Prayer and Fasting

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Prayer and Fasting
10th Sunday after Pentecost
24 August, 2008
1 Corinthians 4:9-16 ; Matthew 17:14-23

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today, once again, we are with our Lord ; and today, He is healing a child from demon-possession (even though it is called epilepsy). In this particular case, there were signs of epilepsy, but, in fact, it is demon-possession. We also see how the apostles admit that they cannot cast out this demon, and they ask our Lord why this is the case. He says, of course : “'Because of your unbelief'”. However, our Saviour also adds : “'This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting'”.

The Lord, in His love, is always bringing light, life and healing wherever He goes. The apostles understand this, and they want to participate in this, obviously, but at the same time, they are still burdened down by misconceptions and misunderstandings. Thus, they seem to think that there is a technique to this exorcism. They had already tried to apply some sort of technique in casting out the demon. In other words, they “barked up the wrong tree”. It is easy for us to “bark up the wrong tree”, too, if we fall into the temptation of thinking that when our Lord says : “'This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting'”, we will be able to do it also, if we apply certain techniques of prayer and fasting. However, prayer and fasting is not a technique.

Prayer and fasting is, rather, a way of life which enables being in deeper and greater harmony in love with the Lord so as to know His will. Then we would be able to cast out the demon. To be in harmony with the love of the Lord brings the irresistible light and love of the Lord to bear. It is not I or any apostle who is casting out any demon. It is the Lord who is doing this work. Not you, not me, not the apostles : it is the Lord who is doing this work through the apostles, and sometimes through us. However, it only happens when we have prayed, fasted, and are in harmony with the Lord. We do not pray and fast for the purpose of obtaining a special state of whatever, or some sort of power to get rid of demons. It is never, never that. When we play with power, we are playing in the devil’s playground, itself. It is the Lord’s way we have to follow, instead.

Today, the Apostle Paul is telling us about the sorts of things that can arise as a result of praying and fasting and being in harmony with the Lord. He also shares with us what sort of treatment he is getting as a teacher and as an apostle. He receives rejection, beatings, imprisonment, and almost every other sort of persecution. He is considered by some people to be completely “cuckoo”. He says to the Corinthians that he is a fool for the sake of Christ. What do we mean by saying that someone is a fool ? Usually, we mean someone who is “cuckoo”.

This is just what people thought about Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg when she was dressing up in her husband’s military uniform after he died. This was 200 years ago, and, at that time, women did not walk around in men’s clothes (let alone a military uniform). Obviously, people thought that her “elevator had stopped going to the top floor”. However, that was not at all the case. She was doing it because of love. She was doing it because her husband had been such a drunkard, and she wanted to pray him into the Kingdom. She wore his uniform, and did all those other strange things because of her desire to be pleasing to the Lord, and to bring her fallen husband into the Kingdom. In fact, if we go today to Saint Petersburg, and we go to the Smolensk Cemetery, we will see there a really beautiful nineteenth century church, all dark blue. That church was, in fact, partly built by Saint Xenia. In the night-time during the course of its construction, Saint Xenia was secretly putting all the bricks in place for the bricklayers, so that in the morning they would face no delay in constructing the church. Saint Xenia had already put all the bricks in place on the scaffolds ahead of time, and they were able to get to work immediately. It took them a long time before they found out who did it. There is more than one face to being foolish. I will go so far as to say that probably the builders understood Saint Xenia, but the aristocracy of Saint Petersburg did not.

To return to the Apostle Paul, he was sometimes treated as though he were crazy. There is another important lesson for us all to be remembering in this, because in our culture we are so ready to judge the person by the clothes. It is by external appearances that we have the reputation of measuring people (hence the cautionary saying : “Do not judge a book by its cover”). It is important for us to remember that things very often are not as they appear. People who seem to be insignificant sorts of personalities (even ineffective personalities) are often those persons who are the best pray-ers. They are very well hidden, but they are the best at praying. They are the ones, who, in their hiddenness, are interceding on our behalf, and bringing light and life from the Lord to us. We should be very careful in measuring human beings not to measure by appearances, because it is the Lord who knows the heart. Saint Xenia and the Apostle Paul are good enough examples of this for us.

In today’s Epistle, the Apostle Paul continues, saying that we have many instructors, but we do not have many fathers. This is yet another important lesson for us to remember today. We are so system-minded in our formation here and now, that we often forget to pay attention to personal relationships. As I was complaining on the way here this morning, we are very much suffering from the negative and poisonous event of a little over 1000 years ago in the West when theology stopped being the mother of all learning and study, and it was put into second or even a lower place, below the now primary position of philosophy. Therefore, instead of theology, it has been philosophy which has been driving us in the West ever since. Because of the fundamental nature of this philosophy, we are now system-minded, and our approach towards the Lord is often system-minded, instead of being personal-relationship-minded. It is from this system-mindedness that we have the strange phenomenon in television and radio evangelical outreach. Such programmes are presented by people who are misleading other people by letting them think that we can have a certain sort of technique of prayer, or a certain technique of approaching God, by which we can get anything we want from Him. I like to say very often that people are being taught wrongly that if we learn how to milk the “cosmic cow” correctly, we can get the milk in the quantity and quality we want. Of course, anyone who has milked a cow knows that a person has to know how to milk the cow correctly, or no milk comes. It is the same thing with goats, I know, and with sheep, I am sure.

However, our relationship with God has nothing to do with technique. It has all to do with the relationship of love (“God is love” (1 John 4:16)). In this relationship of love, we know God’s love, and His will. Our hearts know His will ; and in our hearts, knowing His will, we have the hope and the possibility to be doing His will. The Apostle Paul says that he wants to be (and considers himself to be) a father to all the Corinthians — and not just the Corinthians, but all the people to whom he brought Christ. He is their father. You and I are mothers and fathers to each other in Christ in the same way. We do not show the way in terms of techniques and systems. Merely learning a set of rules and doing things in a certain prescribed manner does not ipso facto make us to be Orthodox Christians. If we are like this, we are merely robots. Rather, it must be because of the fruit of love that we follow such ways of living or of doing things. These ways of living are clearly expressions and implementations of the Gospel in our life. If we live in this way, then we might possibly be considered to be good Orthodox Christians.

Orthodox Christians, in all their different cultures, live as they live, and do what they do, because of the baptism by the Gospel of their lives and their way of life. That is one main reason why there is so much similarity amongst all the Orthodox cultures. Certainly, we speak different languages, we eat different food, and we dance in different ways. There is a slightly different flavour in the way we sing in church, but that is about all. When we go to one Orthodox church or another (whether this be in our own diocese or not, our own country or not), we do not absolutely need a service-book. Sooner or later, we find that we know exactly where we are in the Divine Liturgy (or in any other service), and we simply “fall in”, understanding the language or not. There is a famous story about a Russian lady who went one time to Greece on a pilgrimage, and she was often in church. When she came back, people were asking her how were the services there. She said : “Well, it was about like how it is here. It was very nice, and I felt very much at home, but the whole service was in Greek except, of course, ‘Eis polla eti despota’”. The joke, itself, is an expression of how things really are. The same thing has happened to me, even when I went to Georgia where the language is so different that our ears cannot get any hooks on which to hang any words. However, I could still know where I was in the Divine Liturgy. The singing is really very different there, but one can still discern the progress of the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy proceeds just as it does everywhere. Our Faith is the same. Our attitudes are the same.

Our Lord, when He is healing the epileptic, is responding in compassion to the entreaty of the father. He is responding in compassion to the captivity from which that little boy had been suffering. Our Saviour liberates the child. In the same way, out of compassion, He is liberating you and me, too, time after time. In the same way, He meets your needs and my needs time after time. The Lord, in His own way, is being like the father that He tells us about in the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32). The Apostle Paul is trying to be a father in the same sort of way, and he is speaking to us about this today.

It is important that we, in living our Christian lives, do our best to wean ourselves, by the Lord’s help, from all this system-thinking, and remember that, in Christ, everything in our life is based on relationships – human, personal relationships. In fact, bishops, who are usually presumed to be so high-and-mighty, have to be the opposite of high-and-mighty. I was thoroughly offended not long ago, when I was referred to as a “prelate”. I do not dare to consider myself to be in any way, shape, or form, a prince. A bishop who does consider himself to be a prince, is in extremely dangerous territory. A bishop, like Christ, has to be ready to wash the feet of others just as He said we must do. Bishops are the inheritors of the apostles. They must be washing feet. They must be serving. They must embody serving. If they do not manage to do it, they have repenting to do, because the way of Christ is self-sacrificing, loving service, caring for the other, feeding the flock, nurturing the sheep. Doing the best he can, like the apostles, the bishop must be a loving father, leading the family. If you refer to the bishop as shepherd, he must be leading the flock in Christ, to Christ, to the green pastures of everlasting life.

This is how we all must be towards each other. We must be loving fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. We must be showing Christ to each other. We must be referring each other to Christ. In prayer, we must be bringing each other into the presence of Christ, lifting each other up before the Face of Christ, always, and in everything looking only to Christ. Therefore, like the Apostle Peter, looking to Christ, may we be able to stand up on the turbulent waters of this life, and glorify Him in everything with joy, exalting Him, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, together with the unoriginate Father, and His all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.