On the fourth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus (John of the Ladder). John was given this nickname because he wrote a profound book that has been used for over 1400 years (nearly a thousand years before the Protestant reformation). The book is called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” This book was mainly geared towards monks and nuns but also offers great advice to any Christian struggler who reads it under the guidance of a spiritual father or experienced guide.
We commemorate St. John of the Ladder because in our collective Orthodox Christian experience, through centuries of living and breathing the faith in Jesus Christ, we have found that the spiritual struggle does indeed have steps. This is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. It is often completely overlooked in Protestant circles but interestingly enough we find that John Wesley, who is known as the founder of the Methodist Church; was well read in Eastern Orthodoxy and understood that there was a process to growing in faith and righteousness. He understood that God saves us by grace but that we would have to actively engage that grace through the proper use of our free will in order to grasp the salvation that was freely set before us.
As Orthodox Christians we see salvation as the end of the journey and not the beginning. Salvation may be promised at the beginning, but it is not given at the beginning. At the beginning we are given a pledge and a promise, but not yet the fulfillment. In the gospel according to Matthew the Lord teaches about the great difficulties that will come at the end of time and He concludes with this statement, “But he who endures to the end shall be saved” Matthew 24:13. Another way to understand this passage is that those who do not endure the sufferings but give up their faith will not be saved. Salvation is a process. The problem is that often we misunderstand what the New Testament is saying about faith and belief. Faith and belief are life changing convictions and not simply ideas. When someone actually, truly believes in Jesus Christ that person will indeed be saved because their whole life will change as a result of that belief. At the same time we understand that people can fall away from salvation by falling away from Christ, who is the source of salvation. Only those who “endure to the end shall be saved.”
It is no wonder then that the icon of the Ladder is so striking. When you look at the icon you see that there are various Christians climbing a ladder towards the Lord Jesus Christ and yet we see that some of those who are climbing actually stumble and are snatched away by the demons. It reminds me of the verse “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” 1 Peter 5:8. If St. Peter was writing this to Christians it should help us realize that one can believe in Jesus one day and still be devoured by Satan the very next day. But that stark reality reminds us of another; life in Jesus Christ is not static, it is active. How sad our existence must be if the highlight of our life is the day that we first believed in Jesus Christ! I would compare that to the day you first met your husband or wife. There is no doubt that it was a great day but the fact is that it was the first day in a long line of days where you learned more about one another and grew closer to one another in love. If the devil is always looking for someone to devour, the good news is that the Lord is even more vigilant in seeking and saving those who love Him. The devil looks to devour, but the Lord looks to consume us with His love.
We are not limited in the ways that we can grow in godliness and in our relationship with Christ. We are limited only by our lack of effort and vision. Both of these are signs of a lack of faith. This is even seen in the gospel today where Our Lord rebukes the people for their unbelief but He goes even further. The Lord reminds the disciples that some diseases/illnesses/demons cannot come out without a special, extra effort of prayer and fasting on our part. We feel pain for the father of the boy in this story as he cries out “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” I am like this man. I have belief, but I could stand to have a whole lot more. Perhaps this is why God allows some difficult, trying times to push us to feel our hunger for Him, and to seek Him out. Every human being is hungry but we are often so confused that we don’t realize that we are actually hungry for God.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a reminder that constant hunger is a necessary part of growing in Christ. It is a reminder that when we are hungry we will take the extra steps that are necessary to reach out to Him. We will acknowledge that we still have some unbelief, even a small lack of faith. We will pray and fast but in a new energized way. We will have a renewed struggle to know God and God will bless that struggle.
Today does not have to be the same as yesterday and tomorrow can certainly be different than today. Let’s struggle together and push each other up the ladder to meet Christ the Lord. AMEN.
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark 9:16-30
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