The Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross
Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 7, 2003
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The glorious and joyful message of Christianity is distilled for us in today’s Gospel lesson. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him might have eternal life.” I think that was the first Bible verse I learned by heart. Every month Bob the Bible Man would visit all the elementary schools in my little Appalachian home town to teach us new verses and drill us on the ones we learned during his last visit. John 3:16 was the first one he taught us.
We call this message the “Good News.” It is good news because the central point is that God is a God of love and that his love does not remain a mere concept or philosophical principal. His love becomes real. His love crosses over from thought to action. His love becomes incarnate. His love becomes concrete and this is very good news indeed!
“What was from the beginning,” writes St. John, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the Word of life – for the life was made visible…and we proclaim it to you.”
St. Maximus teaches that all cultures have received a word from God and they express this in three degrees. The first degree recognizes creation as a revelation of God. This is the foundation of the very ancient religions that saw in nature the means of the greatest spiritual enlightenment. This is the religion of those who say they worship God on golf courses rather than in church. Nature is the cathedral and the source of the highest spiritual inspiration. I hasten to add that it is the most primitive of the three degrees! The second degree sees that God has intervened in history and the record of this intervention becomes embodied in a Law and in a Book. The two most obvious examples of this are Judaism and Islam for whom the Law and a sacred Scripture become the means to the highest possible spiritual attainment. But there is another degree only expressed in Christianity and that is in the knowledge and belief that God has personally entered history, that He has become part of history, that He has become one of us. This is why Fr. Schmemann insisted that Christianity is the “end of religion”; the end, the fulfillment of all religious aspiration. Beyond this there can be nothing more.
If, as the Fathers and Holy Scripture teach, the preeminent desire of humanity is to be in communion with God, then the words of Law and the revelations of prophets could not possibly satisfy this longing. Only the coming of God Himself could do it.
How could a truly loving God remain forever separate from the object of His love?
Theophilus of Antioch wrote that God “leaped” outside of His inaccessible nature to become wholly accessible, completely vulnerable, to become one of us so that we might be wholly united to him. Thus He issued an invitation, “Come to me all ye that labor and are heavy laden…and ye shall find rest.” By coming to us He made it possible for us to go to Him. Otherwise communion would be impossible.
And not only did He come to us in the flesh, He went even further in demonstrating His love. He took upon Himself all our suffering, all our sins, even our death by laying down His life for us on the Cross. The ultimate revelation of the depth of God’s limitless love is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Gregory Nazianzus writes these words, “It was necessary for us that God should take flesh and die so that we might have new life…Nothing can equal the miracle of my salvation; a few drops of blood redeem the whole universe.”
God loves us enough to come to us, to live with us, to die for us so that
“Never again,” as Olivier Clement writes, “should we be alone, shut out or lost. When we are in shame and despair, and there seems no way out, Christ is waiting for us in silent love.”
It is good that we begin the liturgical year hearing these words proclaimed. Too easily are we distracted from this message. Too easily has Orthodoxy allowed herself to become the purveyor of other kinds of “gospels”; “gospels” of empires, “gospels” of power, “gospels” of ethnicities, “gospels” of calendars, “gospels” of cultures, political “gospels”. No, there is only one true Gospel: Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. We must bring ourselves to say with St. Paul, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ and him crucified,” and “I count all things as loss…and consider them as rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
It is my prayer and my firm intention that only this one and true Gospel will be preached in this place.