The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."  And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes."  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!"  And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."  And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, "He is dead."  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?"  And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." Mark 9:22-29 (ESV)
“I believe, help my unbelief”! What a prayer, the kind that drives out demons. “I believe, help my unbelief.” It is a strange prayer, but a prayer nonetheless. It was a request asked of Jesus, asked of God, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. And it was answered positively, the father’s faith, his unbelief, was helped. “I believe, help my unbelief.” I find it curious. The father didn’t say, I want to believe, help me believe. He said, I believe. All prayer is born of faith. How could we pray if we didn’t believe in the One to whom we are praying. The father believed in Jesus, and prayed to Him. He knew Jesus could do it, but he was hesitant, he had doubts. I suppose it is the duel nature of the Christian, saint and sinner, that comes out here. We believe, and yet we sometimes harbor doubt. We believe, but part of us doesn’t. “I believe, help my unbelief.” In a certain sense, every one of our sins is an act of unbelief. So just as there is evidence of our faith in the fact that we are here this morning, that we pray, and have devotions, there is ample evidence of our unbelief in every sin that we commit. We too find ourselves in the predicament of the father, we believe, and yet we have unbelief. “I believe, help my unbelief.” So we pray, and so demons are driven out of us.
Demonic activity, it is on the rise, I believe. Demons are crafty. They don’t always just possess a person and make them have seizures. Often, they masquerade as being good. They trick people away from believing in the Triune God, by promoting a belief in self, a belief in works, or some generic god, anything but faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all sins. But as Christians we know with John the Baptist that we must decrease, and He must increase.
I got an Email earlier this week from a fairly prominent Baptist, well it was a mass email promoting his blog, he said he was changing his position on sanctification. Said he had to. He had realized that for all his efforts in life, he had not really gotten any better, any more sanctified. For a while he thought he had. This is the devil’s trick, the devil’s doctrine, this American theology of progressive sanctification, first promulgated by John Wesley. The idea that the longer you work at it the more holy you can become. The idea is that you are given a clean slate, you are forgiven at conversion, and then by working at life you can steadily give up sin after sin and reach perfection even in this life, you can reach sainthood, be a mother Teresa, that is the goal. Got news for you, for all the wonderful things that lady did, she was still a sinner, Jesus still had to die for her too. As he had to die for all of us, because we are all sinners, and we don’t get any better. To the Christian it should be anathema to think that we have some how attained on our own a holiness better than others around us, especially a holiness better than the fellow believers in Christ. Seriously, we are all made holy by Christ alone, His death and His resurrection, that is what makes us saints, and makes the work we do good in the sight of God. All believers in Christ have the same holiness, that which comes from the blood of Christ in the forgiveness of sins. To think we have ever progressed and attained a holiness, a sanctification of our own, that is better than that of those around us, is to say that Christ’s holiness, that holiness he imparts to us is not good enough. You see the devil working? I do. Thankfully, the word of God is stronger, and it reaches men like the one who sent me this Email. He begins to realize that he has only replaced some more gross and apparent sins, with more subtle and dangerous ones. Perhaps he doesn’t feel as much lust in his heart for young beautiful women, but that probably has more to do with old age and a waning libido than anything he has achieved. Instead, he finds himself growing impatient with a younger generation, a bit more crotchety, and stingy in tips, judgmental of his own children for the same sins he himself is guilty of. We never progress in sanctification, and each one of our sins betrays our unbelief. “I believe, help my unbelief.” That was the prayer.
Though it is true that we don’t progress in sanctification, it doesn’t mean that our faith cannot grow stronger with the help of the Lord. The Lord can help our unbelief. He can draw us closer to Himself. He can bring us to rely more and more on Him for our salvation, and less and less on us. He can and will answer prayer, and drive out the demons that torment us. The satanic activity is strongest when he is simply planting seeds of doubt. He does so here, Jesus strengthens our faith, in the spoken word, in the sacraments, in the reading of scripture. This is how He keeps us connected to Him, the vine from which we grow, pruning us where we need to be pruned, so that we grow stronger in our connection with Him, our faith in Him. This is why we can’t be Christians on our own, and why I vex, and worry for those who are irregular in worship or stop coming all together. We can’t be Christians on our own, we need to be connected to Christ, and being connected to Christ, we are connected to each other. It is here that Christ answers our prayer “I believe, help my unbelief,” as he feeds us with his word of forgiveness. The longer we are away the more opportunity Satan has to feed us with his seeds of doubt, strengthening the faith we have in ourselves, and weakening the faith we have in Christ, who died for our sins.
Many think that they can replace “church” with home devotion, praying in their secret chamber. Church, they believe, is some sort of extra, a bonus to the Christian life, but not necessary. I don’t know where this either/ or concept comes from. It is not from Jesus. I don’t know how you read scripture from home, and come to the conclusion that you can forsake the assembly of the saints safely. Jesus for all the hypocrites that filled the synagogues and the temple, still frequented them, for there He knew, that despite the people around Him, He heard the word of his Father in heaven. And then yes He prayed in private and carried on devotion in private, and at other times with friends and family. Jesus knew that community is vital for the people of God. So He instituted church, the divine service, when He instituted baptism and communion, so that where two or three are gathered in His name, He would be there among them, forgiving them their sin, dispelling the demons of unbelief, and strengthening the faith of those who already believe. So the Christian’s devotional life revolves around the Divine Service, church, the communion of saints, where the saints gather to hear his word, and receive forgiveness of sins in His body and His blood given to us in the bread and wine. And from here we go out into the world where we continue this devotional life at home in private and with family and friends, praying for ourselves and each other in our secret chambers. And there too, when we read His word, He works to dispel our unbelief, and strengthen our faith.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.