The Sunday before the Elevation of the Holy Cross
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 9, 2007
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."
This verse is the very heart of the Gospel. It is the reason we are here, the reason the Church exists. It is the message we preach, Christ and him crucified, for the sake of love, for the salvation of the world. St. Paul claimed to preach this message and nothing else.
Love becomes incarnate. How could humanity ever go to God had He not first come to us?
Love to be love must be more than words, more than a concept, more the a hope, more than a possibility. Love that does not become incarnate is a false love. "Love without works is dead," teaches the Apostle James, but he learned it first from Christ. We are able to love because God first loved us.
"God himself is humble," writes Olivier Clement, "because he is love. God humbled himself out of love." "Humility," writes Isaac of Syria, "is the ornament of the godhead" for "the Word clothed himself in it when he became man." Love and humility is the infallible test, then, of a life lived in Christ.
The scandal of Christianity is the Cross because of what it says about God. The Cross means God, the all-powerful, is the humblest and most compassionate of all. So compassionate that he would humble himself and become a human being in order to rescue us from death, sin and the devil, not by engaging them in some kind of mortal combat, by force of power, by a show of might, but by opening himself to ridicule by friend, family and foe and ultimately to the most serious kind of injustice, torture and death at the hands of the very creation upon which he showers his love and affection. Knowing what he would suffer at our hands he still came. Christ died for us "while we were yet sinners."
Another surprising thing is that God not only loves us, he honors and respects us. Hear the teaching of one the greatest Orthodox saints, Gregory of Nyssa. "Know to what extent the Creator has honored you above all creation. The sky is not an image of God, nor is the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor anything of what can be seen in creation. You alone have been made the image of the Reality that transcends all understanding, the likeness of imperishable beauty, the imprint of true divinity, the recipient of beatitude, the seal of the true light. When you turn to him you become that which he is himself...There is nothing so great among beings that it can be compared with your greatness. God is able to measure the whole heaven with his span. The earth and the sea are enclosed in the hollow of his hand. And although he is so great and holds all creation in the palm of his hand, you are able to hold him, he dwells in you and moves within you without constraint, for he has said, ‘I will live and move among them' (2 Corinthians 6.16)."
And if he has such great love for us ought we not also to love one another. It is inevitable that the message moves constantly back and forth between these two poles. There is no way to separate the Cross from the Beatitudes, devotion to Christ from devotion to his image in others. It is from this understanding, not some silly, faddish political correctness that our compassion and tolerance flow. It flows from the heart of God himself.
In the Cornerstone (our monthly newsletter) this month there is a letter sent by a woman whose son, a graduate of BU, suffered a serious mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Three years ago she came to Liturgy here and in her distress met one of our parishioners who showed her great love and compassion. She never forgot his kindness and after three years wrote us a letter and enclosed a generous donation. I was greatly moved by that letter, but in this place such compassion is not rare at all. I know of numerous examples. That is the kind of community we have. It is the surest sign there is that Christ is truly among us.
Let me quote once again from the writings of Olivier Clement.
"The key to spiritual progress according to the greatest exemplars
of ascesis is, therefore, evangelical love for one's enemies. That is
first of all - something very simple, but very difficult - the refusal
to judge, the refusal to assert oneself in despising or condemning
others. Only such an attitude of mind brings detachment
and peace. The rest is secondary."
God showed this very thing to us through the example of his Son whom we are to follow not only in word, but in deed. I encourage you to reach out to one another, to everyone who enters this place and to everyone you meet. All have been honored with the image of God. To love then is not a duty it is an act of recognition.
"Let us," writes St. Augustine, "who wish to contemplate God purify our hearts by faith and heal them by means of peace, for the effort we make to love one another is already a gift from him to whom we raise our eyes."