A sermon combining a common theme from the Gospel lesson from Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30 and the Epistle reading from Hebrews 11:33-12:2.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson and Epistle reading offer us two descriptions of our life. These two descriptions are taken from the events that were familiar to the common person of the first century. These events are crucifixion, or carrying your own cross, and running a race.
For us today both of these are familiar as well, but not in the way they were to the people of the ancient times. Maybe running a race, and all that went into preparing for one, hasn’t changed much, but crucifixion, and in particular carrying the cross on the way to your own crucifixion, has become foreign to us.
For one, crucifixions are no longer a public spectacle like they used to be, at least in the nations not overrun with terrorists. Today we have Fox News, CNN, and other news channels; facebook, twitter, and other social media; Netflix, Disney+, and other streaming services to entertain us. And I would argue that contemporary forms of entertainment can be as violent and immoral as any ancient forms of execution, including crucifixion. The type of entertainment has not changed much from the first to the 21st century, but the means of consumption have.
Another reason we view crucifixion with the different eyes than the people of Christ’s time is because of what crucifixion has come to mean to us, not just for Christians, but for the whole world, since Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, willingly went up on the Cross to die for the salvation of those who are willing to follow Him.
For example, when the Lord said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow Me,” His hearers heard and imagined only one thing – walking slowly, carrying the cross beam to which you were about to nailed, and dying a slow and agonizing death. In other words, taking your cross meant, in no uncertain words, going to a sure death. A person carrying the cross was a dead man walking, and everyone knew it. The only question remained was how many days it would take for the body to expire.
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” Does the Lord really mean what He says here? Does a slow and painful and humiliating death on the cross make us worthy of Him?
Yes, He means what He says. And yes, this is what it takes to be worthy of Christ.
But, like I said at the beginning of the sermon, this Gospel lesson offers us a description of our life. Walking with the cross was a journey to death. None of us here today may ever get a chance to carry an actual cross, but all of us are on a journey to death. From the moment we are born, we begin our slow walk towards death. We are born to die, in other words. Our life is our cross.
Let’s hear Christ’s words again, but keeping in mind that the cross is an entirety of our life, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”
At the end of almost every litany we say a petition that always strikes me because it is so direct, “…let us surrender ourselves, each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” All our life. Not just 3-4 hours on a Sunday. Not just Sundays and a few feast days. Not just Pascha and Christmas. But all our life. Why? Because all our life is the cross, which we can’t avoid; and this cross only makes sense when we surrender and follow the One Who did the same.
However, it’s not just about taking up the cross. There were a lot of people who were crucified in the ancient times, yet not all of them died a righteous death. There were even two thieves crucified along with the Lord, and only one was saved. Every single human being is on the same journey to death, be it a Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, or anything in between. Merely being on the journey does not make us worthy of Christ. It’s taking up the cross, surrendering our whole life, and following Him that differentiates one journey from another.
I will get back to what it means to follow Christ in a minute. Let’s look at the Epistle now because it also offers a description of our life. Saint Paul uses a more common analogy of running a race. Running a race is running a race, there is not much to it. It is pretty much the same today as it was back then. There is a starting point and a finish line. And the goal is to finish the race.
I have to admit, I hate running, it’s just not my thing. But I know enough about it to imagine that in order to run any sort of distance, a runner needs to stretch, warm up, put aside anything unnecessary, like a heavy backpack or boots, put on running shoes and a light uniform.
Our life is like a race since it also has a very specific beginning at the time we are conceived, and a definite end – our death. Just like a runner can be weighed down and distracted during the race, so are we, very often, easily distracted. Saint Paul says that our distractions lie in sin. Sin is easy because it is a low-hanging fruit; it takes almost no effort to fall into temptation and indulge in sin.
But, Saint Paul says, lay aside all sin. Ignore it. We can’t control being tempted by things or people, but we do control our reaction to those temptations. Once we try to fight sin, to overcome it, to conquer it, we lose because we engaged with sin. Let sin be, don’t fight it, lay it aside and look to Christ. It’s not our perseverance in fighting the sin that saves us, it’s Christ.
He has run the race for us. In fact, He Himself has blazed the way for us. All we have to do is walk in His way, follow Him.
What does it mean to follow in the footsteps of God? Can mere mortals do that? It turns out we can. The example that Christ set for us may be counterintuitive, but it is definitely doable.
In the times of Jesus, it was normal for a teacher of great reputation to have disciples, who would not only absorb every word spoken by the teacher, but would try to imitate him in everything as best as they could. Therefore, when Christ says, “Take up your cross and follow Me…run the race that I have already run for you,” He means a simple, “Do as I do.” We do not need to reinvent anything.
As disciples we imitate the Teacher. What exactly to do we imitate? Here are just a few examples. As the Master of all creation, Jesus came to His creatures, meaning us, as a servant. He did not demand service, but He served others. Are we capable of being humble servants to those around us?
He did not shun the outcasts, those outcasts that were willing to repent and change their lives. He did not overlook them because they were beneath Him. Is there anyone we consider to be beneath us? Would we be able to sit at the same table with them and share a meal, as Christ did with all the sinners?
He avoided useless conversations. It’s amazing how many times in the Gospels Jesus is asked a stupid question and He either responds with a question of His own or simply ignores it, but He never directly responds to the provocation. Wow. Imagine if we learned to ignore stupid, provocative questions. How many arguments and fights would we be able to prevent?
This is not an exhaustive list, of course, but you get the point. To follow Christ is to take up the life that we have and figure out how we can imitate Him in our conditions.
Jesus has run the race that we are on, we are simply following in His footsteps. He runs it also with us. The Lord is right here, sustaining and nourishing us. And He is also at the finish line, awaiting to receive our cross, to embrace us and say, “Good and faithful servant.”
To Jesus Christ, our perfect Teacher worthy of all imitation, we give glory, now and ever and unto ages of ages.