The Struggle for Freedom from the Fear of Death: Homily for the Sunday After the Elevation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1

          In celebrating the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we do something that would have made no sense to anyone at the time of our Lord’s ministry in first-century Palestine.  The cross was then the most feared instrument of execution that the Romans used to discourage anyone who thought of rebelling against the military occupation of their homeland.  That is why Pontius Pilate had the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” attached to the Savior’s Cross as an example of what the Empire would do to anyone who dared to threaten its rule. It is understandable, then, that our Lord’s disciples, along with the rest of the Jews, did not think that the Messiah would ever suffer such a dishonorable fate.  They expected a new King David to liberate their land from the pagans and to usher in a blessed time of righteousness for their nation.  They wanted to save their lives from the Romans and to gain the whole world.

St. Paul saw clearly that a crucified Messiah is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but also that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”  (1 Cor. 1:23-25)  For by ascending the Cross, our Lord has accomplished a liberation far more profound than anything kingdoms, armies, and politicians could ever achieve.  By entering into death as One Who is fully human and divine, He has delivered us from the bondage to the grave that had held humanity captive since the sin of our first parents.  Death, Hades, and the tomb could not contain Him, for He is the God-Man.   By His Self-Offering, the Lord has made even the tomb a passageway to the blessedness of eternal life. Our Savior is not a remote or impersonal deity, a stranger to the struggles and pain of life in a world in which people still suffer and die at the hands of the violent and powerful.   He has taken the full consequences of sin upon Himself in order to conquer them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  His Cross is truly “a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible” through which He has caused death to die.

If we are to share personally in the Savior’s great victory, we must obey His command to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.  It does not suffice to celebrate our Lord’s triumph through His Cross with words or feelings alone.  We must take practical steps to join ourselves to Him in His great Self-Offering, which means dying to the power of sin in our lives so that we may enter more fully into the eternal life that He has brought to the world. St. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  These words must become characteristic of our lives if we are going to find the healing of our souls.  If they are not, then we show that we are actually ashamed of our Lord and His Cross because we are still trying to save our lives according to the standards of a world enslaved to the fear of death.

How we live shows what we believe, regardless of what we say, think, or feel.  If we make our life an offering to ourselves, an endeavor in getting what we want and protecting ourselves against anything or anyone who frustrates our selfish plans, then it is clear that we have no real interest in or commitment to the Savior Who ascended the Cross for our sake.   If we distort our Lord and His Cross into a way of building ourselves up personally over against other people we consider our enemies for whatever reason, we show that we have no part in Him.  He saved the world by offering Himself fully out of love, which required refusing to respond in kind to His tormentors.  Taking up our crosses requires pursuing the deep struggle to love, serve, and forgive all our neighbors as He did.  If we do not, then we will bear witness to some other god, to the idolatry of trying to save ourselves according the ways of the fallen world that remains captive to the fear of death.

The Lord does not command us to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and lose our lives because He wants us to suffer, pay a debt, or earn His favor.  It is inevitable, however, that uniting ourselves to Him in holiness for the healing of our souls will be a struggle and require sacrifice.  In order to regain physical health after an injury or illness, we may have to do some painful and difficult things, like having surgery, going to physical therapy, or changing what we eat.  Those are not punishments, but simply what is necessary for us to regain our health in light of our physical condition.  If we want to get better physically or spiritually, we must put aside our preferences and accept the struggle for our recovery.

Most of the time, we do not consciously choose the crosses we must bear for the healing of our souls.  In order to grow in the Christian life, we must learn to accept whatever struggles come our way as the crosses that will help us die to the corrupting influence of sin in our lives.  None of us has to look very hard to find difficult relationships, health problems, circumstances beyond our control, and other “real life” situations we did not ask to encounter.  They should teach us humility, help us to grow in our dependence on God’s mercy, and encourage us to be more patient and understanding with others.  Instead of falling prey to the temptation of thinking that our struggles are the greatest anyone has ever endured, we must cultivate compassion for others whose problems overwhelm them.  No matter our assumptions about the lives of other people, we never know fully the burdens that they bear.  If we are laid low so easily by our own challenges, we should have empathy for our neighbors and refuse the temptation to condemn them for weakness or irresponsibility.  For to judge others like that is simply a way of trying to save our own lives, to justify ourselves by our imagined good works in contrast to what we assume about others.  If we truly unite ourselves to Christ in His great Self-Offering as we take up our crosses, we will have no time, energy, or inclination to waste in assessing the performance of others.

Taking up our crosses is not a work that somehow earns us God’s grace.   By definition, grace cannot be earned, but is a free gift.  We must, however, receive that free gift by obeying the command of the One Who offered Himself freely for our salvation on the Cross.  That will happen when we embrace the struggles before us to die to self-centeredness in the service of God and neighbor.  It will happen when we mindfully expel from our hearts thoughts that would simply enslave us further to self-centered desire.  It will happen when we live as those who have been liberated from the fear of death through the Cross of Christ.  From the world’s perspective, we may look like fools and failures, which is how the Savior appeared to just about everyone when He ascended the Cross for our salvation.  If we are truly dying to sin and sharing more fully in His life, then we should not be surprised if our lives look rather strange from the perspective of the conventional wisdom of this world.  If we are truly uniting ourselves to our crucified Lord in holiness, then we should get used to being out of step with all of the false narratives about how to save our lives and gain the whole world.  So even as we exalt and venerate the Cross, let us take up our own crosses for our salvation.  That is truly the only way to be set free from the bondage to the fear of death and to bear witness to the world that we are not ashamed of our Savior, Who has made even the tomb an entryway to the eternal Kingdom through His Cross.

 

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