13th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on What The Cross Means To Us

The cross of Christ, the Lord’s triumphant and life-giving death on the cross whereby He destroys death, is so important for us to understand as Orthodox Christians, that the Church gives special significance and specific Scripture readings for both the weekend before the Feast and the one that follows.  This Sunday after the Exaltation, the Church would have us ask ourselves, “what does the power of the cross mean for me personally, living in the world today?” 

Sadly, for many in today’s secular culture, its meaning, personally and corporately, has been lost, drowned out by the priorities of our work-a-day lives, where the Church takes a back seat to so many other temporal priorities.  The secular world thinks in such terms: all I experience here and now, everything I see and touch, is the extent of my existence and what is knowable, so, “eat, drink, for tomorrow, we die” (I Cor. 15:32). In part, for this reason, the world urges focus on self, ego, “me first,” even as it urges us not to deny ourselves anything; in short, our culture leads us to and encourages spiritual lethargy.  For this reason, the keeping of the fasts and Feasts, such as yesterday’s Great Feast of the Cross, prescribed by Christ thru His Church, are so vital to us.  

A world that doesn’t believe in God and His revelation, that denies the bodily Incarnation, miraculous, and life-saving, historic events of Christ and His power is a world where there are no real consequences for evil or the darkness and violence of the evil one: it’s a world where the way to healing from passions is forgotten and we as a people go from bad to worse. It’s a world where it becomes increasingly difficult to be a true Christian, one who loves God “with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind,” (Matt. 22:37) to which we are all called in today’s Gospel; it’s not the world as God would have it and for that reason, Christ gives us the cross.

The cross is our answer to the fallen world and its hopelessness, to those who deny God and His loving calling on their lives, and to all who faulter in their faith.  The cross is always a reminder of the ultimate reality and relevance of the Kingdom of God for us, a reminder of Christ’s self-emptying (kenosisin the Greek)—Christ’s willing, voluntary offering of Himself to defeat sin and death on our behalf and make possible a new race of Adam that will in Him likewise gain the victory over sin and death.   In His “dying to self,” we who take up ourcross to prioritize Christ and the Gospel, regain our true humanity, our God-given purpose and calling in this life.  

But here’s the truth: we cannot follow Christ and become fellow partakers of His victory if we aren’t likewise willing to empty ourselves of that not in keeping with Christ and His Gospel.  As Christ says, we cannot serve God and mammon. Instead, we’re called to be “in the world, but not of the world.”  This calling isn’t something we can just decide to forego as “modern Christians.”  Instead, we challenge ourselves every day to live for Christ, to submit ourselves to His will, to strive to reflect the Kingdom of God in all that we are and all that we do.  In other words, we deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Christ, as is necessary to be deified.    

St. Paul says, that in baptism “we have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  Well, if we’ve truly “put on Christ”, then we areChrist’s and we must be about Christ’s work even as we are being made more and more into His likeness and further united with Him.  Each of us, is, in a sense, through our action or inaction on this account, deciding for God—or—against God.  

St. Paul reminds us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, even as it is the power of God to those who are being saved (I Cor. 1:18).  To the world, self-denial, even true love itself, is alien because a secular, humanistic world seeks to understand ‘love’ apartfrom God, the Author of love.  This is why eros (lust) and pride are often confused for love.  Christ is the One who teaches us what love is and how to love: “We love Him because He first loved us,” St. John declares in his first Epistle (I Jn. 1:9).  This Love directs us to the cross, to the ultimate sign and action of God’s love, manifested in the Incarnation, in Christ’s saving Passion, and in His calling us to share in that new life He’s made for us who have “put Him on.”   

Love is, then, both sacrificial andholy; true love becomes life-giving because it further unites us with God and with each other as we learn to deny ourselves, take up our cross andfollow Christ, not only outwardly in our acts, but inwardly as we’re transformed and grow in unity with Christ, as we partake of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4).  True love means desiring for others what God desires for them.  It is a far cry from the virtue signaling and affirmation of sinful choices and lifestyles of today’s culture.  But when Christ stands at the center of our lives, our priorities, He’s at the center of our love too because always, there stands the cross!  

In other words, as Fr. Arsenie Boca exclaims, “he who makes the sign of the cross, must also be prepared to carry his cross.” When we carry our cross we proclaim Christ’svictory inwardly and outwardly, we guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus from the demons and their vices, but we also witness to those around us the truth that His victory is for all mankind, that all are loved by God and called to holiness and new life in communion with Him.  If we love, we are also willing to stand firm in proclaiming sin that which God has revealed as sin even as we point the way to repentance and holiness with our own authentic witness of the truth.  

So, in order to gain the victory with Christ over this world and all that’s passing away, we humble ourselves to become not just Christ-like but what Christ is.  In order to gain the victory and become fellow heirs with Christ, we too die to ego and to the world, to secular demands to keep the cross hidden to ourselves, that we not sign ourselves or pray in public.  Christ expects more from those being saved: He calls on us to come outside ourselves, to give of ourselves, to become courageous witnesses of the life in Christ to this perishing world without shrinking back.  Why?  Because the love of God compels us to, because loving Christ, we learn to desire healing and salvation not just for ourselves but for the whole world, certainly for those whom God brings into our lives here and now.  This too is a cross, a great denial, in a world where we’re told to keep our faith to ourselves, where the truth of Christ is an affront to the demands of secular humanism and hedonism that insist that we keep our faith and life in Christ to ourselves.  

Those who have denied themselves and taken up their cross to follow Christ will gain the victory as fellow heirs of Christ’s Kingdom.  This is our Lord’s great promise of love to us this day: “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.”  

We proclaim this love, this hope, to a world that no longer knows what love is and how to love, or how or why to deny themselves any gratification.  We give of ourselves to build up the Church and her ministries.  We give of ourselves to witness to the truth in word and deed, how we live our lives.  In taking up our cross daily, we proclaim the reality of Christ’s life, His victory over sin and death. We who are struggling with our sins and persevere to the end with that struggle, returning to Christ and bearing the fruit of repentance, bear witness to the victory of the cross.  We loudly and undeniably proclaim to an otherwise hopeless world the Truth and Reality that Christ is, that life; in Him is our sure hope and healing.  Romanian theologian, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae sums up this truth when he writes, “The cross is the power of Christ, which when taken up by us, can transform the world into paradise.”

So, examine your life this day.  Are you denying yourself, taking up your cross to follow Christ? Deny yourself what the world says your focus should be and re-prioritize your life in Christ, your communion with Him who is Life above all else.  Take up your cross, follow Christ, and know that He will be with you every step of the way.   His cross will protect you and guide you.  Fear God and you will have no need for the fear of man. And then, we can truly affirm with St. Paul, “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” (Gal. 2:20).  Do so and the world around you will be transformed into paradise.  

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
September 15, 2019—Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross
Epistle:            II Cor. 4:6-15; Galatians 2:16-20 
Gospel:            Matt. 22:35-46; Mark 8:34-9:1