Taking up the cross to follow Christ is essential to our discipleship. We cannot be Christians unless we do what Christ commanded: Take up our cross and follow Him.
This week as you fast, pray and prepare yourself to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, focus on the cross bearing we are called to do.
It is not easy to follow Christ – every day in the most mundane and simple ways we see how hard it is to do the right thing. We struggle with patience, sloth, forgetfulness, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, being thankful, not getting our way, with disappointment, with having to share the world with others. And all of that can occur just in the morning before we go to church!
We must die with Christ in order to live with Him. As St. Paul writes:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Romans 6:3-8)
But we do have to die with Him if we want to live with Him. This dying to self is hard because we so want to get our way always.
To be a Christian is to live for the kingdom of God, which means denying ourselves in this world. We are not Christians in order to become more prosperous in this world, for as Christians we claim citizenship in God’s Kingdom. We may experience blessings in this world, but we aren’t to live for them, but must live with a willingness to give up the things of this world for life in the world to come. We receive blessings from God so that we might share those blessings with others.
There is an account in the lives of the Orthodox missionaries to Alaska of an event that happened in 1796. There was a certain Aleut Indian chief who was notorious for his bad behavior – drunkenness, fighting, stealing, rape and adultery. His villagers sought out an Orthodox missionary to try to convert their chief to Christianity as they wanted to improve his behavior. The missionary priest came to the village and saw the evil going on and did his best to present the Gospel to all the people in the village. Surprisingly the chief demanded to be baptized at once, threatening harm to the priest if he refused. The priest reluctantly baptized him. The chief however did not undergo any conversion and continued his evil ways. The villagers were furious at the priest for having failed them. They told the missionary priest: “You lied to us. You told us that if we or the chief converted to Christianity that we would be better people. Our chief was baptized and is as bad as ever.” In a rage they took the priest and killed him on the spot. This is the story of St. Juvenaly, whose icon we have in our church.
My point in telling you this story is that those Aleuts only thought of Christianity as making their life on earth better. They wanted to improve their material lot in life. They did not accept the Gospel as a call to set aright their own lives with God, nor did they intend to follow Christ in suffering for truth and righteousness. They in fact rejected the Gospel and in bitter disappointment became murderers. They were not able to see beyond life in this world.
We follow Christ not for material gain in this world but in order to give our life to Him.
What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but to lose their life? (Mark 8:36)
In the Service for Receiving Converts into the Faith, one of the petitions we say in the litany for the new convert is this:
That grace may be given to him/her through anointing with the all-holy Chrism, so that boldly, without fear and unashamed, he/she may confess before all people the Name of Christ our God, and that he/she may be always ready for Christ’s sake to lovingly suffer and to die, let us pray to the Lord.
Yes, as Christians we commit ourselves to always be ready to lovingly suffer and die for Christ!
To follow Christ is to take a new look at the questions: “What does it mean to be successful?” and How do I measure success?
In the Gospel lesson today, we could paraphrase Jesus as saying: “If any wants to be my disciple and enter into eternal life, then say no to your self, say no to your desires, say no to your self interest, say no to your self preservation.”
We live in a country full of over weight people, people with porn addictions, binge drinkers, and drug addiction partly because we refuse ever to say no to our selves. We confusedly think abundance means over indulgence is blessed. Great Lent says precisely because there is such abundance we need to learn self control and how to say no to all that abundance which surrounds us so that we don’t literally become buried in over indulgence.
You want to be a Christian? Then take up your cross and deny yourself and follow Christ. Great Lent is given to you and me as a gift – an opportunity for us to seriously and literally fulfill the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord.