Some non-Orthodox folk put things in services which they think will be fun. Even some Orthodox make changes, cutting out parts for instance. It makes services attractive to people they say. Well services are not about human desires for entertainment. Nor is it about comfort; that would suggest a rather sugary, sentimental view of God. Our tradition is not like that. We centre our worship on God and make it the best we can offer. If we base everything on God, on worshipping Him, then other things follow. Services must be holy and prayerful.
The same sort of choice applies to our lives outside services. We can have a cosy existence or we can deal with the issues God raises in life too. That means reality in the full life of Christ. It means constant repentance and turning to Him. It means that our lives should reflect Him.
Looking at today’s readings we see that this comes at a price. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the righteous of the Old Testament suffered a good deal for following God’s will. We see it in Syria again today, where our fellow Christians suffer horrible things for their faith. They continue to perform acts of charity; they stay in a war torn nation. The world about them may hate but their continuing love is inspirational. But let us be clear, our Patriarchate knows very well what it means to take up a cross to follow Christ.
I have a tremendous regard for the man who ordained me. I think we are blessed to have him as Patriarch, his actions and words are a challenge to us all to avoid complacency. We are commanded to do the same sort of thing as him, in St Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 10 v 38). Christ said: “ … he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
This comes just after His words in verse 32: “Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.“ Christ is confessed in our words and in our actions. If we think about it for a moment this is clear. We face judgement, and we can only hope to embrace the bliss of eternal life if we truly want to be with God. If we truly want to be with God we will love Him, and that means that we will strive to do His will in all things.
The Gospel reading for today contains what might be called hard sayings of Christ. In fact, as ever, He simply speaks truth. There is no point in trying to pretend the Christian life is an easy one. We cannot assume that things are all sweetness and rewards. The trials come, there is real pain and there is real suffering. What we do have is grace and wisdom within the Church by the operation of the Holy Spirit. We need to follow the commands of God; we need to be prepared to put everything in His hands and follow.
We also read that we are to love Him more than father or mother, son or daughter. I do not suggest we ought not to love our families but Christ has to come first. This is amplified by His words about giving up all for Him. “ … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life”.
We need to be careful here. This verse is often taken as promise that if you give you will get richer. Give to your pastor and you will get ever greater blessings some say. That is not at all how we would see it. Certainly God supplies for our needs and in abundance. For instance, we have always received enough to deal with our needs as a Church. More importantly - what we give up is replaced by something of greater value. If we give things up for God we are blessed. It does not always come in monetary terms. We are breaking the control of the world when we surrender things to God. We receive eternal life in exchange for mere possessions. We get infinitely more blessings by giving up selfishness.
Behind all this is a great inversion. Put God first and you are freer to live. His service is perfect freedom. We can have life on our terms, we can have a quieter existence or we can be brave and follow Christ. We can be passengers, or we can be soldiers. We can follow our desires, or we can follow Christ.
The saints are wonderful examples for us. They gave up everything for God. St Columba did not live on Iona because of the beauty of its surroundings. It was not some whimsical nature loving exercise. He was living in hardship and spreading the Gospel. St Paul knew what he faced when he went to Rome, and endured to the end, and a whole army of others endured, from St John the Baptist and the Theotokos herself down to more recent martyrs.
We are challenged by Christ to confess Him before men. The path we are called to follow is that of the saints. We are called to do so in all that we do. We also do this in fellowship with the wider Church.
I want to end with something His Beatitude said recently in an address to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Having mentioned several of the great saints of Antioch he said:-
“As I recall the Antiochian contribution to the life of the universal Church, I assure [you] that, despite the enormous difficulties and the troubles we are going through, we shall remain faithful to the mission of those great fathers; and we shall revere and revive their memory and heritage, which were incarnated all over the Antiochian territory, in Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia and all the East.” In the same way, may we to remain faithful to Christ and to the mission of all the saints for this is our mission also.