Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tremble to believe

Today’s Gospel tells of a knowledgeable demon:

Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers, and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”

Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

– Mark 1:21-28

Reasoning one’s way to belief that there is a God, and even to belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, is insufficient. For the fallen angel in today’s Gospel, the knowledge of Christ’s divinity was as blindingly clear as your knowledge, when staring right into it, that the sun is shining. Should we seek such transparent knowledge of God–perhaps through experiment?

No. Exactly such experiment as a path to spiritual discovery was the third temptation of Christ by Satan:

Then [Satan] led [Christ] to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’
‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says,
‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”
– Luke 4:9-12

What about faith, though? What about belief out of trust in the Lord, without the ease of demonic perception described in today’s Gospel? The Resurrected Christ extolls such faith in His rebuke to St. Thomas for putting Him to the test:

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”p 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”

Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

– John 20:24-29

Occasionally, as to those like St. Thomas, God will condescend to show Himself through a miracle. But better to believe in Jesus Christ without requiring such. We learn the reward for this trust in Christ when we read of the Crucifixion that:

Above [Jesus] there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”

The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

– Luke 23:38-43

This is saving faith. Is it mere propositional belief in the divinity of Christ, with the distinction that it is based upon trust rather than upon the evidence of experiment? No. As St. James tells us:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.

Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

– James 2:14-26

St. Paul famously appears to contradict this:

What then can we say that Abraham found, our ancestor according to the flesh? Indeed, if Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, he has reason to boast; but this was not so in the sight of God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
–Romans 4:1-6

In a sense, this is merely the obverse side of the same coin: A person is not justified by works alone. Indeed, good works apart from God, as perhaps those of a pagan philosopher prideful about his own self-mastery, do not alone free us from sin. Faith is necessary. Works perfect and preserve that faith, says James, but Paul reminds us that faith is necessary to sanctify each worker. Propositional belief in Christ is not enough. The fire of faith must melt down our old life and reforge a new one:

How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. For a dead person has been absolved from sin. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. And do not present the parts of your bodies to sin as weapons for wickedness, but present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and the parts of your bodies to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin is not to have any power over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.

– Romans 6:2-14

This act of the heart to replace slavery to sin with obedience to Christ is faith. It contains, but is not contained by, propositional belief. Let us listen to St. Paul again:

[I]f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. For the scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
– Romans 10:9-13

Confession with the mouth–as by the crucified thief who attained Paradise–presupposes conversion of the heart. It is this conversion through the grace of the Spirit that transforms the Christian’s confession of Christ’s Lordship into a performative utterance: the confession of heartfelt faith is itself a work, a speech act.

How shall we know, though, whether our own faith is coldly intellectual and propositional, as useless as that against which St. James warns us, or whether instead it is a saving, heartfelt faith setting us afire with love of God? For those of us who have longer to live than the crucified thieves, the symptom to look for that our belief is really faith is to ask ourselves what works our faith is yielding. As the Lord warns us, saving faith fruitful or it is false:

"Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.

"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?'

Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.'

"Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined."

Matthew 7:12-27

It is not enough to listen attentively to the words of Christ. We must act on them. And to work well in the world, we must first, with the help of God’s grace, act in our own hearts. As the Church introduces her teaching on saving faith:

By his Revelation, "the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company." The adequate response to this invitation is faith.

By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, "the obedience of faith".

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 142-143.

Let us, then, ask St. Paul to pray for us that Christ may grace us with that same “obedience of faith.”

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