The Doing is Everything
“Never does the human nature put forth itself in such power, with such effort, with such energy as to have faith in God…It is the doing that is everything, and the doing is faith and there is no division between them.”
George MacDonald preached these words, the Scottish poet and mystic. He spent his youth tilling the soil, cutting lumber, and herding sheep in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. In that northern world of winds and snows, he learned early on the importance of hard work. It is no wonder, that, with such conviction, he grasped the tie between faith and work. Like a prosperous farm, faith is the fruit of years of steady labor.
“So [Jesus] came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death” (John 4:46-47).
Our Gospel today is a story with a great deal of walking.
(If Nike or New Balance caught on, this would make an excellent commercial.)
The nobleman is walking from beginning to end. Capernaum was by no means close to Cana. He had to walk between 15 to 20 miles to get to Christ. After taking the Rabbi by his word, he had to return, another 15 to 20 miles. Every step was an act of faith.
(Can you hear it: “Order your New Balance 877 model today.”)
Every step on the road was a test of faith. Why did he leave his son from the beginning? His child was dying. When someone you love is dying, the last thing you want to do is leave. This was his boy. He had never met Jesus Christ. He simply had a conviction that maybe, even at the cost of never looking in his child’s eyes again, maybe, this Rabbi could save him. He took a gamble, he put on his shoes, and went out on the road.
Can you imagine the battle in his thoughts along the way? Was he being foolish? Should he be home in his son’s arms? Was all this a mistake? He kept on.
At last he met Christ and begged him: “Lord, come, heal my son.” But Christ would not come. Instead, this Rabbi challenged him: “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” The nobleman kept on. “Please, come, before my child dies.” Christ would not budge, and replied. “Go thy way; thy son liveth.” The nobleman now had to decide. This did not go the way he hoped. The Rabbi would not return with him. All he could do was to take him by his word. He chose to believe. He kept on.
At last, “his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:52-53).
This is the story of our life in Christ: one long hike, one long struggle of faith.
Psalm 66 has the title: “A Psalmic Ode of Resurrection.” It begins with celebratory words: “O be joyful in God, all ye lands…O how wonderful art thou in thy works!” (v.1-2). It ends triumphantly: “Praised be God, who hath not cast out my prayer, nor turned his mercy from me” (v.18). But right in the middle of this resurrection psalm, there are three very heavy verses:
“Thou, O God, hast proved us; thou also hast tried us, like as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the snare; and laidest trouble upon our loins. Thou sufferedst men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and water” (v. 9-11).
The hike down the road of faith has a lot of trials. Sometimes, we have moments of joy. At other times, we experience agony. This is the reality in parish life. There are seasons in our life when prayer and church community are a haven for us. They bring us peace and comfort. There are other times when prayer or church community feel like a burden. They drag on. You are tired. You have been hurt. Perhaps, you think, you could find peace again if you uprooted and went elsewhere. After all, this is the way we treat relationships in our culture.
We are saved through the struggle. Our life in Christ means nothing if it is not tried in the fire. Where is God? He is in the fire.
“Thou broughtest us into the snare; thou laidest trouble upon us.” Our Gospel today is not really about the miraculous healing of the boy. It is a story about persistent faith. More than the dying boy, the nobleman needed healing. He needed the hike. He needed the struggle to win the gift of matured faith.
Elder Ephraim of Arizona wrote many letters to his spiritual children. In one, he urged his son to be patient.
“Trust that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength; along with the temptation will come the help of God…We should not find it strange if the passions and sicknesses war against us, but rather we should entreat God to give us patience, that great balm for the wounds of the soul as well as the body. Patience is the one and only diamond which beatifies the Christian and makes straight the rough road of our salvation. Patience is the fortitude of the soul, the support, the deep root that holds the tree when the winds beat against it and the streams strike it…Never let the poison of despair penetrate into your heart…Have patience, my child…Let us labor for God.”
Patience perfects faith. We do not come to Church to find peace. We come to come to Church to find healing, and healing takes patience.
“See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:15).
Our Epistle today further reinforces this. Redeem the time. Our life, in the Orthodox Church, is a life of ritual. The week starts on Saturday night, with the setting of the sun. At this moment, the faithful are called to stop all the work of the week, to pray, and to prepare. Sunday morning comes, we say Mass, and the whole week follows from that climax, a cycle of prayers, fasting, and celebrations. The year begins with Advent, at the setting of harvest and with forty days of fasting, we reorient our lifestyle, and enter into the annual cycle through Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Pascha, and Pentecost. Each day begins and ends with rituals, lighting candles, holy water, and blessings at each meal. Through ritual and sacrifice, our life becomes caught up in the hallowed life of Jesus Christ.
The contemporary theologian, Fr. Nicholas Loudovikos, explains how in this life our body and soul becomes sacred. We learn to “fall in love, play, create, eat, rejoice, be sorrowful, in such a manner that will bring [one] continuously closer to the Divine Source of [one’s] being.” This is the incarnation, he says. “God does not call me to escape from this world, but to transform it into a place of His manifestation.”
Our entire life in Christ becomes an act of redeeming the time. It becomes one great hike.
“It is the doing that is everything, and the doing is faith and there is no division between them.”
Surely, George MacDonald’s words have great importance. It is not enough that we have heard of Jesus Christ. We must get up and pursue him. We are saved by getting on the road with the nobleman. We are saved by joining the great hike. Through his prayers, and the prayers of all the saints, may we find strength to press forward.