Epistle for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost
In the Epistle reading appointed for this day we hear the Apostle Paul boldly declare: ‘God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’
The cross… once the most horrible and humiliating form of death, hardly the symbol in which to boast and take pride. And yet, like so many other aspects of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, He took the most humble, even humiliating things of this world and transformed them into heavenly and eternal triumph. It is through His suffering and death on the cross that our Lord offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind – for your sins and for mine. It is through His death that death and sin were overthrown!
The cross, once a symbol of disgrace and defeat and death, has become a symbol of grace and triumph and life! We must never be ashamed or afraid to glory in the cross of Christ. All Orthodox Christians should wear their cross on their breast – as a means of showing our allegiance to Christ and also as a means of salvation and protection.
For we must join the Apostle Paul in being crucified to the world and, as Metropolitan Augoustinos Kantiotes calls them… all of the world’s charms and terrors. ‘What are the charms? They are the pleasant things this world has to offer. Money is one thing offered in abundance without work or sweat to those who succumb to the evils of this world. Food and drink, drunkenness, loose living, and shameful carnal pleasures and other things. The positions and high places that this evil world is ready to offer to people provided that they fall down and worship it are more of the charms offered. And what are the terrors? They are the sarcasms, insults, deviltry, slanders, and threats against those who want to live Christian lives. The world is stirred up against them. In addition, there are the rejections, injustices, dismissals, persecutions, imprisonments, exiles, and in the end, a martyred, cruel death. These are the unpleasant things with which the world threatens. These are the terrors.’
While there is great beauty in this world and we must be wise to recognize goodness where it is to be found; the world indeed pressures the Christian with its charms and its terrors. And, as I’m sure you are all aware and experiencing, those charms and terrors are increasing and becoming more bold and outrageous at an astonishing rate.
The charms of the modern world seduce us with an endless stream of distractions and entertainments… filling every moment with sights and sounds to fill our eyes and ears from the ubiquitous screens of TV, computers, and smart phones. We become preoccupied and addicted to games, virtual realities, pontifications and idle curiosities on social media, and having our passions stirred by what others declare to be newsworthy. And where, in the midst of all this, is there time for silence? Where, in the midst of all this, is there clarity to see the world that truly surrounds us… the kindness of neighbors, the needs of those closest to us, even the needs of our family - which may be neglected while we’re so busy worrying about the latest headline from Facebook?
And while we have our heads buried in these charms and distractions, the terrors of the modern world advance their own narrative against the cross of Christ.
It is probably not necessary to go into great length about the assaults being made against Christianity in the world today. Churches and Christians are being destroyed in the Middle East, Africa, China, India and elsewhere; altars are being desecrated; crosses are being torn off of graves; and everywhere, including in our own country, there seems to be a consistent, creeping contempt for the virtues of Christianity.
And why is this so? Because, on the one hand, there are many in the world who do not understand Who Christ is and do not understand the message of the cross – and much of that misunderstanding is the fault of us Christians. And on the other hand, there are those forces both visible and invisible that understand precisely Who Christ is and what is the message of the cross. In both cases – either through ignorance or intent, the cross is foolishness and an affront to the world. And more and more, there is a movement that seeks to remove the cross from blocking the momentum of the world.
Each one of us is confronted on a daily basis with the charms and terrors of this world. The terrors may not be as severe as the martyrdom required of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and in other places, but there is a steady stream of intimidation and mockery that Christians must face and must get used to – because it will only increase, and we must know how to handle it.
And so, what are we to do as Orthodox Christians confronted by this reality?
Passion is not overcome by passion. We must have courage… courage to speak the truth in love. We must enter into the heart of our faith so that we know from experience the peace that passes all understanding. If we know that peace and that love of Christ, if we know the sweetness of the truth of Christ – we will not be knocked off the rock of our faith so easily… we can hold on firmly to that and respond with humility, compassion, and clarity.
The same made be said for avoiding the charms of this world… if we have entered into the heart of our faith, if we have tasted that sweetness of Christ, if we have experienced the peace that passes all understanding – then we are not so easily seduced by the siren call and we can deal with the enticements of this world with sobriety.
May God grant us courage and wisdom to face the charms and terrors of the world. May we avoid engaging in the rhetoric of hatred and darkness by clinging fast to the love and light of Christ. If we focus our efforts and our lives on entering deeply into prayer, into laying aside our electronic enticements to pick up the Gospel, into building that treasure-house of the experience of blessed moments with God – then nothing that the world has to offer us - its most enticing charms or its most intimidating terrors – can surpass or overcome that stability of the rock of our faith in Christ.
May we then boast in nothing other than the cross of Christ our Lord!