The Challenge: take the Gospel Seriously
Saint John of the Ladder: challenges us to take the Gospel seriously. As such, it continues last week’s message: Deny Yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Christ. Why? Because the world has fallen, and we have fallen with it; and it takes energy to restore things to their proper state. It takes a lot of effort to fix something that has been broken. When we refuse that challenge, we are really saying that we prefer things the way they are; that we are comfortable with the mess we have made of this world and of the mess we have made of our lives. More importantly, we are saying that it is not worth the bother to help others recover from all their pain and suffering. That we prefer sitting in our own warm filth too much to get up and lend a hand to people in desperate need of help. Because that is what it means to follow Christ: it means to put the needs of others before our own. What else is love than the denial of the self in service to another? This is the love God has for all His children, and it is the same love He expects us to have for one another. And He expects this of us 24/7.
Recap of Last Week
This was the point I was trying to make last week: we are not just called to serve one another or worship God during our spare time; every moment of every day must be directed towards the pursuit of holiness and love. This is the only way to become what we were created for: children of the light, beings of utter love, true servants of the Most High. And no, this does not mean you get to quit your job or leave your family: you are called to holiness within the communities and families God has blessed you with. But what it does mean is that you must allow the spirit of your work and time spent with family and friends to be transformed so that every moment is infused with selfless sacrificial love and prayer. You may think that this is impossible. On our own, it would be, but in Christ all things are possible. It will take a lot of effort, but God’s grace will perfect what is lacking.
St John’s Method: put your back into it!
St. John of the Ladder’s book teaches a method for achieving this – and none of the thirty steps are easy. [provide background on the book] He was writing for monks, so some of the specific advice will not work for us (e.g. obedience to your elder in everything), but that doesn’t mean we get a pass from hard work. We need to fast, we need to pray, we need to stop being lazy in our obligations to our community, we need to humble ourselves so that we can really learn to love someone apart from what it offers to us in return.
[Commitment: the door opens both ways]
[St. John describes how monks who refused to take their obligation seriously would be drummed out of the monastery. This is because a lack of commitment set such monks up for failure and would be like poison to their brothers. We have similar rules in our Church – anyone can join, but when you do, you commit yourself to a certain way of life and a certain purpose. And while the “certain way of life” is the certain path to health and perfection, and while the “certain purpose” is the one that will bring the sure restoration of this world, the door is open not only to those who would join Christ in this great effort, but also to those who would forsake Him and it.]
Half-hearted commitment bears bad fruit – blessings become curses
The Ladder really pushes this point: half-hearted commitment does not bear good fruit. Is this surprising? An un-tended garden – even when cleared well, planted with the best of seeds, and fertilized with the best compost – is soon overgrown with weeds. The most beautiful of weddings soon becomes drudgery if the couple does not take the effort to sustain and nourish it. Children with the best of genes and successful parents still require attention and training to grow up to become successful themselves. Very few good things happen on their own – they require effort.
Without such effort, things that should be blessings to us instead become curses. The man or woman stuck in a marriage that was allowed to rot through inattention and selfishness regrets being married at all. Recent surveys show that people with lukewarm faith – those who occasionally attend church and rarely follow any kind of prayer rule – are actually less satisfied with their lives than those who have no faith at all. Those who actually live out their faith are better off than either group.
It isn’t enough to plant a gardener to enjoy the benefits of being a gardener; it isn’t enough to have a wedding to enjoy the fruits of having a good marriage. It isn’t enough to have babies to enjoy the fruits of family life. Nor is it isn’t enough to get baptized or meet your minimum obligations to enjoy the fruits of Christianity. It takes effort to do anything well – this is especially true when it comes to love. A good gardener has abundant harvests; the apathetic one does not. The implications for the Christian are clear; how much harder than the gardener should we work considering the blessings that await those who deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow Christ?
With prayer and fasting come power… and more
It requires prayer. It will take fasting. It will take complete commitment. But when you offer yourself in this way as a living sacrifice to Love – even the demons will be subject to your command. But more importantly, you will have been transformed, your name will be written in heaven (St. Luke 10:7-20), and you will be a blessing to this world.
This is the message of St. John’s book, “The Ladder”, and this is the theme of the Gospel.