Monday, September 19, 2011

Take Up Your Cross

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. On the Orthodox Church calendar, today is the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. From St. Mark’s gospel we heard the familiar call of our Lord, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me”. St. Luke’s account adds the word “daily” to indicate that this action of self-denial and of taking up our cross to closely follow after Christ requires our constant attention and devotion. It doesn’t take a saint to realize that our abiding unchristian impulse is to have our own way in all things, to impose our will on people and situations, and to become angry or frustrated when things don’t go exactly as we want them to. This fallen self-will is what we must crucify in order to follow Christ, and it is truly a difficult, daily task. The way of the cross, of following Christ through voluntary self-denial, is indeed such a difficult way that very few people who call themselves “Christian” actually live it. Entire denominations have been built on the foundation of human self-will, offering the freedom to choose your own doctrine, morality, and whatever else you may prefer. Orthodoxy does not permit this of course, so the most common human response to it is nominalism. We have the true faith; we may not necessarily live it. In one sense this is no better than being a follower of your own do-it-yourself religion, for we can feel that we are completely within the will of God even while we are having nothing to do with Him whatsoever. The more comfortable we are with our daily life and the choices we make, the more comfortable we are with our Christianity, the less likely it is that we are actually living as Orthodox Christian believers and taking up our cross to follow Christ. Comfort and the Cross do not go hand-in-hand and are in fact mutually exclusive. As fallen human beings, we quite naturally want to have our own way. We prefer being in our comfort-zone, doing what we like, and most especially defending our will and our choices against all who might oppose them. Self-will is the source of all human conflict in the world and certainly in the church as well. We recognize this, but are so adept at justifying our own positions that we almost always feel it is the other person who is at fault and behaving in an unchristian manner. If only those other people wouldn’t be so stubborn and see the wisdom of our opinions about how things should be run around here! The conflicts suffered by the willful are endless. Yet how often do we see that the cure for this is to stop being willful? Rather than challenging ourselves to take up our cross and crucify our self-will at the first sign of conflict with others, isn’t it true that we will try to battle our way through to victory, or failing at this, will settle into a kind of passive-aggressive quiet resentment? Perhaps we think that our cold and stoney silence is a “Christian” response. Our lack of Christian spirit is exposed however the very next moment the matter is brought before us and the conflict resumes again. The New Testament epistles are filled with passages on Christian unity, since the apostles knew that if the Church cannot find peace, what hope has the world? The advice they give is for each of us to adopt the mind of Christ and set aside our own will to do what is best for others. We cheerfully agree with this rule, but often insist that our will is the absolute best for others. We might even hear ourselves saying, “I’m only thinking of what is best. I’m not just trying to have my own way here”. Yet if that were true, why do we often feel such resentment when our ideas aren’t followed? Why do we feel wounded or withdraw our support when things don’t go the way we want them to? We should take to heart the words of St. Paul to the Philippians by which he said, “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” Is this not the way of Christ? Don’t those words fill your heart with a sense of peace? Don’t they reflect the other-worldliness that characterizes true Christianity, rather than the strident, have-my-own-way-at-any-cost attitude that so characterizes life in this world? In the effort to take up our own cross daily to follow Christ, we should at the very least resist the urge to impose our will on others, and fight any inclination to withdraw ourselves from them when we don’t get what we want. We should strive to see every conflict in life not as a contest of wills, but as an opportunity from God to crucify our own self-will in Christian meekness. We should also remember that the cross we are asked to bear is personalized for each of us alone. I cannot resolve my conflicts with others by expecting them to ascend my cross while I continue to do as I please. I must voluntarily crucify myself. I must change, I must repent of that which causes conflict between myself and others. Only when I am firmly nailed to my own cross will the world know peace. Until we accept this truth, we will constantly repeat the error of trying to make life better by changing the actions and attitudes of the people around us. This will never succeed. You and I must accept the responsibility for our own repentance. The saints teach us that when we finally see ourselves as the source of all conflict, of all troubles, of all suffering and sorrow in others, then we are presented with the opportunity to change all that by changing ourselves. As long as our focus is on changing others, we only increase their suffering and contribute nothing to the redemption of the world. When we begin to change ourselves, we bring the presence and peace of Christ into the world. It is said that the Elder Paisios was asked his opinion about a certain war that was being waged at the time. The Elder hung his head in sorrow and replied, “It is my fault”. A startled visitor exclaimed, “What? How can you say that this distant war is your fault?” The Elder quickly responded with all sincerity, “If only I were more holy, perhaps this war would not have been fought”. This was a common attitude among the saints, who saw all human conflict as being rooted in their own sins. How different this is from the view of the unenlightened, who see all conflict as being the fault of others and never as their own. Perhaps we can see from this what we need to do to bring Christ into our world. Whether we are speaking of our place of work, our families, our neighborhood, our parish, or the wide-world itself--and whether they know it or not--everyone is waiting for us to take up our cross and follow Christ. If you’re counting on anyone else to make your world a better place while your cross remains unoccupied, you have a false hope and are actually doing harm to your neighbor. Peace in our families, in our church, in our lives, and in our world actually begins with us choosing the way of the cross and the voluntary canceling out of our self-will that it demands. You’ll notice that our Lord did not say, “If any man would come after Me, let him assert himself, stand up to others, fight for his rights, and follow Me”. Such actions, while very common in our society, do not represent the way of Christ. We must stop forcing our will upon life, God, and the people around us. We must die to ourselves in order to become alive in Christ. “He who loses his life for My sake shall find it”. If we choose the path of self-cancelation, God does not leave us canceled out, but raises us up to life everlasting. This is the mystery of the Cross and the path of true life. +To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

5 Comments:

At 9/20/2011 6:49 AM , Blogger marianna said...

Thanks so much for this sermon. I really needed to hear it.

 
At 9/24/2011 8:03 PM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Great homily Father. So glad to be able to access it online........

 
At 9/26/2011 10:41 PM , Anonymous Kevin said...

One of the best. I have re-read it several times. Need to really "get it".

 
At 10/03/2011 11:37 AM , Blogger joebow said...

Thank you Father, I really needed to hear this message.

 
At 9/02/2012 6:46 PM , Blogger pylgrym said...

I can say by His faith with the Apostle Paul that I think I have the mind of Christ, having let this mind be in me, which was also in Christ Jesus.

 

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