Sunday, March 19, 2017: Sunday of the Holy Cross; The Holy Martyrs Chrysanthus and Daria, Demetrios the New Martyr

Epistle: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:1-6

Gospel: Mark 8:34-38; 9:1

God is always ready to heal and forgive us because in Jesus Christ He understand us. He understands us not simply as God but in His Son as one of us. Because of the Incarnation, because the Son has taken on our nature, He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Jesus has “been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” That last phrase, “without sin,” might strike some as suggesting that Jesus’ understanding of us and our situation is–in some vague way–lacking since, unlike us, He never sinned.

But think for a moment what it means to sin.

When I sin, I don’t simply turn inward, I turn away. In my sin, I turn away from God and my neighbor. When I sin, I refuse to love; sin drives out and kills the very sympathy that the Son has for us and which we are called to have for each other.

We can rephrase the epistle this way: “[W]e have … a high priest who is [able] to sympathize with our weaknesses, …  one who in every respect has been tempted as we are” without ever wavering in His great love for us.

It is because of the constancy of His love for us, that Jesus Christ “can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” Though “He Himself is beset with weakness,” in Him these are not occasions for sin. Rather His weakness deepen—if I can dare you such a phrase—His love for us by elevating human love through its participation in the Father’s love.

Living as I do in an “adulterous and sinful generation,” when Jesus speaks to me His word of life, I’m tempted to be ashamed of Him. Nevertheless He, for His part, is always ready to hear my repentance and always willing to offer His forgiveness to me.

And not just to me.

Jesus will receive anyone who is willing “take up his cross and follow” Him as His disciple.  The offer of forgiveness, of communion with God and the life of the Church is there for anyone who is willing to receive these things from the hand of a loving and merciful God.

So how do we do this? How do we receive what God is eager to give?

St Augustine says “There is no other way for you to follow the Lord except by carrying [the Cross] for how can you follow Him if you are not His?” Often, however, rather than carrying the Cross, we are “carried and dragged along” by it.

By this Augustine, means we become preoccupied with “the morality of this flesh.” It is our humanity corrupted by sin that is the cross Augustine says we must carry. And it is this cross that “will be crucified.” It is this cross, the burden of my own sinfulness, my own fear of death and my unwillingness to love either God or my neighbor that “will be nailed to the fear of God.”

I must then acknowledge my sin and resist it.

Resisting the lure of sin is possible because, through His Cross, Jesus has broken the hold of sin and death over us.

Through the Cross, sin and death are no longer able to fight against us “with free and unfettered limbs” (Augustine, “Letters 243, To Laetus,” in ACCS NT vol II: Mark, p. 112-113).

Through the Cross. sin and death have been taken captive by Christ and you and I have been made free.

Through the Cross, we are liberated from bondage to sin and have come to share in the life of God (see, 2 Peter 1:4).

So what does it mean to pick up our cross and become a disciple of Jesus Christ?

In the ancient world, crucifixion was a shameful death reserved for only the worst offenders. This is the death that Jesus suffers for us and in our proclamation of His death we must be “shameless in a good sense.” Our “contempt of shame,” that is our contempt of the standards of this world, makes us “foolish in a happy sense.”

To be a disciple of Christ means to shamelessly and happily proclaim that the “Son of God died”!

To be a disciple of Christ means to shamelessly and happily proclaim that the “Son was buried”!

To be a disciple of Christ means to shamelessly and happily proclaim that the “He rose from the dead”! (Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ, 5 in ACCS NT vol II: Mark, p. 114)

It is unavoidable. To be a disciple of Christ means that we are in opposition to everything—and everyone—outside the Church. But our opposition is not to destroy them but to save them; not to defeat or enslave them, but to bring them to victory and freedom in Christ.

This is why I must always fight the temptation to be ashamed of Christ; not only for my sake but also yours. If being a Christian were simply a matter of being kind or being a good person, then being a Christian would not only win me praise in this life, it would be easy.

But to be a Christian means that I cannot “avoid suffering” for Christ and the Gospel.

To be a Christian means I can’t “be ashamed to confess: ‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for my Name’s sake.’” Tertullian says that in this life, to say nothing of the life to come, “Unhappy, … , are they who, by running away, refuse to suffer as God at times requires” (“Flight in Time of Persecution, 7” in in ACCS NT vol II: Mark, p. 114).

It is to strengthen and encourage us not only in our asceticism but our discipleship and our evangelical witness (our martyria), that the Church in her wisdom put the Cross in front of us this morning.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Last night at Vespers, the Church turned to our First Parents and said to them:

Come, ye first created couple who fell from the heavenly rank through man-destroying envy, because of a bitter delight resulting from the taste of the olden tree. Behold, here cometh in truth the most revered Tree. Hasten to kiss it, shouting to it in faith, Thou art our helper, O most revered Cross, of whose fruit when we partook we attained incorruption and received securely the first Eden and the Great Mercy.

Through the Cross, everything is made new.

Today, together with Adam and Eve, we come forward to kiss the “revered Cross.”

Today, we come forward in Holy Communion so that we can receive with our First Parents the “fruit” of the Cross that grants us “incorruption,” the grace of “the first Eden” and God’s “Great Mercy.”

And all this we receive so that we can not only follow Christ as His disciples but live in this life as His witnesses. And all this we do so that, in the life to come, we can share in His Glory!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory