When Christ invites us into heaven He says, “Whoever desires to follow Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me.” This invitation can only be accepted when we are willing to deny ourselves, or as we would say in our contemporary language, we must get over ourselves. Our American way of life teaches us the lie that we can do, have, and be whatever we want. In truth, we cannot have anything just because we desire it. We will never take up our cross, and therefore never enter heaven until we get over ourselves. It is the life of the Cross.
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My brothers and sisters in Christ, this morning's gospel. Christ gives us a very simple ... Maybe it's not simple, but it's basic ... Invitation. The Lord says, "Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." The Christian life is the way of the cross. The cross is, my brothers and sisters, unavoidable in our Christian journey.
But before we ever get to the cross, we have to learn to want to go to heaven. You see, as Saint John Chrysostom so beautifully explains to us, "God does not bring anyone into heaven by force." He sends them to hell by force, but to heaven, we are called through our free will.
And that is the message this Sunday after the Veneration of the Holy Cross. Whoever desires to follow God into heaven, we must be willing to take up our cross. But at my age, I know I'm only 50, but I've learned that the first part is much more difficult than the second. It is much more difficult for us to deny ourselves than to take up our cross. You see, because our American way of life, our American fronima, the Greek word, our American atmosphere, I guess, is the best way to say it, is dwells upon our individual rights and freedoms to the extent that we teach in our system a lie. You see, our system teaches us that, as Americans, we can be whatever we want, do whatever we want, have whatever we want, whenever we want, as long as we work hard for it.
And that's a lie. Our society has been lying to us our entire life because the reality is, we cannot have whatever we want just because we want it, just because we work for it. And so God helps us by saying, "Deny yourself." In our Orthodox Christian life, we learn, I guess, in a contemporary way, we could say to get over ourselves, to get over our ego.
How many times in my 26 years as ministry, both in youth ministry and as a priest, I hear people going, and they enter into some kind of a debate, whether it's with myself or on the internet, it doesn't really matter, where we begin debating our own opinion on the truth of God, rather than accepting what the church has told us. And it's understandable. It's the American way. It is, by the way, what makes Protestantism, Protestantism. In the Western church, they get to believe whatever they want to believe. We believe what has been given to us. And we spend our life learning how to get over our own opinions because as long, and this is what I've learned now in my 50 years of life, as long as we are preoccupied with our own opinions and our own agendas and our own comforts, we will never willingly pick up our cross and follow Christ.
Because none of us, if we had a choice between comfort and struggle, would choose struggle, if we're focused on ourselves. And we know this to be true in other parts of our life. For those of you who are doctors, you know ... I'll use my words now. I'm not going to put words into your mouth. The pain and struggle of medical school. But because you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever the case might be, you endured the struggling to get there because that's what you wanted.
So the question this morning, my brothers and sisters, is very simple. Do you want to follow Christ into heaven? If you do, then allow the church to help you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him because that is the Christian journey. Because as we are beginning to learn in our society, our society will mock us for our Christian faith. Our society will discriminate against us because of our Christian faith. And that's okay. We're willing to follow Christ into heaven. We're going to endure that struggle, but only by free will.
The Lord says, He takes it, and he offers a deeper yet evidence. Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?
These past six months of the pandemic, I believe we've been having the wrong argument as Christians. We have been arguing about whether or not we can get sick in church. We have been arguing whether or not we can get sick when we receive Holy Communion. One bishop says, "Yes, we can." One bishop says, "No, we can't." One Geronda says, "Yes, we can." Another Geronda says, "No, we can't."
I think we've been having the wrong argument based on this morning's gospel. You see, the Christians that heard Christ say this, the first-century Christians, by just admitting they were Christians, they could be killed. Just admitting that they went to church, just attending church was risking their life. I don't think the first Christians would have argued whether or not they can get sick in church. I don't think the first Christians would have argued whether or not they can get sick with Holy Communion. Instead, they would have said, "Whether I get sick or not, I'm going to prepare for Holy Communion because I'd rather be with God in heaven."
Now it does not mean, and I need to make this very clear, it does not mean that the ancient church lived irresponsibly. The Christians did not go broadcasting their faith to the enemy. They didn't go looking to get in trouble. They didn't go looking to be killed. The first church worshiped in secret to protect themselves. And I believe that, in the wisdom of our church fathers today, is why we come to church with precautions, to protect ourselves from the enemy, but still willing to be with God and still willing to risk our life by coming to church.
I'd like us to reframe the debate in the coming months and for the rest of our life. Whether or not we can get sick, we want to be with Christ in heaven, and the church is heaven on earth. The church is where we receive Holy Communion. The church is where we are in God's physical presence, right this moment, and He is blessing us and showing us His grace, but never forcing us, always giving us our free will to willingly choose the Σταυρό, the cross of Christ and the struggle.
But before we ever get there, we've got to get over ourselves. Stop arguing about the masks. Stop arguing about the regulations from the church. Trust the church fathers to know what they're talking about. And then we can learn to take up our cross and follow Him. Glory to God for all things.
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