Sermon delivered September 21, 2008
There is a story about a monk who despaired of the cross God had given him and complained of it constantly. God finally relented and offered him a chance to select a different cross. He led the monk into a room filled with several crosses from which to pick. The monk was appalled at what he saw: huge crosses, bloody crosses, crosses with nails. He wandered through the room and finally spied a lovely small silver cross tucked away in a corner. He picked this cross and held it up saying, "I'll take this cross!" God simply replied, "But that is the cross you already had!"
We should ask ourselves: Do I embrace the cross God has given me? Or do I try to take my salvation or as St. Paul says, my justification, into my own hands? Am I trying to get to heaven without God's help or guidance? In today's gospel, from the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Precious Cross (Mark 8:34 - 9:1), Jesus says, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me" (v.34). Like the monk we may not want the cross we've been given, or we may think we know a better way than the way Jesus is leading us.
This relates to St. Paul's words from today's epistle (Galatians 2:16-20) where he says, "A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ" (v.16). Let us take a closer look at this verse. Whenever we hear the word "justify" in the scripture, we should think of the more accurate translation "righteous." So to be justified is to be made righteous which means to act in an upright, moral, virtuous way. When we hear "works of the law" we should think of the Mosaic Law, the Tablets of the Law given to Moses by God (Exodus 20ff).
This Law gave commandments for life that instructed the Israelites on how to relate to God and to each other. This law revealed the difference between good and evil and functioned as a tutor that would lead them to the Messiah—Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:24). In this particular verse "faith in Christ" should be translated "faith of Christ." The faith of Christ is the absolute trust and obedience Jesus placed in God the Father that He demonstrated throughout His life, especially leading up to and including His crucifixion and death. Reflected in many of his epistles, St. Paul was addressing the problem of Judaizers in the early Church. Judaizers were those Christians who demanded that new followers of Christ must be circumcised and follow the Jewish dietary laws.
So how does all of the above relate to us 2,000 years later? We no longer have the problem of Judaizers but we still have the problem of people thinking that their righteousness apart from Christ can do them good. How often do we think, "I did a good deed yesterday, I don't need to pray today; I went to liturgy last week, I can probably skip liturgy this week; I confess to God in my personal prayer, I don't need to go to the Sacrament of Confession with the priest; I received Holy Communion last year during Holy Week so I'm all set until next year." Even worse may be, "I did something good for someone or I attended liturgy or I received communion, so now I can sin a little bit. I deserve it or I earned it." It's like how some people approach dieting or fasting. Unfortunately, what we're doing is taking our spiritual life into our own hands instead of placing our trust in the the Lord.
In order to be made righteous by the faith of Christ, we must seek to imitate as best we can, the absolute trust in and obedience towards God the Father. Bargaining with God using our righteous actions as leverage is making the same mistake that the ancient Judaizers did: Placing our faith in our works rather than in God. To think or try to become righteous before God in order to get to heaven without living in the life of His Church, the Body of Christ, is to be ashamed of Christ and His words (Mark 8:38).
The Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, who lived in the 19th century, expresses the attitude and disposition we should have towards God. He wrote:
God, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me and teach me to treat all that come to me throughout the day with peace of soul and firm conviction that Your will governs all things. In all my words and deeds guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all things are under Your care. Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray Yourself in me.
Hopefully, we can now understand better that to lose our life for Christ and the Gospel is expressed when we deny ourselves from what we want or what we think is best (Mark 8:34-35). That taking up our cross is to be crucified with Christ. And finally, that to place our complete trust in God is to have the faith of Christ. Thus, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.