The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew 17:14-23
In today's gospel we are witnesses to another encounter of Jesus with a family that has suffered. A father has just brought his son to the Lord Jesus because he is an epileptic who “suffers terribly”. This father has to bring his son to Jesus Christ because the Lord's disciples had failed to heal the boy. After the Lord has healed the boy, the disciples are curious as to why He was able to heal when they were unable to do so. Jesus' answer to them is also an answer to many of our problems “because you have no faith.”
We often limit ourselves based on our faith or lack thereof. If you have seen the Batman movie called “The Dark Knight Rises” you will remember an example of faith. Bruce Wayne is forced to make a choice to jump to a ledge that has only been reached once before in order to escape from a pit. He tries time after time but one of the other inmates in the pit tells him the secret of the other person who escaped, “they didn't use a safety rope”. See the whole time Bruce Wayne thought that he was being wise and protecting himself by using a rope to make sure that whenever he missed the jump, he would not fall to his death. His life was full of certainty in the rope. But there was a problem. He could never reach his goal because his rope was always there. He trusted the rope more than he trusted in himself. Faith is our way of saying that we will have no safety rope but God alone.
The disciples of Christ had not yet put their full trust and confidence in God and what He could do through them. We are so much like the disciples (all of us). There are things that God has been trying to speak to our hearts and encourage us to do and we have come up with excuse after excuse because excuses are convenient and numerous and because we are so afraid of actually letting go of the safety rope. Thankfully the Lord Jesus gives us two great ways to increase our faith. He tells the disciples that, “This kind (of demon) never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” There are two ways to understand this statement. The first is that one must pray and fast in order to increase in faith. The other is that those who pray and fast have the faith that is necessary to solve this problem. Either way we are left with these two tools for our spiritual life, fasting and prayer.
One of the beautiful things about the Lord Jesus Christ is that He has not left us as orphans. He has taught us everything. He has given us tools to grow in faith. And growing in faith is growing into a relationship with God. Think about it like a marriage. When we make the decision to marry there is no way to know with a certainty that the marriage will be a good one. But we bind ourselves to the one we love and take steps based on what we do know or what has been revealed to us. Now just like a marriage there is work required on our parts and that work is more than simply going to church on Sundays. In a marriage the equivalent would be to spend all day everyday outside the home and to simply sleep in the same bed with your spouse once a week. Such a marriage won't last. Neither will such a relationship with God. The first time it is tested, the weakness in the relationship will show.
Jesus teaches us to increase our faithfulness to God by praying and fasting. We fast as Orthodox Christians for more than 200 days out of the year. Why do we do these things? Is it to fulfill some obligation to God or the Church? Is it to appear righteous before God and men? No. We do this because we want to obey Christ and enter into a greater relationship with Him. Since the Lord has taught us what we have to do to grow in faith, we simply have no excuse.
How do we pray? There are many ways. One is to repeat a short prayer throughout the day such as the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” Another is to use a prayer book with set prayers especially at set times of day, such as the daily hours. One of my favorites is to simply open to the book of psalms and slowly and reverently read 3 or 4 psalms. When should we pray? The first thing that we should do every day is spend a few minutes praying so that God will be a tangible presence for us. When we acknowledge God with the first moments of the day, we find that we are acknowledged by God and moved by His presence and His grace. We should pray in the evening and we can also spend much of the day praying short prayers such as the Jesus prayer while doing our work. We have to get out of the mentality that tells us that we can pray and fast later, because later is never guaranteed. We are God's beloved children. Don't deprive yourself of this special time to be healed and instructed by Him. He loves you and wants to enter deep in your heart and mind. He doesn't get access to these parts of us unless we slow down and give Him this access. But God loves our freedom and He won't impose on it... so we have to use that gift of freedom and choose how we will use it wisely. There is no greater use of our time than prayer. Prayer is the most revolutionary act of our day... and the one act that no empire, no government, and no army can ever stop.
Let's make a pact together. Let's each promise to spend the first 5-10 minutes of the day in front of an icon reading some prayers or psalms in a thoughtful manner. Dedicate this time to Him and test God and see if He does not bless our day and our attitudes and work as a result. Out of His deep love for us, God has given us the tools to enter into communion and relationship with Him. May He give us the resolve to use these tools to run towards Him and to grow in a deep love for Him who first loved us! Glory be to God forever AMEN.