Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

 The cross of Christ is central to our spiritual lives and to the glory we will obtain from God.

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?

For Christians success can only be measured in terms of whether or not we are following Christ.

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.



Obedience is Better Than Asceticism

Photo by Seth Bobosh

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)

As we move through the second week of our Lenten sojourn, we are reminded that if we are not acting in love or if we are not growing in love than our Lenten discipline, no matter what heights of ascetical self-denial we attain, are in vain.  The purpose of Lent is to control the passions and sin, not just to strictly change our diets.  Among the sayings that come to us from desert monastics are the words of Amma Syncletica. 

She also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 234)

Asceticism can become a source of pride as we compare ourselves to how others are keeping or not keeping the food fast.  Or, even as we compare how much better we are doing this year than last or this week than last week.   Pride can set in, judgmentalism, gossip, bickering and backbiting. Or, on the other hand, envy and jeealousy, showmanship and hypocrisy.

Amma Syncletica thinks that obedience to an elder or a rule is even better because then there is no self pride, self vaunting, seeking attention or hyper-vigilance in watching what others are doing or keeping track of how much more I am doing than others.  Obedience says, it doesn’t matter what others are doing or not doing, I have a rule which I am to keep and that is what I need to be mindful of.  There is nothing to get proud about, or envious, or judgmental – we are simply doing our duty, doing what we were told to do.

“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”  (Luke 17:7-10)


Who Can Be a Christian?

What does it take to be a Christian?  Follow the law of Love, says St. Nicholas Cabasilas:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

“The ‘law of Love’ is the basis of his spirituality as [Cabasilas] writes in the sixth book of The Life in Christ.

‘This law demands no arduous nor afflicting work, nor loss of money; it does not involve shame, nor any dishonour, nor anything worse; it puts no obstacle in the pursuit of any art or profession.

The general keeps the power to command,

the labourer can work the ground,

the artisan can carry on with his occupation. There is no reason to retire into solitude, to eat unusual food, to be inadequately clothed, or endanger one’s health, or to resort to any other special endeavour;

it suffices to give oneself wholly to meditation and to remain always within oneself without depriving the world of one’s talents.'”  (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Life in Christ, p. 290)


Overcoming Our Sins

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos muses:

Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)


Our Heart of Flesh

And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  (Ezekiel 11:19)

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.   (Isaiah 57:15)

Archimandrite Zacharias instructs us:

Unless we endeavour to live within our heart, we remain blind to our untamed passions. The inclinations of our heart and mind remain beyond our control. We sin whether we want to or not. Sin can never attract the blessing of God, so unless we keep our hearts alive and alert, we will eventually become strangers to Him. The Scriptures say that ‘the heart is deep.’ God honours this ‘deep heart’ of man. All heaven hearkens to a deep heart athirst for God and ready to receive Him. But if our heart is indifferent to God, we are worth little more than dust and ashes. We must attend to our heart and cultivate it, for the hidden man of the heart is very precious in the sight of God. May God give us such a heart, a deep heart that is capable of divine and spiritual sensation!  

St. Seraphim of Sarov

We learn to enter into our ‘deep heart’ through personal prayer in our rooms and attendance at church services. And if we take courage and enter therein, we shall behold the great miracle of the union of our life with God’s Life, for this takes place in the heart of man. Indeed, the aim of our entire ascetic struggle – our fasts, vigils and prayers – is to reveal the heart, to unearth it.   (Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, p. 241-242)


St Abercius, Equal to the Apostles

“In the time of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161), St Abercius was bishop in the city of Hierapolis in Phrygia. The great majority of the town’s inhabitants were pagans, and St Abercius governed his little flock with a heart greatly saddened by the great number of pagans and idolaters, and with fervent prayer to God that He would bring them to the true Light. At the time of a rowdy idolatrous festival, Abercius became inflamed with godly zeal and went into the temple, smashing all the idols. When the furious pagans tried to kill him, three young madmen fell down before the man of God, foaming at the mouth and bellowing. The man of God drove the demons out of them, and they were healed and became calm. Seeing this, the fury of the pagans turned to marveling at Christ’s wonderworker, and five hundred of them were immediately baptized. Little by little, everyone in the city of Hierapolis came to believe in Christ and was baptized. The proconsul of the region, Publius, had a blind mother whose sight Abercius restored by prayer, and both Publius and his mother came to faith in Christ, along with many other people. In old age, Abercius was summoned to Rome, where he healed the Emperor’s mad daughter. The Lord Christ appeared to His faithful follower several times. People from far and near came to him for help in chronic sickness, and the demons not only feared him but were obedient to his commands. At the order of the Lord Himself, he preached the Gospel throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, and went to his beloved Lord in great old age, in the city of Hierapolis at the end of the second century.”  (The Prologue from Ochrid, p. 96)


Do You Unite Yourself to Christ? Have You United Yourself to Christ?

In 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, St. Paul writes:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The Word of God became incarnate as a human to unite earth to heaven and reunite humanity to divinity.  Christ by becoming incarnate makes the salvation of the human race possible because He unites us to the Holy Trinity.  This union of God and humanity already occurred in history.

For us Christians – our response to the incarnation – life consists mostly of removing from our own lives all and any of the obstacles to our union with God.  Repentance, prayer, self denial, virtue, worship, participating in the sacraments, charity, forgiveness – all are the ways in which we remove from our selves those things which prevent us from experiencing God’s love and the life in God.  God became incarnate to unite humanity to divinity. Salvation consists of our union with God – our accepting that union which God offers us in Jesus Christ.

In God’s plan for salvation, Mary, the mother of Jesus is the person in whom all obstacles to the union of God and humans are removed.   God finds the way to unite God’s own self to us and this reunion occurs within the Theotokos.  She is the person in whom salvation takes place.  God’s plan for salvation is to unite humanity to God’s divinity, and this begins within Mary’s womb at the incarnation.  God cannot unite Himself to humanity without a human person to whom God can be united.

We respond to God’s salvation – the restoration of communion between God and ourselves by embracing the Gospel.  Baptism is part of the process by which we remove all obstacles to our union with God – by which we remove all obstacles to salvation.   1]  First,  the person hears the Gospel and moves towards God, to embrace God’s love and to be embraced  by it.  The person goes through catechism, to prepare themselves for union with God.  They prepare themselves to lay aside those things which separate them from God, and they embrace all those words, actions and thoughts which make union with God possible.  2]  Then the  catechumen comes to confession and renounces their sins and repents of them – renounces all of their behaviors and thoughts which had separated them from God.  Repentance is a stage in the process of turning away from those things which separate us from God in order that we might experience God’s embrace of us.  3] When the catechumen is ready for baptism, they come to church, and at the door of the church they renounce Satan and all his angels and all his service and all his pride.  They reject everything in the world that separates them from God.  This is the exorcism – expelling the darkness and all those thoughts and deeds which had in fact separated us from God.    4]   Then before they are baptized, they remove their clothes, again removing anything which separates them from God – all that they have clothed themselves in from the world is left behind.  And their clothes do symbolize all that they have taken on themselves from the world.  They show in leaving behind those clothes that they are ready to embrace a new life.

5]  Then in the baptismal font, they are washed of their sins, not so much a physical washing but a spiritual one, again cleansing them of anything which separates them from God , and making them capable of being united to Christ and of receiving the Holy Spirit.   Everything in their life which separated them from God is now left behind – the way of the world in their discarded clothing and their sins in the baptismal font.  Now God enters into them and they put on Christ – clothe themselves in Christ.  Nothing comes between them and God.  They are purified and sanctified and are holy and wholly united to God.  6]  It is no longer they who live but Christ who lives in them.  They now are chrismated, receiving the Holy Spirit as gift, the Spirit of God who comes to abide in the newly baptized Christian.

When we hear the Gospel we realize that just living a better life is not sufficient for salvation.  If it were, then Christ would not have been needed.  The Jews already had God’s law,  if simply keeping Torah was enough for God to unite Himself to humanity, Christ was not needed.  The Gospel itself tells us something more is needed by humanity than simply doing more good deeds.  So in Luke 6:31-36, Jesus teaches us:

And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Just doing good is not even all that special – even sinners know how to be good, especially when that behavior benefits them.   God, for His part, loves expecting nothing in return.  God gives rain and sunshine and all manners of blessing to the entire world, not as a response to us humans or as a reaction to us but purely because God is love.  If we want to live in communion with God, we need to lay aside all those behaviors and thoughts which separate us from God, and to behave as God does – being merciful and generous and kind.  We need to work on remaining fully united to Christ Jesus our Lord.


Taking Up the Cross to Keep United to Christ


Today, we carried in procession our crosses in order to follow Christ, but we didn’t do this just to perform some religious ritual, we did it to remind ourselves what it means to be a Christian in this world.  The procession was indeed a ritual, but the world we live in is real.  The ritual ties us to the reality of this world, and in this world, Christians sometimes are called to suffer because they are united to Christ who Himself died on the cross for us.  We carry our crosses not only to follow Christ but to remain united to Him, as we are reminded by St. Paul:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:34-39)

Some imagine, if I’m “good” I will be protected from suffering.  I can avoid suffering as long as I am “good.” “Goodness” becomes some kind of charm, an amulet or talisman to ward off evil.  Some even imagine and teach that people are suffering because they are not good or not good enough.  We end up blaming the poor for their own poverty and the persecuted for their persecution because, the logic goes, if they were good they wouldn’t be in their condition, they wouldn’t be suffering.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was good:  he was sinless, holy, perfect, and yet he was crucified on the cross.  The powers of this world arrayed themselves against Him.  Being “good” does not necessarily protect us from evil, and in fact, as in the case of Jesus, being good is exactly what made evil oppose Him and attempt to destroy Him.

We choose goodness to be with Christ, to remain in Communion with him, not to gain benefit in this world from our relationship with Him.   We choose to be with Christ, no matter what is going on around – peace and prosperity or persecution and poverty.  As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle:  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:19-20)  I live with Christ and I die with Christ.


As Christians we should want to be wherever Christ is – no matter what the conditions of the world are where Christ is.  The one thing we do not want to lose is union with Him – even if we lose the world or our life, we have lost nothing if we remain in Communion with the incarnate God.

We choose goodness to remain in Communion with Christ, not to gain benefits and rewards in this world, because this world is passing away.

32217826112_6f9778d33b_nToday we have symbolically carried our crosses – the reality of the symbol is we are every day to  take up that cross and follow Christ.  We stay with Christ no matter where that cross leads and no matter what happens around us.

Remember that any form of self denial we do, any fasting, abstinence or ascetical practices aren’t done to earn us some “good” points with God.  Rather they serve to prepare us for whatever suffering we may ever experience in this world – suffering that is not voluntary but comes upon us because of natural disaster or human choice or because of the evil one.  Asceticism is training for the day in which our faith is put to the test.

We also  practice such self denial in order to identify with our fellow Christians who are suffering because they are Christian.  Christ who is goodness, who is God’s love incarnate, suffered in this world.  We are to suffer with all the afflicted Christians of the world as though we are with them, as it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

And, those of us who are now suffering from whatever cause and for whatever reason can take heart.  Suffering does not mean God has rejected you – God Himself suffered in this world, in the flesh, as a human.  Those who are good should take note and hold on to the goodness – hold on to Jesus Christ – no matter what happens around you.  Again, St. Paul says:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:4-11)

We choose to take up the cross in order to follow Christ, to imitate Him.  We know when Christ took up His cross that led to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of His crucifixion.  Christ didn’t enter into glory simply by taking up the cross, but by dying on it.


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, in order that, just 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 in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.   (Romans 6:3-6)

Today, we chrismated one new member into the Body of Christ.  One more person who has agreed to carry the cross, and as we prayed for him this morning, who has agreed even to lovingly die for Christ, if that is where Christ leads him.

When Jesus had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them:

“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-39)

We are those who are not ashamed of Christ or of Christ’s words.  We choose to live with Him and in Him and to have Him abide in us.  We live in communion with all those who bear the name of Christ.

(sermon notes for 2017-9-17)


St. Paul’s Understanding of Faith

“I want to suggest that for Paul there is one soteriological model: justification is by crucifixion, specifically co-crucifixion, understood as participation in Christ’s act of covenant fulfillment….

A close reading of Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 6:1-7:6, is connection with other passages in Paul (especially Rom 5:1-11; 2 Cor 5:14-21; and, once again, Phil 2:6-11), reveals that the apostle understands faith as co-crucifixion with the Messiah Jesus, or “justification by co-crucifixion,” and therefore as inherently participatory.” (Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p. 43-44).


If You Wish to Be Perfect

Within the Gospel lesson, Matthew 19:16-26 , Jesus challenges a man who thinks he is pretty close to being perfect in keeping all of God’s commandments with these words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 

Jesus tells the man that perfection cannot be found in the Commandments, in keeping Torah.  For that which leads to perfection is not commanded by the Torah or God at all.  Perfection lies in love, loving as God loves, in loving one’s neighbor while abandoning personal wealth and property, in following Christ.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza comments:

“The commandments were given to all Christians and it is understood that every Christian observes them; this is, as it were, the tribute appointed to be paid to the King. Anyone who says, ‘I will not pay tribute,’ will he escape punishment? There are, however, in the world great and illustrious men who not only pay the appointed tribute, but also offer gifts and they are thought worthy of great honor, great benefits and esteem.

So also the Holy Fathers not only kept the commandments but also offered gifts to God. These gifts are virginity and poverty.  These are not commanded but freely given. Nowhere is it written, you shall not take a wife or ‘Sell your property!’ He did not choose to do so when the lawyer approached him saying, ‘Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He replied, ‘You know the Commandments. Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, etc. When the answer came, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth,’ he added, ‘If you want to be perfect, sell your property and give the money to the poor,’ etc. See, he did not say ‘sell your property as a commandment, but as a counsel. This is clear from the condition imposed, ‘if you wish to be perfect.’ (Discourses & Sayings, p. 84).