Fr. Gregory Hallam · September 20, 2011
What did Jesus mean when He said to take up our cross and follow Him? Fr. Gregory teaches about the principle of losing ourselves to gain Christ.
This week Father Deacon Christopher and I were manning the University chaplaincy stall at the New Students Fair. Opposite us and a hive of activity was the National Hindu Students Forum. The young men and women working at this stall were wearing the same sweatshirt with a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi emblazoned on the back. It read:
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Do you recognise this saying from today’s gospel? Our Lord said:
“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Gandhi was a great admirer of Christ and, therefore, it is perhaps not surprising to see him reworking one of our Lord’s sayings. Although the explicit Christian content… “My sake” (that is, Christ’s sake) and “the gospel” has been removed, the essential kernel of the teaching is retained. If we want to find ourselves and life, we need to shift our attention away from ourselves so that, losing ourselves utterly in God and in the service of others, we achieve our true dignity as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. There is a bittersweet aspect, however, to Gandhi’s admiration of Christ, which perhaps explains why he never became a Christian himself.
When the missionary E. Stanley Jones met the great man he asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to reject becoming his follower so adamantly?” Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”
So how do we become more like Christ? This is at once both a difficult and easy question to answer. It is easy because the gospel teaching is plain. We must lose ourselves, that is, we must put to death our ego, so that Christ might live within our crucified self. It is difficult, however, because we don’t want to die; by which I mean, we don’t want to dethrone ourselves in the heart so that Christ may reign exclusively.
This is what Jesus meant by taking up our cross and following Him. It may not involve a sacrifice of one’s physical life for the sake of Christ and the gospel, although many martyrs have testified to the necessity of that ultimate surrender when circumstances call for that. Taking up one’s cross, however, always involves the courageous act of living a self-less life. Those who do so learn the secret of the kingdom of God. To save one’s life is to lose it but to lose one’s life is to save it and indeed to save many others in the net of a selfless love. If Gandhi had seen this selfless love in those who professed to believe in Christ maybe history would have worked out differently. Clearly the challenge that is set before us in the gospel is what concerns us all today. In the Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, will we lift high the cross in the lowliness and humility of our loving attention to God and to the needs of others? This is the true holiness that will convert the world to Christ. Nothing is more important for effective evangelism than a holy life centred upon Christ and wholly given to His service in unconditional love for one and all; loving indeed as He loves, without limit even to the cross. No pressure then!
If we are to make progress we must be practical about this. First we must pray that the Lord would strengthen and deepen our faith. We cannot possibly set ourselves to perform His work unless we trust and love Him and depend upon Him utterly; which is what faith is. With that faith there will come all that is needful for our Christian living. The Holy Spirit will then have, by our own invitation, unrestricted access both to guide and empower our loving. He will teach us what we should say and whom we should serve. He will teach us when we should act and when we should refrain from acting; when we should talk and when we should keep silence. We will not, however, be continually referring back to Him in some sort of tedious question-and-answer session, for that would both paralyse our action and trivialise the relationship. No, a heart, a mind and a life that is securely rooted in Him will act and speak in a gracious manner according to His will naturally. He loves us and wants our lives to be fruitful for Him.
After faith, and second, but not in importance, is a regular and faithful reception of the Holy Mysteries and especially the Holy Communion in the Liturgy. So many Orthodox Christian lives are rendered ineffective because some naïvely assume that by staying away from the chalice they are responding to their unworthiness before God. If you’re one of those, then as your priest, allow me to tell you something! You will never be worthy to receive Holy Communion, but by His mercy, grace and favour towards you, He invites you anyway. He longs to feed you with Himself in the Body and the Blood. Why do some resist? This is a tragedy. Of course we should be prepared, but Christ does not lay before us anything burdensome, just a little fasting, confession and prayer. Are we really saying that we cannot make this sacrifice? I really do hope not for that is a very dangerous situation to be in.
Anyway—to the third requirement. We must ask God to give us vision to see the world as He sees it and to act according to that vision and in His will for its salvation, for the salvation of all. “Church” is the place where the vision forms and the empowerment comes. The world is a place where even small words and deeds done in Christ’s Name and according to that vision can be mightily powerful and transformative. We don’t make the difference, He does; but He can only do this if we are ready to become His willing servants and co-workers. Idle workers get the sack! Keep your employment with God that He may reward you in due time with a share in the beautiful fruit of a transformed creation. This is truly a new creation in that it will endure because it has been refashioned by Christ’s resurrection and by the hands of many workers, the saints, you and I. So let’s lose it that we might find it. Let us exchange the death of pride for the glory of God so that the righteous, like Gandhi, may not be scandalised by our poor witness.