do not merely hear my Word. Pursue it, find it, and see what new life it brings. Discover its power. To his credit, the nobleman does not hesitate with doubt or question Jesus further. And the man began his journey home, putting his trust in the words Jesus had spoken to him. (Ibid, 50)
What is truly miraculous is not so apparent in our casual reading of the text. Notice how the nobleman is trusting in the Word that Jesus speaks. Archbishop Trench reminds us that His confidence in Christ’s word was so great that he proceeded leisurely homewards. It was not till the next day that he approached his house, though the distance between the two cities was not so great that the journey need have occupied many hours; but ‘he that believeth shall not make haste.’ (Trench, Miracles, p. 93). The man was rebuked. Something in his soul has begun to stir in his ponderous and thoughtful Jesus’ Word begins to establish confidence in the nobleman. Something has happened to our miracle-seeker who was desperately in search for a physical and earthly sign or wonder alone. Christ’s Word has arrested him. When Jesus speaks, he hears, obeys, and trusts. The spoken Word has conquered and subdued his unbelief, his fear, and his doubt. This hearer’s belief rests in the spoken Word. The real miracle is the birth of the nobleman’s faith in the Word that is already changing his spiritual character and disposition. The nobleman forgets that he needed Jesus to come down. Jesus the Word is already with him. What has comes down to him is Christ the Word, first into his heart and then into the healing of his son. For a man to be healed truly, Christ must come down and into his soul. Then all other things will fall into place. As St. John Chrysostom says, The nobleman’s narrow and poor faith is being enlarged and deepened (Trench, Mir’s. 93) as he hastens home slowly under the protection of Christ’s Word.
So, as the nobleman returned home, his servants met him saying, thy son liveth. Then inquired he of them the hour that he began to amend. And they said, yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. (St. John iv. 51, 52) The nobleman’s question confirms his belief that the healing of his son had been instantaneous. The son did not begin to amend, but rather the fever left him completely the day before when Jesus had said Thy son liveth. Jesus’ Word brings about two miracles. That Word will cure his son immediately from a distance. That same Word becomes dearer to the man than his son’s life. Its strength and might subdue and conquer his fearful soul. That selfsame Word will travel two distances, healing the flesh of the son in an instant, and converting the soul of the father in the steady progress of a longer journey.
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that we should prepare our souls through prayer and come to God through our desires. For this is what the [nobleman] did. (Comm. Joh. iv) Prayer is the first movement of the self towards God. Desire is the expression of our passion that seeks out the healing that Christ alone can bring. Of course, our prayer should desire that we and others might be spiritually well in relation to God. Rather than focusing on earthly miracles, we ought to pray for the spiritual and heavenly purification of our affections. Again, with St. Thomas, as the nobleman desired the healing of his son, so we should desire to be healed from our sins. ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee.’ (Ps. xl. 5) (Ibid) Next, like the nobleman we ought always be desperately persistent, since without Christ’s Grace, we cannot help ourselves. The nobleman’s son was close to physical death; we, like his father, are near to spiritual death. St. Thomas says, When a person is tempted, he is beginning to become sick; and as the temptation grows stronger and takes the upper hand, inclining him to consent, he is near death. But when he has consented, he is at the point of death and beginning to die… The Psalmist (33:22) says: “The death of sinners is the worst,” because it begins here and continues into the future without end. (Idem) So we must pray to Jesus, Sir, come down, before I die in my sins. We must pray always, and not lose heart. (Idem)
Of course while we must run in haste to find healing from the Lord, with today’s nobleman we must embrace patience as our trust and obedience in Jesus matures. That we desperately need His healing power is one thing. That it takes time is another. Jesus says to the nobleman and us, Go away. Go away, thy son liveth. (Idem) Go away, the soul liveth. Go away, that thou might learn to obey, trust, and believe. Go away, and move slowly and silently as the assurance of my Word takes root in thy heart downward and bears fruit upward. Thy soul has just now begun to live. Thou wilt need my Word, thy sole companion, to enable thee to fight ‘against the wiles of the devil… to wrestle [not] against flesh and blood, but against principalities… powers… the rulers of darkness in this world… against wickedness in high places. (Ibid, 11,12) The Word which I speak to thee will enable thee to be ‘be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might[…and…to] put on the whole armour of God’. (Eph. vi. 10,11) What really threatens us is that evil that would bring about our spiritual death. But if we obey, trust, and believe, if we pray always with… all supplication in the Spirit, slowly but surely we shall be carried home [where because] we believe, [our] whole house will believe also. (Ibid, 53)
See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools,
But are wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
This morning you and I continue our spiritual journey through the season of Trinity. Our theme today involves both seeing and walking, two activities which better situate us in the center of reality which is the heart of God. We long to be centered in God the Holy Trinity because we were made in His Image and Likeness. Long ago, St. Macarius said this about our created nature and potential.
For great is the dignity of humanity. See how great are the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. But the Lord was not pleased to find his rest in them but in humanity alone. Man, therefore, is of greater value than all the other creatures, and perhaps, I will not hesitate to say, not only the visible creatures, but also those invisible, namely, “the ministering spirits. (Heb. 1.14) For it was not of the angel Michael or Gabriel the Archangels, that God said, “Let us make man according to our image and likeness” (Gen. 1.26) but he said it concerning the spiritual makeup of the human. I mean the immortal soul.
St. Macarius proclaims that we belong to God in a special way with a unique destiny. God desires to live in us in a way unlike his relation to all other creatures. True life for man is all about discovering how to perfect God’s Image and Likeness in us by His Grace. In other words, true life is about understanding God’s way in the soul and living it out through the body. What an incredible challenge. We have bodies and souls and both are meant to come together as we serve God and perfect His Image and Likeness in us. We have the opportunity to know the Good through our souls and to apply what we know to our bodies. We are a coming together of angels and animals. We are the crown of God’s creation. So, we are given the chance to know and to will the Good in action.
But our task in seeking to know and to do relies completely on God’s Revelation of Himself to us. We are not really talking here about behavioral science or situational ethics, or what we can come up with as a scheme for the happy life. Rather we are seeking to open our souls to Divine wisdom and to pray for the love and power to translate it all into the good and happy life. As Brother Lawrence says, God alone can reveal Himself to us; we toil and exercise our mind in reason and in science, forgetting that therein we can only see a copy, whilst we neglect the Incomparable Original. In the depths of our soul, God reveals Himself, if only we would wake up and realize it.”(p95)
In this morning’s Epistle St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians and us to walk circumspectly. (Ephesians v. 15) Circumspection comes to us from the Latin word circumspecere. It means literally to look around. St. Paul is urging his Greek audience and us to use our souls to look around and survey the terrain before we walk about. You say, well that seems logical enough. Otherwise we trip and break a hip. Of course, St. Paul is speaking figuratively. He uses the word walk, and he means it in a spiritual manner. In walking Paul means our spiritual moving or better yet our thinking. This is the soul’s job. The soul needs to discover God’s Wisdom and Will before it can apply it to human life. What we must discover from God’s wisdom is that we are fallen and in need of Saviour and Redeemer. St. Paul says that we are here to redeem the time (Ephesians v. 15), and redemption means recovery, deliverance, or payback. Christians believe that they are in a process of discovering how they are recovered, delivered and paid back to God. Christians discover that they cannot redeem themselves. For this we rely upon the Saving Life, Death, and Resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, our souls discover that our real nature has been recovered, carried back, and paid back to God. We can participate in this, St. Paul says, if we stop acting like fools. Foolish men do not discover what Christ has done for us. They are swift to speak and slow to hear. (St. James i. 19) They are immersed in the world around them, playing the part of fools. Consumed with the world, they never discover what God has done for us already in Jesus Christ. They never find that true Wisdom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.
St. Paul tells us that we are not meant to behave like fools but as wise men. Wise men know that the world around us is full of temptation and danger due to our will to power and greed. But wise men see something else. Wise men quietly look into the world around them. What they see first is what is not their own. It is God’s world. Wise men see that God has created a beautiful canvas for man’s use and enjoyment, and not for his abuse and destruction. Man can be wise and he can become circumspect. He sees what is not his. He sees a beauty, an order, a rationally coherent cosmos that far surpass his weak and halting rationality. Man looks out and is overwhelmed by the power, wisdom, and love that must be at work in that vast universe that his mind begins to perceive. He sees beautiful forms and substances that carry and convey his reason and desire back to their Maker. Beneath and behind the creation, he discovers the Creator. The works of God are overwhelmingly beautiful enough. But what of the worker? As Hans Von Balthasar says, when we reach him, we find glory. And the glory of the Lord… is the super-eminently luminous beauty of divinity beyond all experience and all descriptions, all categories, a beauty before which all earthly splendors, marvelous as they are, pale into insignificance.
But, again, for man to be wise, he must have more than an appreciative relation to the universe and God. Man is called to be wise in another way. He is called with St. Paul to redeem the time. He is called to know that God’s Son has redeemed the world and desires still to deliver man from his innate tendency towards sin and alienation, from that foolishness that characterizes the life of so many. Man is called to search out the will of God in the life and mission of Jesus Christ and to imitate it. He is invited to participate in that perfect virtue that will transform his life. He finds this first when he realizes that a loving God has made him. Man is being loved. And then, that the same slove longs to redeem and save him.
St. Paul tells us that more is needed. He says that we are called to be filled with the Spirit. He means the Holy Spirit. If we are not filled with the Spirit, we cannot receive the wisdom and holiness that will ensure our redemption for salvation in God’s Kingdom. And yet, what is the nature of this filling? Paul Claudel describes it this way:
It is the Holy Spirit- ardent, luminous, and quickening by turns- who fills man
and makes him aware of himself, of his filial position, of his weakness, of his discontent his state of sin, of his dangers, of his duty, and also of his unworthiness
and inadequacy of everything around him. Through man the world inhales God,
and through him God inhales the world….and continually renews his knowledge of it.
The wisdom of God is made present to us when we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We come to know ourselves as the children of our Heavenly Father. We come to confess our weaknesses and grow to be unsatisfied with our sins. We learn of the dangers of sin and of our duties to God. We come to experience our own unworthiness in the presence of God from our inability to live up to what God has called us to become. We come to understand our need for Christ, our need for His perfect sacrificial offering of Himself on the Tree of Calvary and our need for His ongoing presence in our hearts. The Holy Spirit enables us to inhale God as Jesus Christ did. We then become the Sons of God. And then the Holy Spirit enables us to be inhaled by God. God surrounds us and takes us into his presence if only we pray that he may begin to inform us.
We come to know through the Holy Spirit. Then the Holy Spirit enables us to speak and act in the drama of sanctified human life. We are gifted to speak to each other in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs. We begin to make melody to God in our hearts. (Ephesians v. 19) In so doing we sing the song of the Son’s love for the Father through the Spirit. For the Lord we know is now alive through His Spirit in our hearts and in our souls. Our song binds us to God in rapturous praise and then will reveal to others the music that stirs our hearts for the joy and happiness of Heaven.
This morning, let us remember that we are called not only to see and grasp the need for God. This morning let us know that we must express that knowledge in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Let us not, with the people in this today’s Old Testament lesson, deal treacherously with one another, dividing, sewing discord, uprooting, and maligning, shooting privately at them that are true of heart, (ps. xi. 2) as the Psalmist says. Let us rather, with the same Psalmist, remember that the righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance will behold the thing that is just. (ps. xi. 8) Let us know that Heaven has made us to be lit up as torches, as the Father breathes the Spirit of His Son into us, that we may reveal the truth. For as Shakespeare writes, in Measure for Measure:
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.
We are made to be set on fire by the knowledge and love of God. We are made then to sing a new song about the Divine Wisdom that is alive in our hearts. Today let us sing, sing unto the Lord, praise His name, bask in His beauty, and reveal to the world the truth that we serve, as wise men and not fools. Amen.
What is easier to say ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’ or ‘Arise take up thy bed and walk’?
(St. Matthew ix. 4)
Simon Tugwell reminds us that the one and only comment on prayer that Christ gave to His Church is that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. (Matt. vi. 14…in Prayer: Living with God, p. 80) So, a sure sign that we have not received the forgiveness of sins from Jesus Christ is our failure to forgive others. When we do not forgive others, we can rest assured that the forgiveness of sins does not rule and govern us from the throne of our hearts. We take it for granted that Our Heavenly Father will forgive us repeatedly, will wink at our sins, and disregard what we consider to be minor foibles. We treat forgiveness of sins like some kind of entitlement benefit that we deserve for being card-carrying Christians. But this reveals that we do not treat sin, confession, forgiveness, or Christ’s command to Go and sin no more with much seriousness. Rather than seeing ourselves as those who are always most in need of forgiveness and so must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. ii. 12), we are filled with pride over whatever goodness we think we possess, and we are threatened by the goodness of those who, rightly, and even charitably, do not find our spiritual levity and superficiality either attractive or enticing.
So, let us ask ourselves If what stops us from receiving and extending the forgiveness of sins is our own pride? Are we too arrogant to confess our vices and to realize that the forgiveness of sins alone leads to new life? Has an immature addiction to fear and anxiety quashed all hope for potential inner healing and transformation? Do we fear the opinion of others if we claim and confess utter powerlessness over the sin in our lives? Perhaps we have built a hard and fast wall around our past interior trauma to shield ourselves from ourselves? Perhaps, we spend our days trying to show the world that we are sane, sound, and successful. But the truth of the matter is that inwardly and spiritually we are broken, wounded, suffering, and sinful. Pride commands us to put on a good face, and so we move on appearing to be one thing while in all reality we are quite another. Pride tells us that we can hold it all together, fend for ourselves, do perfectly well without anyone’s help. Yet, when we encounter goodness in others that we do not possess, our pride begins to quiver and shake, our security teeters, our self-reliance wavers, and we envy that goodness we are afraid to pursue. Pride turns into envy. Dorothy Sayers, in her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, says this:
The sin of envy always contains…an element of fear. The proud man is self-sufficient, rejecting with contempt the notion that anybody can be his equal or superior. The envious man is afraid of losing something by the admission of superiority in others, and therefore looks with grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, taking every opportunity to run them down or deprive them of their happiness. (D.C.: Purg. p. 170)
The envious man is afraid that the superiority of other men’s gifts might threaten and devalue his own. So, his thoughts, words, and even works aim to destroy his privileged neighbor and deprive him of any goodness. Falsely thinking that the goodness he lacks can never be found, he is determined that no other man should ever find it either.
Of course, pride that turns into envy kills the forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others. This is a temptation for us all. Accepting the preeminent place of God’s forgiveness is no easy thing, especially because our world defines truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil by changing and shifting standards of feeling and emotion. Most of us, when left to our own devices and desires, measure out forgiveness in so far as it promotes and protects our underdeveloped and fragile egos. Sometimes we think that we have forgiven others, and we feel proud of ourselves, not realizing that from the position of our supposed moral superiority we disdain them, and we rejoice that their weakness depends upon our generosity. At other times we find forgiveness costs too much, and so we withhold it, all the while envying him whose life seems to move along quite effortlessly without it. We feel sorrow and anger at such prosperity and success. If our unforgiveness has hurt another, we rejoice in our power to begrudge another man his share in goodness, and so we rejoice over his sadness and hurt. He deserves it, so we think. But in all three cases, pride and envy combine to hurt ourselves and others because we have never truly discovered the beautiful Divine Love found in the forgiveness of sins.
We see both the danger of these sins and the alternative virtue in this morning’s Gospel lesson. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.(St. Matthew ix. 2) Jesus not only brings the forgiveness of sins to fallen humanity, but is determined to offer it as God’s response to that faith that humbly longs for true healing. Forgiveness is always the primary business of Christ’s mission to men. It is God’s first response of love to His faithful people. He comes first to heal the sickness of the soul and then, only perhaps, the ailments of the body. As Archbishop Trench remarks, ‘Son, be of good cheer’, are words addressed to one evidently burdened with a more intolerable weight than that of his bodily infirmities. Some utterance on his part of a penitent and contrite heart called out these gracious words which follow, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ (Miracles, p. 157) The man does not ask for the healing of his body, but his soul cries out for the relief of an even greater inner burden. He is not proud but humble, and so does not envy Jesus His Goodness but seeks it out with a passion that words cannot utter. Thus, Jesus declares, Thy sins be forgiven thee. (Idem)
The Scribes are wholly unnerved. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. (Ibid, 3) If a mere mortal had claimed such authority, he might be rightly condemned of usurping and stealing that power that belongs to God alone. What they did not see was that God was in Jesus reconciling, the world to Himself. (2 Cor. v. 19) Yet, we sense something more at work in the hearts of the Scribes. Were they bothered most because Jesus claimed the power of God? Or were their priestly prerogatives regarding ritual atonement for sin being threatened by a power they did not possess? Jesus knew that they were moved by pride and envy. So, He says, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith He to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. (Ibid, 4-7) Jesus declares that it is easier to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee, than to say, Take up thy bed and walk. But because the Scribes have never known the true effect of the forgiveness of sins that Christ brings, He proceeds to heal the man’s body to show that His spiritual cure comes with a fuller restoration and healing. Take up thy bed and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 7)
Today we learn that the healing medicine that Christ brings to us is twofold. First, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins….(1 St. John i. 9) Repentance is needed since our sinful flesh is always too ready to side with the cruel enemy of our souls. The things of this world press hard upon us, either to terrify us out of our duty, or humour us into our ruin. (Jenks, 221) Thus, the Great Physician instructs us to canvass our hearts to find those thoughts and desires that run contrary to God’s will for us. We must not walk, in the vanity of [our] mind[s], having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through…ignorance…because of the blindness of [our] hearts. (Eph. iv. 17, 18) The healing that Christ brings to us is a response to the confession of our sins. We prepare for this on Sundays with our Collect for Purity: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy Holy Name. (Collect for Purity) We confess our sins in the light of Christ’s presence, as our minds are illuminated by His wisdom and our hearts softened into sorrow and contrition by His love. So, regular confession is the first step towards Christ’s forgiveness of our sins. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins…. (1 John. i. 9)
Second, when we practice penance habitually, Christ will then cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 St. John i. 9) In this process we learn that as often as we repent, the Lord forgives. For the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear Him. (Ps. ciii. 17) What should overawe and stupefy us as we are renewed in the spirit of [our]mind[s], as we put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. iv. 23, 24), is that God’s forgiveness is nothing short of a superabundant excess of His love and mercy for us. We shall realize that, as Simon Tugwell writes, We cannot let the truth of God’s being penetrate our own sin, so that we may be forgiven, if at the same time we are trying to exclude one essential aspect of that truth [in failing to forgive any other man]. (Ibid, 91) God’s forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ is the miracle of Love that desires continuously to conquer all sin. If the forgiveness we receive takes root downward to bear fruit upward, through us it will be showered indiscriminately on all others. For only then will it have become the Love of our lives. What is easier to say “Thy sins be forgiven thee” or “Arise take up thy bed and walk? (St. Matthew ix. 4) And if indeed we do arise, we shall be lifted by that forgiveness that frees all men of their debts to us and liberates them to share with us God’s unending mercy.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons