Sunday April 4, 2016: Sunday of the Holy Cross; Nicetas, Abbot of the Monastery of Medicium, Joseph the Hymnographer, Theodosia and Irene the Martyrs Fast Day
Epistle: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:1-6
Gospel: Mark 8:34-38; 9:1
Jesus understands us. He is, as we hear in the epistle this morning, not only our “high priest” but able “to sympathize with our weakness.” He is able to understand us because though He “has been tempted as we are” he is “without sin.” That last phrase, that Jesus is “without sin” might throw me off. How can Jesus really sympathize with me if, unlike me, He never sinned? After al, isn’t there’s something in my experience—personal sin—that’s lacking in His?
This is I think an understandable objection. But I need to keep in mind how sin operates. It never draws me closer to someone; it pushes me away. Sin closes me in on myself and it causes me to look at you not as my neighbor but my enemy.
As my sinfulness deepens, as it becomes more and more a habit, I become less able to see things from any other perspective than sin’s. Note carefully, I didn’t say I become less able to see things from my perspective. What I see is what sin wants me to see.
That’s the thing about sin.
Over time, it takes over my life; it takes on a life of its own. Sin doesn’t just separate me from God and neighbor; it makes me a stranger to myself. There’s some wisdom, I think, to talking about sin, as the American psychiatrist Gerald May does, as an addiction.
And like any addiction, sin becomes the goal of life. Not the worship of God, not the love of my neighbor. Not even my own self-interest. Sin becomes everything to me.
This is why Jesus is able to sympathize with us in our weakness. Not because He was tempted, but because He never sinned. Never falling into sin means He never suffered that estrangement from God, neighbor and self that afflicts me. Because He is without sin, Jesus is free to see me. The Sinless One knows me better than I know myself. How? Because there is no sin in Him. The absence of sin in Jesus means He isn’t absent from me.
Put more simply, because Jesus doesn’t sin He is able to love.
And this is why, to return to the epistle, we are able confidently “draw near to the throne of grace” and find “mercy and … grace to help in time of need.” To say Jesus is “without sin” means that there is in His humanity no obstacle to love, no impediment to forgiveness, no deficiency of mercy and grace.
This life, the life in which all obstacles to love and forgiveness, mercy and grace, are done away with, is the life that He calls each of us to share. This is the life He invites us to make our own when, in the Gospel this morning, He says “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The Cross illumines the tragic nature of human sinfulness. Our veneration of the Cross this morning is nothing more or less than our confession that by His death Christ triumphed over the powers of sin and death.
Read the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and the personal character of sin is clear in every line. Our moral weakness is there for all to see; the disciples in the garden, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial. One after another demonstrate their lack of love for their friend. One after another, the disciples abandon an Innocent Man.
What is also on display, even if it is somewhat harder to see, is the way sin has infected society, subverting even the most noble elements of culture. Take for example, the soldiers who arrest Jesus. At first, they were simply doing their duty. There is in the Gospel account not only no hint of animosity toward Jesus. In fact, there seems to be even some awareness that Jesus is more than He appears (see John 18:6). Soon though these dutiful men, knowingly, torment an Innocent Man.
Likewise, with the Jewish authorities.
We get hints that not all among the leaders of the Jewish people are convinced that the charges against Jesus are true (see John 7:51). And yet, like the soldiers, these men will eventually give themselves over to sin and, knowingly, betray an Innocent Man.
Even Pilate, the one man in all of this who could have set Jesus free is swept away by sin. Though he finds no fault in Jesus, he nevertheless scourges Him in a vain hope that doing so will placate the angry voices among the Jews.
But, in the end, Pilate wants to keep his place in Roman society and so he, knowingly, condemns an Innocent Man.
Divine revelation and human law, both were used to justify rejecting the Christ. The riches of religious and civil society are both used to crucify Christ. Sin isn’t just a personal matter. Infecting as it does the human heart, it comes to infect society as well.
It is all of this that Jesus puts to death when He accepts “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And all of this Jesus asks us to reject when He tells us to pick up our cross and follow Him.
To be a disciple of Christ, it isn’t enough for me to withdraw into the safe space of the Church. Necessary as it is, it isn’t enough simply to tend my own garden. Remember, it is in the nature of sin that it walls me off from my neighbor; it encapsulates me in a dissonant and deformed world of its own making blinding me to love. I am a fool if I imagine that sin can’t use my love for the sacraments and commitment to the ascetical life to seduce me, to make me turn my back on an Innocent Man.
To pick up my cross and follow Jesus means more than being working out my salvation in “fear and trembling” (see Philippians 2:12); I must work for your salvation as well. “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.” It is not only the generation that lived at the time of Jesus that is corrupt. All people, at all times, need to hear the Gospel. And all cultures and all societies, need to be brought into harmony with Gospel.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us pick up our cross, work out our own salvation and the salvation of the world as we follow an Innocent Man.