Taking Up the Cross to Keep United to Christ

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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.

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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.

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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)

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Remembering 9/11

Even 16 years after the events, when I see any documentaries on TV about the terrorist attack on the United State on 11 September 2001, I find myself hypnotized by the images on the screen.  A paralysis of disbelief takes over as I watch in horror the events unfolding and experience the terror and sorrow of the victims and their families – images that seem burned into my memory.

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I have not been moved to hatred or thoughts of revenge.  My reaction has been a total sorrow that we in the world are in such condition that hatred takes over our lives and that we humans can do such horrendous acts of murder.  Such dehumanization is hard to fathom – both that we dehumanize those we see as enemies and that we ourselves become dehumanized and come to think that murder and mayhem and evil are somehow godly.  They are inhuman acts, why do we imagine they can be godly?  Unless of course we think God is tyrannical, maniacal and demonic.  From the time Cain murdered his brother Abel, humans have been willing to kill and murder on such a scale that is should trouble every human . . .  but doesn’t, tragically enough.

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So, how are we to understand such inhumanity?  Here are some words from a 4th Century Christian bishop, St. Basil the Great, whose saintly parents had lived through the Roman persecution of Christians:

“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others.  He is therefore a sinner.  We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion.  We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life.

That love for our enemies is possible has been shown us by the Lord himself.  He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death‘, [Phil 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friend’s sake so much as for his enemies.  ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.‘ [Rom 5:8]

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And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.‘ [Eph 5:1-2]

God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible.

On the other hand, is it not perhaps true that an enemy can be as much of a help to us as a friend can?

Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.‘ [Matt 5:11-12]”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 232-233)

It is no easy task to be a Christian in the face of terrorism.  It is not impossible as St. Basil says to do what Christ commands us to do.  But it is for us very had and seems like a great burden . . .  like taking up our cross to follow Christ.

Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)

Offer Yourself to God: Take Up Your Cross

“From this point of view, it would be appropriate to also quote an amazing third-century text by of the author of the most early Philokalia, Origen:

‘You are, all of you, a priestly people. Consequently, you have access to the sanctuary; each one of you has in himself his holocaust and he himself kindles the altar of sacrifice, so that it burns continually. If I renounce all my possessions, if I carry my cross and follow Christ, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God.

If I deliver my body in order to burn with charity, if I acquire the glory of martyrdom, I offer myself as a holocaust on the altar of God. If I love my brothers to the point of giving up my soul for them, if I fight to the death for justice and truth, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God. If I mortify my members of all carnal concupiscence, if the world is crucified to me and I to the world, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God and I become the priest of my own sacrifice.’

(Boris Bobrinksoy, The Compassion of the Father, p. 111).

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).

Sojourning on the Way: Roadblocks

“Those who follow the path of God often experience times when the holy peace, that glorious inner seclusion of calm detachment, and the freedom they love are interrupted-when, in fact, they withdraw. Sometimes movements within the heart raise such clouds of dust within that one cannot see the path one must follow.

When we happen to experience something like this, we must realize and recognize that God allows it to happen for our own good. This is precisely the warfare for which God has rewarded his saints with radiant crowns. Remembering this, then, let us not lose courage in the trials we face. As in any other trouble, we may look to the Lord and say to Him from our heart, ‘O Lord my God, take care of Your servant, and let Your will be done in me. I know and confess that Your words and promise are true. I put my trust in them and stand firmly upon Your path.’ Blessed is the soul that surrenders to the Lord each time it experiences trouble and hardship.

If, in spite of this, the struggle persists and we are unable to attune and unite our will with the will of God as quickly as we wish, let us not mourn or lose heart, but continue to surrender ourselves to God, bowing willingly to His decisions. Through this we will gain victory. Remember the battle our Lord Jesus Christ had to fight in the garden of Gethsemane, when he cried, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.’ But he immediately added, ‘Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’ (Matthew 26:39). For He indeed faced all we have to face.

When we are faced with difficulties, it is best not to take any step til we raise our eyes to the crucified Christ our Lord. There we will see written in large letters how we too should behave in the hardships which face us. So let us copy it for ourselves – not in letters and words, but in actions. That is, when we feel attacks of self-loving, self-pity, we must not pay attention to them nor crawl down from our cross. Let us rather resort to prayer and endure with humility – striving to conquer our will and to stand firmly in the determination to desire God’s will to be done in us.

If we emerge from our prayer with this fruit, let us rejoice. If we fail to attain it, our soul will be left fasting, not having tasted its natural fruit.

We must try to let nothing dwell in our soul except God – even for a short time. In the meantime, do not mourn or be distressed by anything. Nor should we turn our eyes to look at the evil of others or to bad examples. Rather, let us learn to be like a little child, which, in its innocence, does not notice such things, but passes them by unharmed.” (Jack N. Sparks, Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pp. 111-112) 

The Cross as a Weapon of Peace

“The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.

When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.

This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.

But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.

(John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 38-39)

Defying Our Self-Loving Nature

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?   (Mark 8:34ff)

Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky comments:

“Suffering is repulsive to a natural person. Almost all his life consists in applying solicitude to solicitude in order to avoid suffering. But then the Apostle tells him that he rejoices in sorrows, that he glories in them. The Gospel blesses those who are banished, dishonored, or beaten, calling everyone to follow a narrow path which few travel. It demands that one renounce oneself, that one despise one’s life. The Gospel foretells woe to the wealthy, the satiated, those who laugh and are spoken well of by all men. In order to follow such teaching, we must defy our self-loving nature. What will rouse is up to this?” (The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith, pp 90-91)

As Metropolitan Anthony says we must “defy our self-loving nature” not deify it!

 

Controlling Others, Controlling Self

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Throughout Great Lent we say the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem in which, depending on the translation you use, we ask God to deliver us from meddling in the lives of others and from lust of power over others.   We ask that God replace these vices in our lives with virtues of patience, humility and love towards others.   The spiritual focus in Great Lent is on practicing self-control, self-restraint, self-denial.  We are looking to learn how to humble ourselves before our fellow Christians, to love them and to serve them, rather than judging them or trying to lord it over them.

This goal is also very clear in a morning prayer from a New Skete Monastery prayer book for Great Lent (emphasis mine and not in the original text).

O Compassionate Lord: At night we sleep comfortably, in spite of the mediocrity of our lives. So now, finding ourselves alive, once more, and able to greet the beauty of another morning, we are disturbed at the lethargy in which we live. We beseech you, therefore: Give us determination to succeed in repentance.

During these lenten days, change our ravenous appetites to control everyone and everything into a praiseworthy desire for self-control, so that, learning the wisdom of this self-restraint, we may enjoy the freedom of all your sons and daughters.

By the grace and mercy and love for us of your only Son, with whom you are blessed, together with your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit: now and forever, and unto ages of ages.

Deny yourself and take up your cross

The Fathers noted with great alarm our willingness to fast from food but then to voraciously consume the people we don’t like through gossip, judgmentalism and hatred.  Lenten repentance is accomplished when we humbly give up our desire to control others, and learn the wisdom and love of controlling ourselves.

 

 

Sitting at the Right Hand of Christ

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  (Mark 10:35-40)

“The disciples, not knowing what they asked for, wanted to be on the right hand and the left hand of Jesus when he comes in glory. What such a request actually entails is revealed when we see Jesus positioned, or rather enthroned, between two thieves, one on his right hand and the other on his left, on the Cross. Christ comes into his glory on the Cross. This demolishes all our conceptions of what glory is, all our assumptions about honor and power. Indeed, it turns on its head our image of who and what God is: God is not a despot who exercises his power by imposing his will, who glorifies in the subservience of his subjects, or who responds to their petty requests.

No, God reveals his power in weakness, his wisdom in folly, his glory on the Cross, and his irresistibly will in the love he makes manifest in this way. … Jesus specifically says: the Son of man came to serve and give his life as a ransom for all, and so whoever would be the first must be the slave of all. (Matthew 20:27-28” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycle of the Year, pp 46-47)

Deny Your Self

On the Sunday after the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we read the Gospel Lesson from Mark 8:34-9:1.

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Some historians of the Orthodox liturgical tradition say that in the older tradition of the Church, this Gospel lesson was read as the beginning of the Church’s new year (see for example THE DIVINE LITURGY OF THE GREAT CHURCH by Fr. Paul Harrilchak).  This was because in the early centuries of Christianity in the Roman Empire, September 23, Augustus Caesar’s birthday was treated as the first day of the new year.  He was heralded in the pagan Roman Empires as heralding in a new world.   Over the centuries, the Gospel lesson remained on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, but it got separated from association with the church’s new year day as that day migrated away from September 23 to September 1.  This was somewhat a move to Christianize new year’s day.  Interestingly, August Caesar’s birthday also eventually became eclipsed in the Christian Roman Empire, being replaced on September 23 with the conception of St. John the Forerunner, who for Christians was the true herald of the coming new age of God.  Augustus represented nothing but the old age which was passing/had passed away.

Matthew Gallatin writes a personal reflection on what it means to deny the self to follow Christ:

“It wasn’t until I began studying the Orthodox faith, however, that I realized how subtly and completely self-love permeates my life. Sometimes it cleverly disguises itself in forms that are not quite so stark and ugly as self-love. When I am self-concerned, when I practice self-justification, when I act on self-desire, when I follow paths that are self-created and self-directed – in fact, any time the word ‘self’ can be used in the description of what I am doing – I am dancing to a dangerous drummer called self-love. Even things that are lauded in our society – like self-motivation, self-assertiveness, and self-development – can present deceptive stumbling blocks to one who in truth longs to ‘deny himself (Matt. 16:24) and allow himself to be caught up within the Life of his God and King.” (Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, pp 95-96)