Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Life-Giving Faith

Today I was stumbling around on the Internet looking at classic Christian writings - you know, the usual - when I happened upon a line that really struck me. It came from a series of sermons by Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril was a pretty interesting guy. He was the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt from 412 to 444. One thing he's mostly known for is his feud with the bishop of Constantinople, a heretic named Nestorius who was eventually deposed at the Council of Ephesus in 431. But that's neither here nor there. Cyril also did a lot of writing and preaching, and we actually still have some of his sermons. And it's while reading some of his sermons on the Gospel of Luke that I found something cool.

Sermon #46 dealt with the story of how Jesus raised a little girl from the dead. And in that story, the girl's dad had come to Jesus in deep distress because his daughter was fading fast. And as he and Jesus got close to the house, someone came out and told him not to bother, because the girl was dead now, and so there was no point in troubling Jesus since there was no longer anything he could do to help. And yea, verily, Jesus saith unto him, "Pssh! Just you watch!" ...Alright, so that might be from Today's Lamely Paraphrased Version. What Jesus actually said was, "Fear not. Only believe, and she will live." And because they trusted him, he raised the girl from the dead.

That line, "Only believe and she will live", really captured Cyril's attention. And what he said captured mine. Cyril concluded his message by saying:

Faith, then, in every way, is the cause of life, as that which slays sin, the mother and nurse of death. Excellently, therefore, said Christ to the ruler of the synagogue of the Jews, when his daughter was dead: "Fear not; only believe, and she shall live." For, as I said, Christ makes those live who approach him by faith, in that he is life: "for in him we live and move, and are" [Acts 17:28]; and he will raise the dead "suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump" [1 Corinthians 15:52], as it is written. And having this hope in him, we shall both attain to the city that is above, and reign as kings with him, by whom and with whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever, Amen.

I really love all of that. But it's the first sentence of the paragraph that gripped me. "Faith is in every way the cause of life, as that which slays sin, the mother and nurse of death". First of all, it really struck me that Cyril described sin as "the mother and nurse of death". I think it really captures what James was getting at when he said that "sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15). Why is sin so dangerous, so problematic? Because it gives birth to death. It's death's mom, death's nurse. You can't cling to sin and escape its offspring. Sin lays its eggs in you. Those little vices we like to cling to? They hatch and destroy us. As much as we may cherish them, they bring destruction. No good ultimately comes from them. Like I quoted C. S. Lewis saying a while back, "In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud."

But where sin gives birth to death, faith gives birth to life. Like Jesus said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Abundant life. Rich life. True life, pure life, vibrant life, flourishing life. That's what Jesus promises through faith in him. Jesus didn't come to squelch our fun. Jesus didn't come to turn our lives into dreary, puritanical gloom. Jesus came to give us a life we can truly cherish, a life of deep joy - not only now, but in the age to come. And what he asks is for us to trust him to deliver on that promise. That's what faith is: trust and loyalty. Because God is the God of love and life, we need to stick close to him if we want to experience the deepest depths of love and life, not only now, but also in the age to come. Because God is our Creator and our Redeemer, we need to trust that he knows what's best for us and how we're supposed to work - and that's why we follow what sometimes seem like some odd "rules": because they're guidelines to proper human functioning and flourishing, and while it might not always be fun and games in the present while we're still readjusting and growing into this new pattern of life, in the end we know that this new pattern of life will be so much fuller than what we once had. And because Jesus is who he is, we need to trust in him to have the love and the power to deliver on that promise.

That's what faith is all about. And that's why faith gives life: because the faith of which we speak is faith in Jesus, who promises to set us free from death and deliver us into abundant life. By slaying our captor (sin), which wanted to be our executioner from the inside out, faith in Jesus sets us free to, like Cyril says, "attain to the city that is above and reign as kings with [Jesus]". From death into glorious life.

O Lord, may I learn to have the faith in you that will put sin to death and free me to enter into the rich glory you've promised for your people. Let sin, the mother and nurse of death, be slain in me; let faith give birth in me to a thousand treasures of fullness in its place. To you, O ever-faithful and life-giving Lord, be all glory and praise, both now and forever. Amen.

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