Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What our Lord says to us today in those most familiar (maybe too familiar?) words about the Cross and denial is said in response to Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ prophecy that as the Son of Man He must suffer many things, be rejected, and be killed (Mk. 8:31-33). Jesus responds to Peter’s loving but stern rebuke with His own even sharper and memorable rebuke of His misguided Disciple, “’Get thee behind Me, Satan; for thou savorest not the things of God, but the things of men.’” It is from this point we pick up on today’s Holy Gospel.
When a priest dons his pectoral Cross, it is traditional for him to pray as he does so, “And Jesus said: if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his Cross, and follow Me.” It seems to me that perhaps that may not be a bad tradition for all of us, that as we put on our crosses, to pray using the words of our Lord. It seems to me that it would make the Cross more than a piece of jewelry for cosmetic purposes and be a palpable sign and reminder to us that the Cross beckons us to follow the Crucified One.
For Peter, the crux (cross) of the problem was the Cross. The Cross is what defines us – who we are and how we live – as Christians. We are crucifers, that is, those who carry or bear the Cross. That is what a crucifer both is and does liturgically – he bears the Cross in procession. That is what we do and it is who we are in the day-to-day liturgies of our lives. The Cross, beloved, is very much about the things of God – His will for us and His calling upon us – the very things men seek to avoid, just like Peter. Death – being crucified – is unbecoming for superstars or for those who fancy themselves to be superstars.
The Cross is not for the fainthearted nor is it for those who may be stout by the standards of the world. The Cross is for those who are of faith, who are called by God to His Son. “For you see your calling, brethren,” St. Paul says elsewhere,
that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the weak things of this world and the things which are despised God has chosen, . . ., that no flesh should glory in His Presence (1 Cr. 1:26-29).
If anything our glory is in the Crucified One, the Son of God, “’destined for the fall and rising of many . . . .;’” destined for my fall and yours and our rising (Lk. 2:34). Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ says to us who desire to come after Him, who want to come after Him, who yearn to come after Him “’For whosoever will save his life will lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s, the same shall save it.’” But, just what does Jesus mean to “’lose’” our life for His sake and the Gospel’s? Coupled with His image of the Cross, martyrdom comes to mind, dying for Him and for what He stands for, the privilege for an innumerable multitude over the course of time, but not for all. Here we recall those all-too-stark photos of ISIS beheadings, especially of the 21 Libyans. Can we not fulfill what our Lord says here? How, then, do we lose our life so that we can save it? It seems that when we come face-to-face with Jesus Christ, we have a crisis, that is to say, a point of challenge. We have a decision to make concerning Him and our relationship with Him: to lose our life for His sake and the Gospel’s or not. It is St. Luke who finds it necessary to remind us that we do this daily (Lk. 9:23).
In St. John’s Gospel, on Palm Sunday as our Lord begins His Passion leading Him to Great and Holy Friday and, ultimately to Pascha, let us not forget, He says to us,
‘Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto Eternal Life. If any man serve Me, let him follow Me; . . . .’(Jn. 12:24-26).
Jesus uses the image of planting seed in the earth where that seed dies – decays – and by the mystery of God it produces fruit in abundance. The seed contains the potential, but it must perish in order to bring forth that potential. It must lose its life, if you will, in order to gain life and to give life to others.
In Galatians, St. Paul helps us along. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ” to the world and the world to him (Ga. 6:14). “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Ga. 2:16-20). The Apostle is planted in the good earth which is Jesus Christ, and in Christ, with Christ, and through Jesus Christ Paul’s ego – his I – dies. He yields to the Master. He surrenders himself, who he is and aspires to be, to Jesus Christ crucified and risen. He willingly gives himself to the Cross and the crucified Son of God in order to be made truly alive. In a culture like ours infatuated with self and self-image and raised on a steady diet of self-esteem, the message of the Cross and the Crucified is foolishness, if not a stumbling block. Yet, to those who are being saved by dying for Jesus Christ and His Gospel, it is the wisdom and the power of God (1 Cr. 1:18-31)! We find ourselves by losing ourselves to Christ God. “[I]t is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” The Forerunner and Prophet John understood quite clearly that he lived for the One Who was to come. In Jesus Christ John found himself. “’He must increase,’” the Baptist declares, “’but I must decrease.’” His joy, he says, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ Whom he was born to serve (Jn. 3:29, 30).
“[Jesus] Christ lives in me,” that’s what Paul says, “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.” It is Love Who offers us His Cross. “Behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world” (Troparion)! The God of love does not destroy His creature by His Cross, but rather fulfills him, completes him, perfects him, by transfiguring us with Himself. Christ lives in me and I live in Him, and the life I now live is His life. And faith in Jesus Christ is essential; it is key. In short, brethren, we “lose” our life to Christ crucified and in so doing we “gain” the very thing we feared losing – our very self! “’For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’”
“’Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.’” If this seems like easy-peezy stuff, then we are misreading the Gospel. The Gospel of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and of His Kingdom should challenge us to the very core and humble us even more! God has been providing us ample opportunity in this season of COVID and seemingly unprecedented social unrest. Is the life we are now living in this day a life lived by the faith of the Son of God or is it all me? Do I seek to preserve my life instead of giving it away to the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself up for me? Do we seek our own will or do we seek to embrace and to do the will of our Father in Heaven (Our Father)? This is all part and parcel of being crucified with Christ Whose sole directive was to do the will of His Father: “’[N]ot My will, but Thine be done’” (Ps. 39 :6-8; Lk. 2:49; Lk. 22:42; Jn. 4:34; Hb. 10:7-9). And, Jesus reminds us, that only those who do “’the will of God [are] My brother and My sister and mother’” (Mk. 3:35). When we confess Christ God to be living in us and through us living out His life, we beome and are “doers of [His] Word, and not hearers only” (Jm. 1:22). But, as we all know by experience, this is often a Cross for us precisely because it entails denying our misguided will for the will of our Saviour, of laying aside our will and embracing His – nails and all. As someone recently quipped, the weight of the Cross laid upon us becomes all the more heavy when we reject it. Otherwise, its burden is light (Mt. 11:28-30).
‘Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s, the same shall save it.’
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!