Sermon for the Week of March 30th, 2014: “I Believe, Help My Unbelief”

I believe help thou my unbelief

The Gospel of Saint Mark 9:17-31
At that time, someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

“I Believe; Help Thou My Unbelief”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s gospel presents us with an image of Jesus doing “the work He was sent to do,” in a most striking miracle of healing. Throughout the gospels, the message and ministry of the healing power of Christ occur again and again, reminding us that fundamental to the reason for Jesus coming into this broken and hurt and ailing world was – and, is – to make whole, to restore, to heal.
The story of the Mute (or, “dumb”) boy has several striking features which speak to us particularly during this season of the Great Fast.
First, and perhaps most obviously (if no less important, for that), Jesus tells us, as He tells the disciples, some of our demons – personal, corporate, and otherwise, “can only come out by prayer and fasting.” This gives us insight into part of what we are doing in this season of repentance, prayer, alms-giving, and fasting. Like the Sabbath, the Great Fast was made for man, not man for it. What this means, though, is that the disciplines we focus on particularly at this time of year not only cleanse and prepare us for the joyful feast of Pascha and help us to focus on what is important for each day throughout the year. The recognition of our need for repentance, for a relationship with God through prayer, and our complete dependence upon The One God, the Holy Trinity, for our sustenance and our very life are also part of how we are healed, delivered from afflictions and demons, and restored to the wholeness which God gave us at birth, and wishes for us to have, again, with Him, for eternity.
It is interesting, on another note, that the “spirit” which possessed the boy in this gospel story is, at first, described as “dumb” – not capable of speaking – but is later in the passage addressed by Jesus as “dumb and deaf spirit.” The power of evil controlling the physical existence and capabilities of the boy not only made him unable to speak, but also, according to Our Lord, made him incapable of hearing as well. Had no one else – at least, among those in the crowd – noticed that the boy not only could not talk, but could not hear the speech of others, and could not hear the many sounds of the world around him, isolated from much of human experience…?
(Saint Matthew’s Gospel includes the story with slightly different details, describing the young man as “an epileptic,” – literally, “moonstruck” – emphasizing the controlling and destructive intent of the evil spirit, which had “often … thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him”).
We see in this passage a young and, in many ways, helpless person – but, as often occurs in the healing stories of Jesus in the gospels, the one in need of Jesus’ healing is not alone. He is with his father; his father brings him to Jesus, and does so even after the mixture of faith and disappointment which he apparently went through by bringing the boy to the disciples, and being disappointed in that first hope.
Throughout this passage, there appear two pairings of two seeming opposites: one is that of faith and doubt, the other is of hope and disappointment. In each case, though, the progress from faith to doubt, and from hope to disappointment, does not end with the dark note of despair and unfulfilled expectation. The cry of the father of the young man, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” follows the statement of Our Lord, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” In some versions of the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, which did not have the punctuation or capital letters which often help our modern reading comprehension +, this short passage of Jesus might be read two ways: “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes,” or, “‘If You can!’ [Believe]. All things are possible to him who believes.” The first might be understood as, “If you are believe, all things are possible to [you,] the one believing.”
A very subtle difference; while the one interpretation seems to make the fact of believing dependent upon the man’s ability, the other might suggest that when someone believes, having faith (perhaps even “no bigger than a mustard seed,” as Our Lord says elsewhere), “all things are possible”.
In either case, though, what follows next is quite clear: the man acknowledges his doubts, his fear, his sense of disappointment to Jesus, with the cry, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” How often we find ourselves in this same situation! Even when we want to believe, when we are “able,” on an intellectual level, to believe, or when we feel like we should believe and trust in Christ, our past disappointments – real or imagined – hinder our belief and trust in God. We cannot “go it alone,” or always be perfect in faith and trust, and our minds know this, all to well. Perhaps this gospel is telling us that the very response we need to have in those times is to cry out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief” to the One who is able to strengthen our faith and make us able to come to the place where “all things are possible,” but through, with, and in Him – not on our own.
As a closing note, it is very significant, as commentators both ancient and modern have pointed out, that this story appears where it does in Saint Mark’s Gospel. The story is kind of “sandwiched,” if you will, between (1.) the story of Jesus’ glorious Transfiguration, when His garments appeared white with light and Moses and Elijah – representing the Law and the Prophets – appeared with Him, after which Jesus first told His disciples – to their shock and disbelief, one may imagine – that he would soon go through suffering and death – and (2.) the second time that Jesus revealed His life-giving, but sorrowful, suffering and execution, which occurs at the end of today’s passage.
Jesus tells the disciples, privately, at the end of this passage, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” The story of the Transfiguration both shows forth the coming crucifixion of Jesus and His ultimate glory in the resurrection. Like the father of the possessed boy, the disciples and their Lord will move from expectation and hope to suffering, doubt, and even despair. And, like the disciples, and like the father in the story, the journey of Great Lent challenges us to keep persevering even when it seems like we “are not able,” when all our hope turns to darkness and shadows, when even our very Life (and lives) and even the Source of All Life and All Things seems to have been taken away.
In such times, may we remember that there are not just “two sides of the coin,” faith and doubt, nor hope and disappointment. Keeping in mind the promise of the Lord Jesus of the resurrection – “He will rise the third day” – let us remember that the “end of the story” is not death, doubt, and despair. Remembering the father of the afflicted boy, may we journey through the season of Great Lent mindful that we are seeking the promise of the Bright Pascha, even when we doubt. Let us cry out with him, even in doubt and the shadow of death to Jesus Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith *,” each day, in every hour,

“I believe! Help Thou my unbelief”.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

+  ο δε ιησους ειπεν αυτω το ει δυνασαι πιστευσαι παντα δυνατα τω πιστευοντι
*  Hebrews 12:2

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