Sermon ~ Take up your Cross

The Reading is from John 3:13-17

The Lord said, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

This weekend on the Church calendar has been a busy one.  On Saturday, we commemorated the birth of the Theotokos and today we commemorate not only her parents, Joachim and Anna, but we also remember the Holy Cross.  This coming Friday we celebrate the great feast of the elevation of the Holy Cross.  These feasts are all tied together with a single purpose, and that is hope!

When Joachim and Anna were aged, we are not sure how old they were, but they were beyond childbearing days, God fulfilled His promise to them, and Anna gave birth to a baby girl, and they named her Mary.  They dedicated this child to God, and she grew up in the Temple and was prepared by God for the awesome task that she was to be called upon for latter in her life.

All of us are called by God, to do something in our life for Him.  We all have our roles to play in this drama that we call our lives, and it is essential for each of us that we learn what that is.  Over the past few weeks, we have been discussing the interior life and how we are to grow in that life.  You see our spiritual life is a journey that takes a life time to complete, and there are all sorts of things along the way that we see and do, but the biggest of all of the is the transformation of our very lives.  When we were baptized, we were placed under the water and brought back out again.  This is to declare that we are dying to the old and becoming new creations.

On most feast days of Christ, we change some of the words of the Divine Liturgy.  We do not sing the Thrice Holy Hymn of Holy God; we change those words for As many who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  When we make the commitment to follow Him we cast off the old man and put on the new.  This is not just a nice theological concept, but it is a spiritual imperative that we change the old for the new.

We have to conform our lives to that of Christ and to His Church.  Our thoughts have to be His thoughts, and our actions have to be His actions.  I have said this before, our faith is not just simply a religion or a denomination, but it is a lifestyle.

I had this conversation with someone recently.  In Romania and other Orthodox countries, the Churches are relatively small, and each village has but one Orthodox Church.  Upon entering the Church, you feel as though you have left this mortal world and ascended into another place.  The smells of incense, and the burning candles attacks your sense of smell.  All of the walls are covered with Icons of various feasts and each place you look your eyes try and take it all in.  If you are there for a Liturgical service, you notice the lack of seats except a few that are against the wall.  There is a lot of activity around the sanctuary as the faithful are reverencing the Icons and lighting candles.  On one side, there might be a priest hearing confessions, and on the other side one who is praying for people, all the time Liturgy is going on.  Liturgy is designed to reach us and affect us on a sensory level.  It is not theater where we come and sit and watch a performance, but it is our opportunity to get close to God and to try and fee our minds from all of the worldly distractions, even for a short period of time.  This is why when the emissaries of the Great Prince Vladimir returned from the East they described the Orthodox Liturgy as heaven on earth!  We do not come and sit here like we would the movie theater, we come and sit in the very presence of God!

Our faith is internal and not just external.  Yes we have external expressions of our faith, the sign of the cross, the metanias, the reverencing of the Icons, standing and kneeling, these are all outward expressions of our faith, but similar to an iceberg, the majority of our faith s never seen by anyone, it is internal and is designed to affect us on that level.  Our faith is a deep and abiding faith that requires much effort on our part.  We must conform our inner lives and mind to that of Christ.  In every situation, we find ourselves in we should be asking what would Jesus do in this or that situation.  What does our Holy Church teach about this or that issue and our interactions with each other? Our lives need to be transfigured as was Jesus on Mount Tabor!  Transfigured away from the world and transfigured toward Christ.

The Theotokos had a total devotion to God.  So devoted to God was she that when the Angel came and asked her to take on this role, a role that she could not possibly understand, she said yes.  Not a, well let me think about it and consult this person or that person, no she just said yes!  She was able to say yes because her life had been transfigured, her entire life was pointed in the direction of God and no place else.  Her desire was to do what God was asking of her regardless of the consequences.

Many of you knew Fr. Vasilachi.  He was priest here for many years and to listen to you speak of him, I am of the belief that one day he will be called saint.  There is a painting of him in the museum hanging on the wall.  I used to think it was eerie because the eyes follow you around the room.  Lately, I have been spending some time just sitting in front of that image and thinking about his life.  As you know, he was arrested and spent 18 years in a Romanian jail for preaching what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was about.  This of course is counter to what the government was preaching.  You see in the 1940’s, and 50’s in Romania the Church had been replaced by the state as the salvation of the world.  Political leaders were looked up to more than the saints of the Church, and the government had become the religion of the day.  Part of the socialist plan is to remove, what was called, the opium of people, and replace it with the opium of the state.

Father Vasliachi saw where things were headed; he was able to read the signs of the time and would preach publicly against what the government was preaching.  He was telling the young people that the government will not save you only God can do that.  God sent Jesus, as Scripture tells us today, “so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” No mortal human being can do this no matter what position they hold be they prince or president, “put no trust in princes in mortal men where there is no help.”  Call upon the name of the Lord and He will strengthen you for the battle that is about to commence.  Not a battle of earthly proportions but a spiritual battle for your very soul!

This is the message of the Church, and this is the message that Fr. Vasilachi was preaching, and this is the message that saw his thrown into prison like so many others who we will never know.  He watched countless prisoners die in prison as his own brother did, and he ministered to them and to his captors, by the way, just as Jesus commands us to do.

Each time Father Vasilachi climbed into that pulpit, or stood on that street corner to preach he knew what was at stake, and he took the chance, the chance with his life, but he needed to preach the truth, because dear ones, the truth will set us free!  We can only find freedom in God, if we look for freedom in other places we will delude ourselves.

We celebrate the great feast of the elevation of the Holy Cross on Friday.  One of the 12 great feats of the Church and is a commemoration of the finding of the true from by the mother of the Emperor Constantine.  St. Helena found the cross whilst on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and she brought is out for the world to see.  The cross was a tool. A tool used by their Roman captors to create fear into the lives of the people.  The Cross was used as an instrument of hatred and misery, but one man came along and changed all of that.  Through a tree man was led into sin, the sin of Adam, and through the wood of another tree, the Cross, man was led to redemption.

This is the transfiguration life, a life that thinks with the mind of Christ and with the mind of the Church.  This was the life of the Theotokos, forgetting what could have been done to her by society, she said yes.  Father Vaslichai, knowing full well the fate that would come to him if he kept preaching what he was preaching, sure he could have just rolled over like so many of the clergy of the day had done to save their own skin, but in the end he stood when he needed to be counted and forgetting the danger, he lived his life, not for himself, but for God.

These are but a few examples of how we should live our lives.  Many of us will never be called upon in such extraordinary ways, but it is in the ordinary ways that we might never know, where we can make a difference.

The spiritual journey takes a life time, but it starts with one step, with one decision and that decision has to be that we will begin to conform our lives to Christ.  We simply have no other option.

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