ST. PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIANS 2:16-20
Brethren, knowing that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
MARK 8:34-38; 9:1
The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to 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 soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and 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 the kingdom of God come with power.
We are reaching the end of the feast of the elevation of the cross. Great feasts in the Orthodox Church have a forefeast and an afterfeast. The forefeast in most cases is one day, and the afterfeast can be four, six or eight days, or in the case of Pascha 38 days.
The last day of the feast is called the apodosis, the summing up, Apodosis almost means the “saying goodbye” to the feast. Since the elevation of the cross was on Monday, tomorrow is the leavetaking and today is still the afterfeast.
All of this past week if we had been celebrating liturgies every day we would have heard gospel readings and epistle readings referring to the cross because of the feast of the elevation of the cross. “Take up your cross and follow me.” “We are crucified with Christ.” “The cross is a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” And so on, and so forth.
Sometimes I think we are desensitized to the meaning of the cross because we have so many beautiful and ornate crosses in our churches. It is perfectly fine and good to make a cross beautiful but we should not lose sight of the paradox that is involved when we do that. The cross was about as elegant as a hangman’s noose or a guillotine. The cross was an instrument of death and torture. And talking about death offends many modern people today. At the very least it makes them feel uncomfortable. Even many Christian are very uncomfortable with talking frankly about death.
One of the reasons we do not like to think about suffering and death is that we see our life as the period of time during which I get to experience as much as possible. Life is the time for me to find my true self-expression, to explore all the mystery of ME. Self-realization, fulfillment, the specialness of ME. Our society thinks that meaning in life comes from experiences. It’s like coloring in a picture. The more different experiences you have, the more the picture is coloured in.
Did you get to play on the sports team in school? Did you have a nice birthday party? Did you get to have a wedding? Was it amazing? Was it your dream wedding? Did you get to have kids? Did you get to go to college? Did you graduate? Did you get to see your grandchildren go to college? Did you travel? Did you own a house? Did you have a hobby? Did you achieve some fame and recognition in your career? Will they talk about you after you die? Did you keep fit as a fiddle at age 90, and swim thirty laps a day, and walk five miles a day until the day you died? Were you doing crossword puzzles on your 95th birthday? Were you amazing and noteworthy and special? Would someone tell your story on Facebook ten years after you died? Would you get more than fifty likes?
This way of viewing life takes the emptiness we feel, the sense of meaninglessness the lack of purpose, and it makes them the engine and the governing principle behind how we live at the expense of all other considerations. Life is seen as the time during which I must be allowed to fill my empty existence with everything I can possibly get my hands on.
But some people don’t get a lot of these experiences and good things. Some people never get to travel. Some people never get to go to university. Some people don’t even have a place to live.
So the me-centred way of viewing the world, the view in which my emptiness is king, says that either those people deserve to suffer because they haven’t worked hard enough. Or else the me-centred worldview says that poor suffering people wouldn’t have known how to enjoy the good things even if they had them. People whose lives are not filled with riches
and luxury and success and noteworthiness, ordinary people, suffering people, people who need a bit of extra help: these people are just seen as losers. What was the point of their existence? It would have been better if they had never been born. That is the logical conclusion of a worldview in which my emptiness is the guiding principle for all my choices.
I know one young man who has special needs which mean that he will probably never have a job or get married. He is fortunate to be able to live on his own, but he requires a lot of assistance even to make that happen.
His mother and father, people who have bought into the notion that the meaning of life is to consume and experience, these are people who think that your worth in life is how much you earn, they actually told him that if they had known how he would turn out they would have aborted him. That is the insidiousness of the materialistic view of life. It is hurtful and evil.
I read an article by a woman who is wheelchair bound. When she became pregnant the doctors just assumed that she didn’t want to keep the baby. “What if the baby turns out like you?” That was what the doctors were basically saying, even if they were somewhat subtler than that. They just assumed that her life wasn’t worth living. Actually, they assumed that her existence was worthless, was nothing but a tragedy and a mistake, because she could not experience the kinds of things they could, like running a marathon or skiing down a mountain. Because her life had challenges and pain therefore they saw it as worthless, something to be avoided at all costs. They completely discounted her as a person with a valuable perspective. They completely discounted her experience of life and her perspective as valuable because of the materialist view of the world.
When the empty person gets to the end of his empty life and all his attempts to fill it with experiences and things have failed to make it any less empty, when our bodies and minds give out and we can no longer try to fill our empty lives with things and pleasure we try to fill our existence with days and hours and minutes. The guiding principle changes from getting as many experiences and pleasures and things as possible to being a guiding principle of the fear of pain and fear of death.
This is a person who thinks that any pain is inhumane and unthinkable. “I have the right not to feel pain! Even though I have lived my whole life completely indifferent to other people’s pain.” This is a person tells himself that death can be avoided, or if not outright avoided, then at least postponed and postponed, and then clinically swept away out of sight and out of mind.
He says, “I have the right to a long life. It is perfectly reasonable for me to expect a long life without pain. I have the right to get pumped full of medicines so that I can breathe for six more months. I have the right not to be uncomfortable. And anyone who does not serve me is evil. The doctors and the nurses are evil if they fail to prolong my life by a few more minutes and hours.”
People begin to take the moral high ground, for the first time, about the sanctity of life, about human dignity, about the tragedy of human suffering when they themselves are in the hospital bed. But we know that the correct time to care about human suffering is when you see others suffer.
The price of seeing our lives as a portion of time that we should fill with as many experiences as possible is that our existence is still empty and we are bitter and disappointed. The price is that we have only made the world around us more empty by taking and not giving. The price of this way of looking at life is that there can be no meaning after death. If the meaning of life is pleasure, what meaning can I have when I am not alive to enjoy pleasure?
Jesus says today, “If anyone wishes to 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 soul?”
The meaning of Jesus’ life was to give. The meaning of Jesus’ life was to give sacrificially, to shine with the love of God. To enact a worldview of thanksgiving and worship and trust in the sufficiency of God.
The meaning of Jesus’ life is to invite everyone to share the joy of knowing the Father. How can that apply to you and me?
I want to imagine what it might mean to “take up one’s cross.” Obviously, Jesus did not mean that we would be carrying around big huge piece of wood every day. Obviously it is a figurative statement. So what does it mean? I am going to offer some parallel and complementary ways of seeing this lifestyle of taking up one’s cross.
To take up your cross is to carry around an awareness of your inevitable death.You are going to die. I am going to die. There is no way around it. Death is going to happen. Everyone you love is going to die. How are you going to deal with it?
The materialist way is not to deal with it. Our materialist world makes death clinical and sterile. The orderly whisks the body away before it has even cooled. And many people don’t even have a funeral with the casket or the body of the deceased. Sickness and death are hidden behind a clean white sheet and we pretend they don’t exist.
When I was in seminary there was a deacon who worked at the bookstore and he died suddenly, pretty young. And the day after he died, the priests and deacons of the seminary (including my fellow students) went to the morgue, washed the body of the departed deacon and dressed him in a deacon’s vestments. The touched him and held him. And they showed that his calling is eternal. At his memorial everyone came forward and kissed his hand as he lay in the casket. We looked death square in the face. Deacon Gregory had died. We cried. We sang. We prayed. We did not try to bracket out the “death” aspect of the end of his life.
The people who did that processed and grieved much more fully and in much more of a healthy manner than most people in our society do when death is neatly swept under the rug.
Carrying our cross means asking Jesus to help us to approach our powerlessness with humility and patience and love.
Jesus let the time and place in which I am powerless and weak and afraid be a time when I show other people your love. Let the time of my weakness be a time when you save other people. Let my life be a witness to the fact that you are the meaning of life. You, Jesus, are the only thing that can give life meaning since you are the giver of life and the creator of the world.
Let the time between now and when I die be a time when I do not pretend that I can make my life any more special by taking. Let the time between now and when I die be a time when I give and bless and comfort as many as possible. Let me live another day so that I can show your love to another person.
Carrying our cross means knowing that many of the things that enrage us are petty and unimportant. Why should I fight with my neighbour about the fence? I am going to die soon. I am losing my opportunity to love my neighbour. And I am losing the only thing that matters. I am losing the better portion, the one thing needful.
I don’t think there is a single person who would have been more at peace on their deathbed if that gosh-darn waitress had brought them their dinner a bit more quickly.
A person who carries his cross is resigned to the truth of his own insignificance. I am as significant as one who is already not only dead not only buried but forgotten. I am already dirt.
By this I do not mean that we are worthless or unloved. Each person has infinite worth and is loved infinitely by God. But I am not the center of the universe. He must increase and I must decrease.
It will therefore not enrage me when someone disrespects me or dares to question me. Jesus must increase and I must decrease.
We carry our cross when we can say “What does it matter that they don’t appreciate me? What does it matter that they think I am wrong. Jesus, bless them. All I need is Jesus and no one take him from me. I carry the cross of Christ to remind myself that all I ever need in life is the humility to let go. All I ever need in life is the ability not to fight back, the ability not to get embroiled in hatred. All I ever need in life is to be able to love others as Jesus loved me. My ego is irrelevant. Father forgive them.
That is how we carry our cross. Carrying our cross gives us a perspective on life which fosters gratitude, graciousness, generosity. Carrying our cross means doing whatever we can to be reconciled, now. Before it’s too late. Carrying our cross means letting the people we love know how much we love them. Now.
Death is close by. I am carrying the instrument of my death.I know that there might not be enough time later.
The cross is where Jesus ministers salvation to us. The cross is the place from which he shows us his love. The cross is the place where he gathers his community. From the cross, Jesus tells the disciple he loves, “behold, your mother.” He says, “mother, behold your son.”
Carrying our cross means looking at our church not as the place that serves me what I was expecting in the way I expected it, but instead seeing church as the place where I serve. When I carry my cross I ask myself who is it that needs someone to talk to in church? And I go talk to them. Who can I bless at coffee hour by listening? Which child needs an adult in their life to look up to; omeone who cares about them, who has time, who is happy that they came? Which person here is lonely and needs a friend? Is there someone who is visiting our church and needs to be made to feel welcome and wanted? My life is a time of serving others.
Maybe you think to yourself well, that’s fine as long as I am the one who is helping others. But don’t sit down and talk to me out of pity just because you think I don’t have any friends. Thanks a lot! Carrying our cross may mean accepting that we are the recipients of other people’s love. As Jesus committed his life into his Father’s hands and trusted his Father and waited for his Father to raise him up. Carrying our cross might mean accepting the help of others.
When we search for meaning in life by giving and serving and praying and blessing, death cannot be the end. Because the people we have blessed continue to bless others. The gifts that we give are multiplied thirty, sixty and a hundredfold even when we are sown like seeds in the ground. We keep giving. The saints are with God in heaven and keep giving by their prayers. Our gifts and our giving and our love and our blessing of others are a participation in the eternal service of Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father. Our lives have a divine meaning. One more day of living is one more day to pray and to give thanks and to love.
As we come up to communion, consider that Jesus said “this is my body which is broken” and, “this is my blood that is shed.” We are eating and drinking his death, his willingness to die, his acceptance of God’s will. We are taking into ourselves the view of life which says, “my life has meaning when I lose it, when I am crucified with Christ. Receive the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.