Sunday, September 10, 2017: Sunday before Holy Cross; Menodora, Metrodora, & Nymphodora the Martyrs, Poulcheria the Empress, Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Ukrainian Orthodox Mission of Madison

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

From the Church’s earliest days, there were Christians who cared more about the opinions of others than the Gospel. St Paul refers to these sad and deluded people in the epistle when he calls out “those who want to make a good showing in the flesh … in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

What about me? If those who knew not only the Apostles but Jesus we’re tempted why do I think I’m immune from preferring the good opinions of others to the Cross?

The sin Paul is describing is “vainglory.” Usually we think about vanity as undue or excessive concern for our appearance. While this can be part of vainglory, concern for appearance is more the result of pride–of having an excess view of my own worth.

Vainglory doesn’t cause me to look in the mirror but at my neighbor. At it’s core vainglory is about winning your good opinion of me no matter what the cost to myself. Or, and this is important, in the gripe of vainglory your opinion of me can come to matter so much that to I become willing to degrade and destroy you to win your approval.

In its effect on my relationship with you, vainglory is the opposite of friendship.

While there are different kinds of friends, for Christians friendship includes both emotional intimacy and a willingness to self-sacrifice for the good of my friend.

In the events leading up to His crucifixion and especially on the Cross, Jesus reveals Himself to be not just our Friend but the best of friends. At the Last Supper He tells His disciples that they are no longer His servants but His friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

Think about this for a moment.

Jesus is telling His disciples, and telling us, that we have the same intimacy with God that He has had from all eternity. The Creator and Judge of the Universe is no longer far away from us. Not only has He drawn close to us, in Jesus Christ we are drawn close to Him. God hasn’t only become your Friend, you are invited to become His.

We call Jesus our Friend as well because of His willingness to suffer and die for us. To free us from the power of Sin and Death, He “gave Himself up” for us. Even more than intimacy, it is the willingness to sacrifice for the good of the beloved that is the basis of all friendship.

And vainglory?

It is the refusal of friendship and a parody of intimacy. And in the place of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, vainglory sees people as objects to be used and abused; to be forgotten and replaced.

Understanding the difference between vainglory and friendship helps understand importance of St Paul’s words to us this morning.

It isn’t just that there were those in the early Church who downplayed the Cross or compromised the Gospel. Yes, they did these things. But they did something far worse. In denying the Cross they  turned their back on friendship with God.

Sad as it is that there are those, even in the Church, who don’t want to be friends with God, there is something sadder still.They don’t know that friendship with God is possible. 

Aristotle says that a “friend is a second self.” More than that, though, a friend is someone whose very presence in our lives helps us to become more fully ourselves.

What is true of our friendship with each others, is even more the case in our friendship with God.

The more we are aware of God’s love and presence in our lives, the more we come to realize our own value. And, along with this, we come to understand the true, incalculable worth of the people we meet everyday.

St Seraphim of Sarov would greet everyone he met by saying “My joy! Christ is risen!” For the saint every person he meet, every conversation he had, was an experience of the joy and happiness of Pascha.

When I deny the Cross, when I seek the good opinion of others at the cost of friendship with God, I rob myself of joy. This is what St John Chrysostom means when he say “if a man does not injure himself, no one else will be able to harm him.”

To “glory … in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “crucified … to the world,” means not only that I stop harming myself. It means I set out on the path to that joy that comes from friendship with God and with you.

So many people, again, both outside and inside the Church, are weary and dejected because they are lonely. They don’t know that God is their friend and that He wants them to be His friend.

And good friend that He is, God not only wants us to be His friend, He wants us to be friends with each other. God, if I may speak in this way, delights not only in our friendship with Him but with each other.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has created us in such a way that there “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of all our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share our happiness in time of joy” (Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship).

So let us, as we say before the Creed, “Love one another, so that with one heart and mind,” so that we can bear witness to God’s friendship for all!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory