Sunday, September 20, 2015

To take up a cross

We know – most of us – what happened on the cross.

For example, just last week, I asked my five year old nephew what happened on the cross and first he said, "You mean the cross on top of the church?" And I said, "No, I’m asking about the reason we put a cross on top of the church. I mean, what happened on the real cross? Do you know?" And he said, "They nailed Jesus to it."

That is indeed the awful and awesome truth – that Jesus, our Savior and the Savior of the world, hung upon the cross and there he died for us and for our salvation. “[He] ascended the cross in [his] human nature, to deliver from the enemy’s bondage those whom [he] created,” as we pray quietly before the Divine Liturgy. The one who is life himself – the way the truth and the life (John 14:6) – died. Life died – life entered into death – so that, though we die, in him, we may live (John 11:25) – and live forever.

We know this – most of us. We have the inestimable benefit of living in a post-resurrectional cosmos. We know and partake of the life that comes after the cross and through it. The cross for us has rightly been bejeweled. The cross for us is the tree of life. For us it no longer symbolizes death and ignominy, but life and glory. “The King of Glory” we write on icons of the cross. And now, if we glory, let us glory “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [we] to the world,” as Paul writes to the Galatians (6:14).

“We bow to your cross, O Lord, and we glorify your holy resurrection!” We will sing this for the last time tomorrow, on the leave-taking of the exaltation of the holy cross. 

This action is itself a beautiful image of death and resurrection. We bow or prostrate as we sing of the cross. Our bodies are lowered to the ground as they will be in death. Then, we stand upright again as we sing of resurrection, as we will stand up again from our graves when the Son of man “comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

So when Jesus says today, ""If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34), all of this imagery should come to our minds, given the benefit of our vantage point.

But what can Jesus' disciples and the multitude have thought when he preached this to them? This is the first time that Jesus directly mentions the cross. This is the case in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is the first time Jesus uses the word “cross,” and he’s not talking just about his own cross, but about the crosses of those who would be his followers – about our crosses. Isn’t that something?

Now Jesus had just foretold his own death and resurrection, so I suppose we could presume that he also described how he would die, but the gospel doesn’t tell us that. Regardless, how confounding the idea of taking up a cross must have sounded to those who first heard it! In a way we have an advantage over these first hearers, but in a way they have an advantage over us.

They perhaps could not see the good and beauty of the cross, as well as we. Even though Jesus had just told them that he would rise again from the dead, I imagine that it still would be difficult for them to conceive of this instrument of torture and death (to which Jesus is calling them) as a life-giving thing.

We, on the other hand, knowing the outcome, having read the last page of the story, may fail to see sometimes the suffering and scandal the cross represents as it lies before us on the tetrapod in bright pigments and enwreathed with flowers. We may expect to skip straight to the resurrection and forget about how the way to resurrection is through the cross. We may be tempted to skip straight to the feast of Pascha without first observing the black fast of Good Friday.

But when Jesus told the multitude that, if they were to follow him, they were going to need to follow him to the cross, they’d have had no illusions about what this meant. They knew what crosses were for and they had witnessed crucifixions, which were all too common in that time and place.

To carry a cross is to suffer. To take up a cross, is to accept or even embrace that suffering. Here’s the thing: we all have a cross whether we accept it or not. There’s no escape from suffering in this life. Most of those crucified went to the cross very much against their will. The end of suffering can only be fully realized in the life to come, if we choose to go that way. 

This is our choice, then: to reject the cross and die anyway or to accept the cross with love and, through death, live forever. We can react to suffering as Job’s wife recommends, that is to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Or we can respond to suffering as Job does, not without questioning, but without sin anyway (Job 1:22), and with love anyway (Job 10:12), blessing the name of the Lord anyway (Job 1:21).

Our Lord heals us, but he does not always and immediately take away all our suffering. Everyone here has suffered. Some more than others. And there is nothing just about its distribution. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt 5:45), and so does pain afflict us all physically, psychologically, spiritually. And there is no understanding it, as far as I can tell.

Sometimes suffering is the direct result of sin – for example, gluttony, and drunkenness, and violence all result almost immediately in some kind of suffering either for the self or for others. Dying by the sword, Jesus says, results from living by it (Matt 26:52). But then sometimes children as innocent as doves are cut to death this way for no reason. And there is no understanding that, as far as I can tell.

It is possible only by the grace of God for us to be freed from sin, and even then we will not be freed from suffering and affliction and persecution by the evil spirits and by the enemies of God. Jesus was without sin, yet in his great love for us, he suffered greatly. He suffered so that, through suffering, we can be united to him. He has given suffering, which was meaningless, the only meaning that it can have. God, by becoming a man who suffers, has transfigured suffering into grace – into a way of living the life of God.

Because Jesus takes up his cross, we must take up our crosses if we are to follow him – if we are to become like him, which is what it means to be his follower. Our crosses are made up of all our difficulties and all our pain and suffering. And Jesus is present to us in these. By his cross, Jesus has transformed our suffering, as Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon writes, “into a creative force, a means of drawing near to God, so that we can make it into a ladder by which we climb up to heaven.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

You shall love

Today a Pharisee – a lawyer – asks Jesus to tell him the greatest commandment.

This is meant as a test or – the word also means – a temptation. Little does the Pharisee know that he is testing the Lord his God. Jesus is Lord. And, by testing him, the lawyer is breaking the law in ignorance: “You shall not test the Lord your God,” it says in the law, (Deut 6:16; cf. Matt 4:7; Luke 4:12) but that is not the greatest commandment. And so Jesus does not point this out, as he did to the devil in the desert, who also tested him (Matt 4:1,7).

Jesus is patient with these Pharisees. This is the fourth and final time they test him in the gospel of Matthew. He answers their questions. The questions are good, even if the motive behind them is not. Jesus tells us later to “practice and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell [us], but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt 23:3). It is for this hypocrisy and not for their teachings that Jesus denounces the Pharisees.

A rabbi once came to our seminary in Pittsburgh to give a presentation. During the Q and A, a member of the staff asked the rabbi what he thought of Jesus. And the rabbi shocked all by saying, “Jesus was a Pharisee.”

We are so used to hearing the name of Pharisee associated with various evils that this idea could sound blasphemous. If you look up the word ‘pharisaic” in the dictionary, it says “hypocritically pious.” And Jesus is most certainly not this, but that isn’t what the rabbi meant.

The rabbi meant that if you study first century Judaism and compare the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of the various Jewish factions, you will find that Jesus agrees more with the Pharisees than with the other groups.

For example, Jesus accepts the prophets as from God – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, who hold that only the law – that is, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – only these books and no others – are scripture inspired by God and binding upon the people of God. 

So dispute about the canon is nothing new. In our day, we have Protestants rejecting certain books of the Bible – the deuterocanon, which they call the apocrypha. In Jesus’ day there was also dispute – though of course about different books.

And Jesus agrees with the Pharisees about what was inspired by God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that David is inspired by the Spirit in composing Psalm 109. I suppose the Sadducees would have disagreed because the Psalms are not a part of Torah. Jesus, however, agrees with the Pharisees, who clearly recognize the inspired authority of the Psalm and therefore have no argument against Jesus’ revelation regarding it – that the Messiah is more than merely a Son of David, but also the Lord. Being the Lord, Jesus knows best what the Lord inspires.

And Jesus teaches the coming resurrection of the dead – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,”(Matt 22:23because it is not as clearly and directly described in the Torah as it is in the prophets and later writings. However, Jesus points out that a proper understanding of Torah does reveal the resurrection (Matt 22:31-32).

And finally, Jesus knows which is the greatest commandment of the law – so do the Pharisees. They agree about this. The lawyer is asking Jesus a question to which he already knows the answer – an old lawyerly trick.

The greatest commandment is “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Matt 22:37; cf. Deut 6:5). The Pharisees know this, because this, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the Shema, the principal words of the law, found in Deuteronomy:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”(Deut 6:4-9).
These words from Deuteronomy are among those contained in the Pharisees’ phylacteries. A phylactery is a little leather box containing a scroll with these words – the shema. They literally bind these to their foreheads and to their arms when they pray. You may remember how Jesus later criticizes how the Pharisees make their phylacteries broad, so as to be seen by men, (Matt 23:5) rather than so as to always remember this greatest commandment, which is their true purpose. 

So this commandment is certainly not new to the Pharisees. They have heard it and prayed it daily since they were children. Jesus did not fail the Pharisees’ test. He knows the answer as well as them.

But he doesn’t stop there with the rote answer. Rather, he reveals something more about how it must be lived. He draws a correspondence between this great commandment and a second commandment, from Leviticus. “A second is like it,” he says. And that is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Some had noticed before that there is a verbal correspondence between these two commandments that joins them: each begins “you shall love.…”  Of course, they have more in common than that. Jesus is making a very striking point about these two commandments. Loving our neighbors is like loving God because God has made our neighbors like God. In his image and likeness he has made us.

Sometimes, during the Divine Liturgy, the reality of God’s presence in us becomes strikingly apparent. For one example, there are prayers prescribed for the priest and deacon to say quietly before the holy doors before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. At a certain point, the rubrics say that the priest and the deacon are to bow to the faithful. While they bow, they are praying part of psalm 5: “I will bow down before your holy temple in awe.” Notice this. The rubric says to bow to the people, and the text says we are bowing to the temple. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?”(1 Cor 3:16). Therefore, how can we love God if we do not love one another, when God dwells in our neighbors?

For another example, at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, I cense all the icons of the church. Toward the end of this great incensation, I cense the people. It has occurred to me that this is not something separate from the incensation of the icons. Rather, I am continuing to cense the icons, because you all are icons of God. An icon is an image, and God has made you in his image.

The image of God in us is indestructible. No sin can destroy it. It is who we are in our very being. We are in his image, but we are in pursuit of his likeness. Some have suggested that we have lost our likeness to God through our sin. But Jesus restores our likeness. In him, we can again become like God. Because he has identified himself with us. He, who is the Lord, has become man.

Jesus reveals this when he teaches the Pharisees something more about the Messiah – about himself – by interpreting David’s Psalm messianically. The messiah is the one who sits at the right hand of the Lord, and Christ points out that the one who sits at the right of the Lord is also the Lord: “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” So he who is truly our Lord and God has become the messiah of Jews and the savior of all humanity.

Though it was always true, now in Christ it is fully revealed, that we must love our neighbor if we are to love God, because in Christ, God is become our neighbor. Many of the Pharisees were failing to love their neighbors, neglecting “justice and mercy and faith”(Matt 23:23and so, Jesus reveals, they were not really loving God after all. So let us follow the teaching of the Pharisees to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, but let us not fail as they fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Let us be doers of the word and not hearers only”(James 1:22).

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