The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark 9:16-30
One of the most difficult ideas for a new Christian to grasp is that even after their conversion, they will not be perfect.
We have people who have come to Christ and to His Church as adults. They renounce everything in their past and they are fully received according to our rites of conversion, usually through baptism or through the anointing by Chrism (symbolizing the apostolic laying of hands). Yet after all of this they find that life is still a struggle. They are quite surprised that the heavens do no open up miraculously and the angels and saints do not regularly appear to them. They are surprised that they cannot undertake strenuous rules of prayer and often forget to even say brief prayers before consuming their meals. More importantly, they still struggle with sin and various temptations and trials. They still hurt and offend others. They often look less like saints and more like sinners. This leads to a renewed feeling of shame. We are prone to get lazy and to say “Even after conversion, I am still a horrible person.” We are prone to think that perhaps we are so bad that even God could not save us.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, the Sunday of St. John Climacus. Each Sunday has a theme and this day we remember the great writing of St. John Climacus entitled “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” For Climacus, salvation is not an instantaneous gift that opens up all of the spiritual gifts to every believer. That is not Christianity, that is magic. You don’t go to the Church to get magic, you go to Vegas. For St. John Climacus, salvation is a process that doesn’t end with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion is the beginning of salvation. It is the crucifixion that allows us to recognize our sinfulness and allows us the freedom from bondage to sin and Satan. With this freedom in hand, we can now begin the long hard battle to know God through His word, through obedience to His commandments, and through the sacramental life.
You can become a saint overnight, but typically God allows us to struggle. Instead of starting our spiritual journey with our feet in heaven, we start with our feet on earth. Instead of soaring through the skies with the angels, we strain to climb a ladder….one step at a time. It is interesting to note that even though the disciples had received a direct blessing from Our Lord, they could not heal certain individuals. It is not that Jesus had withheld something from them, He hadn’t. They had not yet ascended high enough on the ladder to perform such mighty works. The Lord did not say to them “You cannot do this because you are merely human.” He also did not say “You cannot heal this man because his problem is too great.” Likewise the Lord did not say “Only I can heal this.” We are told that they did not have enough prayer or fasting….in other words, they lacked the tangible experience of living faith. They had not yet struggled to grow deeper in Christ. Everything had up to this point, been handed to them on a platter.
It is a really great reminder for us in our daily spiritual struggle. Don’t try to run a marathon when you can barely stand. Don’t try to do more than you are physically, mentally, and spiritually able to do. Don’t imagine that because you read the miracles of the saints, you will be able to do those same miracles today. It won’t happen. To imagine that you will do the great works of the great saints is typically a sign of pride, immaturity and delusion. The great saints didn’t become that way overnight. When you hear of their mighty acts, you are only getting the highlights. In much the same way as the Olympics may show a short piece of an event and then the gold medal ceremony. What you haven’t seen is the work, the dedication, the toil, the effort and the time that is required to get to that level of mastery or perfection.
The saints were spiritual athletes who followed the words of the apostle Paul and ran the good race, and fought the good fight. They struggled and climbed the ladder of faith, and St. John Climacus gives us a beautiful description of the levels of the spiritual life as he witnessed while living among many of the holy men of his time.
What about us? What can we do? Do what you are capable of doing, with simplicity and a quiet, humble heart. Do what is clearly expected of you as taught by Jesus Christ and the ten commandments. Do what your spiritual father tells you to do, without arguing or excuses. Continue to struggle and pray and fast and attend the worship and sacraments of the Church. Do whatever you do for God, with joy and thanksgiving, as a privilege and honor. Do all of this with patience and hope and faith that God is love, and that He is already working in you and through you to bring about your salvation and the salvation of all those who love Him. Continue climbing the ladder, because the moment you stop climbing, you start falling.
May God give us strength for this climb. AMEN.