On the Sunday of Saint John of the Ladder

Mark 9:17-31

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In today’s Gospel the Lord says, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).

And the first thing I notice is what he does not do: Jesus does not immediately go pray and fast. He doesn’t have to – because regular prayer and fasting characterized his life already. So he spoke with divine grace and authority, and the demons fled.

I’m tempted to just say “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) and end right there. .

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Today the Church commemorates Saint John of the Ladder. We know that as a teenager in the 6th century John took up the monastic life, and in his twenties he went out to live in the desert alone under the care of his spiritual father. There he became known as a physician of souls, a reliable guide for spiritual strugglers, and a wonderworker.

In his seventy-fifth year, Saint John was asked to serve as the abbot of the monastery at Mount Sinai. At that time the abbot of Raithu, near the Red Sea, asked John to write some instructions for monastics so they could do as he did and gain the grace that characterized the saint’s own life. The result is the book we now know as the Ladder of Divine Ascent. The Lord’s walk as a man was about thirty years in length (Luke 3:23) so John lays out thirty steps, from renunciation of the world to union with the Holy Trinity.

When John set out to write his book, he took as his theme the ladder that Jacob saw in a vision (Genesis 28:10–19). In the service for the Nativity of the Theotokos, we read the account of Jacob’s vision of the ladder, because the image of the ladder points to her through whom the uncreated God came down into creation and became a man.

Other Christian Fathers see the ladder as pointing to Christ himself, who said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). From eternity Christ is God the Word, the eternal God who cannot be contained even in the whole heavens; then in the womb of the Virgin he takes on our created, human nature as well, joining the earthly and heavenly. Christ unites us in himself to the divine nature, so that Christ himself is the union of God and man in one Person; he ascended to the heavens and has sat down at the right hand of the Father, seating our nature on the throne in himself. It is in Christ that we ascend into the life of the age to come.  

Saint John’s emphasis, and the teaching of all the apostles and saints, is not about settling for a life of Trying Not To Sin, and slinking into the resurrection, wretchedly hoping for pardon. This is settling for a small vision! It falls far short of the destiny God has set before us. The point of a ladder is to ascend.

“This is the will of God for you: That you become saints” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

In nearly every epistle, Saint Paul exhorts the churches, calling them saints. (Romans 1:7; 16:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1 and many more.) All over the scriptures, the Lord commands, “You shall be holy for I am holy (Lev 19:2 and many more) and “Be perfected” (Genesis 17:1, 5:48).

Even when writing to Corinth, to a church torn apart by disorder, scandal, and grave sin, Saint Paul begins by reminding them they are “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  He says to them, “Do you not know that the saints will rule the world? …We shall judge angels” (1 Corinthians 6:2,3).

In our fasting, struggle, and taking up the cross, we are not at all passively enduring the assaults and temptations of the enemy – rather, we are aggressively taking the fight to the enemy. “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Matthew 11;12).

Our rule of fasting does not sound very impressive: Six weeks without meat or cheese? How hard can that be? But as soon as we set out to undertake the fast, we realize how overgrown and controlling our ego and self-will have become. In fact if we had only one single commandment, such as “Don’t eat this one fruit,” you know we would focus on that one thing and experience inner warfare. This is how thoroughly the passions rule us. And so, every day, but especially during these forty days, we struggle in fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and forgiveness of others.

Note that our body is not the enemy. Our brain and thoughts are not the enemy. Rather, these are the battleground that we fight to claim and own. Three times a day we sit down to eat, and the Fast again reminds us that we are intentionally subjecting our habits and self-will to the rule of God. And every waking moment, as we fast we keep vigilance over the thoughts we permit to live in our heads, and the words we permit to come out of our lips.

What does victory look like in this spiritual warfare? In the city of Corinth, we see Saint Paul freely exercising the Lord’s own authority and divine grace to free people from demonic oppression in the name of Jesus Christ. And there we meet seven men, unbelieving Jews, who decide to try using the name of Jesus as a weapon against demons: “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out!” But the demon answers them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” (Acts 19:13-16).

“Paul I know.” The saints are known in heaven and feared in hell

Our struggle plays out before the Lord, and his Mother, and all the angels and the saints who have already finished their battle. Like gladiators in the arena, we are surrounded by witnesses.

On many feasts, at Vespers we read Hebrews chapter 11, which recounts the accomplishments of the saints who through faithfulness “shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Hebrews 11:33-34). The passage ends:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us; fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith – who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, disdaining the shame, and now has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

And so Saint Paul, who exercised the authority of God over demons, says:

I want to know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended. But this one thing I do: Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:10-14).

I’m going to close by reading the end of The Ladder. Saint John’s exhorts us:

Ascend, brothers! ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend and hear him who says: “Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God” (Isaiah 22:3), who “makes our feet like hind’s feet, and sets us on high places” (Psalm 18:33), that we may be victorious with his song. Run, I beseech you, with him who said: “Let us hasten until we attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), who, when He was baptized in the thirtieth year of His visible age, attained the thirtieth step in the spiritual ladder; since God is indeed love: to whom be praise, dominion, power, in whom is and was and will be the cause of all goodness throughout infinite ages. Amen.

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.