Luke 8:29-56, Galatians 2:16-20; Genesis 15; Genesis 18
The two readings for this seventh Sunday of Luke provide food for thought concerning the relationship between our faith and Christ’s power. The topic is an important one, as many of our Protestant friends around us are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with an emphasis upon a key Reformed idea, sola fide (‘by faith alone’). Our Seminary choir will celebrate Reformation Day next week with lyrics taking their inspiration from Martin Luther’s final stand in 1521:
“On faith alone I stand, there is no higher ground; I give You all I am, for my soul will never doubt…”
For Orthodox faithful, such assertions are problematic. Instinctively, we may want to recoil at a Peter-like confession that we will never fall away into doubt, knowing that even the apostle who had seen the many miracles of Jesus did so, and needed to be restored. But there is more to our objection than a knowledge of human frailty. It is that the phrase “faith alone” is found only in one part of the Scripture—not in Paul’s letters, but in James 2:24, where that letter says roundly “a person is not justified…by faith alone.”
Some, looking at the RSV version to Romans 11:20, might argue that is says there “you stand by faith alone,” but in fact the word “alone” is not in the original, and only an interpretation of that version. Beyond that, the whole point of Romans 11:20 is to urge the Gentiles not to become uppity, looking down their noses at the Jewish community, because where they stand has to do with what God has done, and they, too, may be removed from God’s vine if they do not recognize this grace. I must also admit that in St. John Chrysostom’s comment on Galatians 3:6, he uses the phrase “faith alone,” but by the context makes it clear that this is not to suggest that how we act as Christians is unimportant. Here he is encouraging folks to TRUST in Jesus, and not in the Jewish Law, because, as Paul says, the Jewish law is weak, and Jesus has wholly fulfilled it.
We can understand, given the distortions of the medieval Church, why Luther was so encouraged by the apostle’s call to faith, and saw in Paul’s words about the Torah an analogy with his own time, when Church leaders were stressing acts of merit as a way of earning favor with an accounts-keeping God. But the apostle Paul was concerned for over-commitment to the Torah, not with the question of whether faith and righteous living should come together, and whether both are required by God. In fact, the doctrine of salvation or justification “by faith alone,” is not Biblical, though it is proclaimed by those who insist that doctrine is to be established on the basis of “Scripture alone.”
Yet faith in Christ is essential—a faith accompanied by baptism, being fed by the Holy Mysteries, and walking, or living, as Christ as shown us, by the power of his Holy Spirit. What a miracle it is that God comes so deeply within our midst as to help us in our infirmity—even in our moments of doubt! Our faith is not in faith, like Maria von Trapp’s “I have confidence in confidence a-lone!” We believe upon the One who is wholly faithful, and who also modelled for us what a life of trust looks like, even up to his death on the cross. This dynamic is seen both in our gospel readings, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Jesus heals two in the gospel—an older woman who had been ill for twelve years, and a little girl just bordering on womanhood, who had been alive for the same length of time.
And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue; and falling at Jesus’ feet he besought him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying. As he went, the people pressed round him. And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one, came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased, And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
While he was still speaking, a man from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well.” And when he came to the house, he permitted no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and bewailing her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and he directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed; but he charged them to tell no one what had happened. (Luke 8:29-56 RSV)
The woman, in near desperation, clandestinely touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, and was immediately healed. This gospel reading only tells us that “no one” could heal her, but Mark’s version says that she had spent all her money on doctors, so that presumably Jesus is her last “hail, Mary!” She might have given up, but she doesn’t—something about Jesus, about the reports concerning him, about his demeanor, about her utter need, drives her to touch. Clearly, though, it is Jesus himself who does the healing, not the woman who heals herself by touching. Into her little corner of Judah, to one who “feared [God’s name], the sun of righteousness [had risen], with healing his wings.” (Mat 4:2). She only touches, and is released. The evangelist makes sure that we understand that the healing comes from Jesus, because He remarks, mysteriously, that he has felt power go out of him. Is this a matter of his feeling weaker, because he has borne her infirmity, or is it simply a statement that he knows that his power has been effective? We don’t know.
What we do know is that Jesus called her out—for him, it was not enough that she believe that He could heal her. He requires that she confess the faith outwardly, comments upon the importance of her faith, and sends her away in peace. In this entire episode, we see the importance of synergy: Jesus’ power, the woman’s faith, the woman’s declaration, Jesus’ blessing, all coming together.
When we look to the greatest Old Testament example of faith, the one pointed to in Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and James, we see the same thing. These New Testament writers repeat the statement of Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed God “and it was credited to him for righteousness.” That statement in Genesis comes after the LORD has promised the childless patriarch that he will have innumerable and brilliant offspring, like the stars. God speaks to him, and he believes. Later in Genesis, God himself speaks about Abraham’s whole life, and says, “I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19 RSV). Here is a remarkable thing! The Lord both CREDITS Abraham with righteousness because he trusts His word, and He speaks about Abraham and his whole household “doing righteousness and justice.” Both the belief, and the keeping of the way, mean that the “LORD may bring…what He has promised.” There is no play-off here between our belief, our action, and God’s action. They come together.
So, too, with the NT vision of how God acts, for He doesn’t change. This woman believes, Jesus acts, Jesus calls on her to confess, and Jesus sends her away. The power of God does the healing—but somehow our human trust in God is interconnected, as well. God does not compel our healing. So, too, with the little girl, who could not herself believe, but whose parents are encouraged, “Don’t fear, just believe.” And she is raised: raised to act in the power of Christ.
It may seem as though St. Paul is not aware of this in the letter to the Galatians. But look carefully at what he is putting in contrast to faith. He is not speaking about good actions in general, but about “the works of the Torah”: circumcision, the keeping of ritual holy days, and abstinence from non-kosher food. A reading through of Galatians will make this clear. Some Jewish-minded leaders have come into the Galatian setting, and thoroughly confused these new converts from paganism, telling them that they have to be circumcised, and keep food laws, even though the Jerusalem council has ruled against the continuation of these Jewish practices. Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection has brought in a new situation in which those special identity markers are no longer the signs of God’s presence with people. There is a new creation, in which Jew and Gentile are joined together in Jesus, the One who is both “son of Adam” and the new Israel. To be circumcised is not merely to be rigid and old-fashioned, but to doubt what God has done in Christ, to doubt that he has undergone a complete death for us, hallowing the whole of our humanity, and making it clean—as well as the whole of creation, and making all foods clean.
We know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not!
But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor.
For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:16-20)
To insist that the works of the law justify, or make one right, is to dishonor Christ, to suggest that he is actually an agent of sin. Our direction can only be towards Christ, and our identity in him. But St. Paul by no means therefore clears us to act however we like, with bare-naked “faith”. That would be a mere intellectual assent, not the kind of faith that allows the Holy Spirit to work within, stirring up love so that we live, robed by Jesus’ own faithfulness, and give ourselves up for Him and for others. As Paul says elsewhere, there is “the law of Christ,” and this involves the showing forth of fruit—“Love, joy, peace, faithfulness, self-control” and all the other good things that we see in Jesus himself.
What, after all, is a Christ-shaped faith? It is recognizing that Christ our God is the Creator of all good things, and the One who raises from the dead. Abraham, says Hebrews 11:19, knew that God could raise the dead, and therefore boldly obeyed God in the matter of his son Isaac—only to receive him back, at the hands of a loving God, with a sacrificial animal taking his place. Faith is simply believing in God, and acting upon that belief—and so Faith was made perfect by good actions, as James puts it!
This is, in fact, a deep mystery. Why is it that the Author of all should care how we think or behave? After all, He will always do what is just and good. Why, of course, because part of His character is to bring us, His creatures, truly into His counsel and into His purpose, becoming like Him. C. S. Lewis has a wonderful way of describing how it is that we might not want to be so honored, since it requires much from us:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. (Mere Christianity)
Yes, indeed! He built a household for Abraham, a household out of Abraham’s own “seed” or descendant—Jesus, Son of Adam, and God the Son! We have seen a perfect Man already who is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. For us, our elder Brother and Creator has high hopes—not only to touch and heal, not only to revive, but to make us the very righteousness of God, and a source of healing for others.
PLEASE FORGIVE THE CONSTANT REFERENCES TO C.S.LEWIS IN RECENT POSTS! IN MY DEFENCE, I WOULD LIKE TO ANNOUNCE THE RECENT PUBLICATION OF MY BOOK, FURTHER UP AND FURTHER IN: ORTHODOX CONVERSATIONS WITH C.S.LEWIS ON SCRIPTURE AND TRADITION, NOW AVAILABLE AT ST. VLADIMIR’S SEMINARY PRESS.