Taking Up the Cross is Very Different from Trying to Use the Cross to Get What We Want: Homily for the Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

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

            As we continue to celebrate the Elevation of the Holy Cross, we must remain on guard against the temptation of viewing our Lord’s Cross as merely a religious artifact that reminds us of what happened long ago. Through His Self-Offering on the Cross, Christ has conquered death and brought salvation to the world.  But in order for us to share personally in His fulfillment of the human person as a living icon of God, we must take up our own crosses, deny ourselves, and follow Him.  If we refuse to do that, then we show that we are ashamed of our Lord and want no part in Him or His Kingdom.

Peter was in precisely such a state of refusal when he tried to explain to Christ that dying on the Cross had nothing to do with being the Messiah.  That is when the Lord famously said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  That is the context for today’s gospel passage as Christ teaches that following Him is not a way to gain anything at all according to the standards of this world, but a calling to offer ourselves without reservation.  We must lose our lives for Christ and His Gospel in order to share in His victory over death.

The calling to take up our crosses stands in stark contrast to the persistent temptation to exalt ourselves in the Name of the Lord.  Across the centuries to the present day, some have tried to use the Cross to gain earthly power by identifying some version of an earthly kingdom with our Lord’s heavenly reign.  Others have tried to use the Cross as a way to justify their religious or moral superiority over their neighbors.  The problem is not so much in the particulars of how anyone has used the Cross so much as in the very idea of using it, of making it an instrument for achieving anything at all in this world.  Our Lord’s Cross calls us to lose our lives as we offer ourselves in union with His great Self-Offering, not to serve or glorify ourselves in any way.

In our epistle reading from Galatians, Saint Paul opposes fellow Jewish Christians who relied too much on their own ability to obey the Old Testament law and who would have required the same of Gentile converts.  Over against trust in religious legalism, he writes that, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, 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 up for me.”  Paul did not simply have good thoughts or warm feelings about the Cross, but endured many struggles and difficulties out of faithfulness to the Lord.  He wrote to the Colossians that “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24)

There is obviously nothing deficient in our Lord’s great Self-Offering.  Paul meant that all that is lacking is our taking up our own crosses in obedience to the Lord’s calling to deny ourselves and follow Him. Because of our own passions and the brokenness of our world of corruption, the struggle for faithfulness inevitably requires suffering, but not as though pain were somehow pleasing to God in and of itself.  Such suffering results from the inevitable tension we experience in the struggle to offer ourselves fully to Christ. Truly taking up our crosses means embracing the difficult battle each day as we reject all that would keep us from doing precisely that, including especially the inclinations of our own hearts.

Christ prayed the night before His crucifixion, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He ascended the Cross in free obedience, and no one forces us to take up our crosses either.  Many problems and pains come upon us without our asking for them in this life, even to the point of death, and it is so easy to refuse to suffer in a spiritually healthy way. As Job’s wife suggested, we can “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) in response to losses, obstacles, and disappointments.  We can refuse to offer our struggles to Christ and instead allow them to fuel our passions, destroy our faith, and corrupt our relationships with others.   No one can keep us from doing so, for freedom is an intrinsic dimension of being in God’s image as human persons.

Only we can unite ourselves to Christ in His Great Self-Offering for the salvation of the world. Regardless of the circumstances, we may always use our freedom to take up our crosses and refuse to fall into despair, for any instance of struggle, pain, disappointment, or suffering provides an opportunity to deny ourselves and follow our Lord.  Difficulties by their nature present challenges to which we may respond in a Christlike way or according to our passions.  He offered up Himself fully upon the Cross and refused to respond in kind to those who hated and rejected Him.  Likewise, we may unite ourselves to Him in every dimension and circumstance of our lives, including those in which we are sorely tempted not to respond as He did. Illness, broken relationships with others, worries about the future, regrets about the past, crushed hopes, and even the worst losses imaginable present opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Saint Paul wrote that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  (Gal. 5:22-24)

Our self-centered and distorted desires usually rear their ugly heads quickly when we face trying circumstances.  It often does not take much at all to set us off like Jonah when the vine that gave him shade was eaten by a worm.  That was a very small thing, but Jonah became so angry that he wished he would die. (Jonah 4:5-11)   Other times we face circumstances so grave that they call us into question from the depths of our souls and strongly tempt us to fall into despair about the meaning and purpose of our lives.  Whether in matters small or great, there is no lack of opportunity to take up our crosses as we struggle to find healing for our inflamed passions.

Doing so usually does not require anything particularly dramatic or extraordinary.  It is normally a matter of focusing on the basic practices of the Christian life, such as refusing to accept sinful thoughts into our hearts, forgiving those who have wronged us, and trusting that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39) The more that we open our souls to the Lord’s healing strength through prayer, repentance, and serving our neighbors, the less time and energy we will have for stirring up and embracing the impassioned thoughts that lead to sinful actions.  The constant struggle to undertake this way of life is at the very heart of taking up our crosses, denying ourselves, and following Christ.

We must also remain on guard against all the forms of idolatry that tempt us to gain the world at the expense of our souls.  The Lord rejected the temptation to repudiate the Cross for the sake of gaining earthly power and establishing a political kingdom.  We must likewise refuse to allow loyalty to any worldly agenda or group to obscure the demands of faithfulness to the way of Christ. That is true in matters seemingly large and small, ranging from our opinions about world affairs to how we treat our friends, neighbors, and family members.  We cannot serve two masters in any dimension of our lives.  Those who try to do so will risk losing their own souls in a vain effort to gain the world. The message of the Cross remains foolishness to those who make any scheme for success in this world their false god, no matter what it may be.  If we become so enamored with anything that we refuse to place faithfulness to Christ first in our lives, we will show by our actions that we are ashamed of our Lord and His Cross.

In order to take up our crosses, we must choose to embrace the struggle of dying to our vain illusions about ourselves and our world.  Our hope is not in spiritual or moral perfection acquired merely by our own willpower, but in the gracious mercy of the One Who offered up Himself for our salvation purely out of love.  Through the Cross, He has brought life in the midst of death, light in the midst of darkness, and joy in the midst of despair.  We will receive His healing as we persistently offer ourselves to Him in humble faith, no matter what challenges and pains life brings us.  That is how we will die to the corrupting power of sin and enter into the blessedness of His Kingdom, which remains not of this world.  The only way to truly elevate the Holy Cross is by denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses to follow the Savior each day of our lives.





  1. In a world of internet clutter, these sermons are a welcome light. The consistent quality is inspiring.
    Thank you for your continued commitment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *