September 24, 2016 Length: 13:50
Fr. Gregory begins with the children and the Fr. Emmanuel gives the sermon from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St Mark about how to become a disciple of Christ—how to become a person who learns from Christ.
For the Children:
A troubled and burdened man prayed and prayed that God would lift his burden. Day after day he prayed that his life would be easier and he begged for God to do something.
One day, Jesus came to the man and asked, “My child, what troubles you?” The man replied that his life was full of difficulty and stress and that it had become too much to bear. He again asked for help stating that he just couldn’t continue to go on.
Jesus, feeling the man’s sorrow, decided that help was in order. The man was so happy that his prayers were about to be answered that his burden already felt lighter.
Jesus took the man to a room and stopped in front of the door. When he opened the door, what the man saw was amazing. The room was filled with crosses; little crosses, big crosses, giant crosses. The man, bewildered, looked at Jesus and asked how this would help him. Jesus explained that each cross represented a burden that people carry; small burdens, big burdens, giant burdens—and every burden in-between.
At this point, Jesus offered the man the opportunity to choose his burden. The man, so excited that he was finally able to have some control over his life, looked around the room for just the right cross. He saw a tiny little cross way back in the corner. It was the smallest cross in the room. After a bit of thought, he pointed to the cross and said, “That one, Lord. I want that one.” Jesus asked, “Are you sure, my son?” The man quickly replied, “Oh, yes Lord. Most definitely, yes.”
Jesus turned to the man and replied, “My child, you have chosen your own cross. It is the burden you already carry.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is One. Amen.
The Gospel today from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St Mark is about how to become a disciple of Christ—how to become a person who learns from Christ. The word “disciple” is from the Latin word disciplus which means “a learner.” That is the task before us today—to learn from Christ.
In the first verse of this Gospel, Christ calls “to Him the multitude with His disciples, and says to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Notice that Christ is speaking not only to those who have already made a decision to follow Him—to those who are already his disciples—but to everyone, to everyone who is willing to listen to Him. That’s us! Whatever our present commitment to Christ, the fact that we are here today in this church is evidence that we are trying to listen to Him.
OK. So we are ready to listen. What does Christ tell us? He suggests we each take three actions: One—“Deny yourself.” Two—“Take up your cross.” Three—“Follow Me.” Personally, I find the first request the most difficult. Deny myself; be self-disciplined. Don’t do the first thing that comes into my mind, but pause and consider what is the best way to act both for myself and for those around me. St Augustine, who was born in North Africa in the fourth century, also found it very difficult to deny himself as a young man. It took him many years to find out that a life of worldly pleasure was not fulfilling. In his Sermons on New Testament Lessons 46.1, St Augustine preached: “How hard and painful does this appear! The Lord has required that ‘whoever will come after Him must deny himself.’ But what [the Lord] commands is neither hard nor painful when He Himself helps us in such a way so that the very thing He requires may be accomplished. . . . For whatever seems hard in what is [requested], love makes easy [end of quote].”
Perhaps St Augustine is right, “whatever seems hard in what is requested, love makes easy.” However, I don’t find it “easy” to deny myself. However, love of Christ and of other people does make it possible for me to deny myself. I think St Augustine had a similar experience. He did not find it easy to deny himself. It took him many, many years and much love and guidance and prayer from his mother, St Monica of Hippo, and his teacher and mentor, St Ambrose.
A fifth century saint, St Caesarius of Arles, now in southern France, strongly supported St Augustine with a similar interpretation—a similar exegesis—of this gospel passage about denying yourself. Caesarius wrote: “What [Christ] commands is not difficult, since He helps to [accomplish] what He commands. . . . Just as we are lost through loving ourselves, so we are found by denying ourselves” [end of quote]. St Caesarius insisted on applying this idea of denying himself to others. At the age of 13, he entered a famous monastery at Lerins, and was put in charge of the food cellars. The future saint thought that the monks were eating too much, so he refused to give them as much food as they wanted. The abbot removed Caesarius from his position; at which point the future saint began to starve himself in protest, but the abbot transferred him to Arles where a friendly bishop understood him better.
St Caesarius later taught a very sound interpretation of this second action being urged by Christ—take up a cross. St Caesarius preached: “What does this mean, ‘take up a cross’? It means . . . [you should] bear with whatever is troublesome; and in this very act [you will] be following [Christ]” [end of quote]. Note that we are not being urged here to take up the Cross of Christ, but rather to take up any cross—any problem—in our own lives which is troubling us. Another great teacher, Tertullian, born in North Africa like St Augustine, was quite explicit about the meaning of “your cross.” Tertullian wrote bluntly: “‘Your cross’ means your own anxieties and your sufferings in your own body, which itself is shaped in a way already like a cross.” In other words, when we spread our arms and accept life as it is, we each already have our very own crosses—big or small. We each suffer in some way—in our bodies, in our minds and in our spirits. We each have problems and choice: we can admit our sufferings and face them with prayer and with the help of others or we can pretend that we don’t have any problems, and they will just go away. I can assure you from many years of experience that those problems—whether of the body or the mind or the spirit—are very unlikely to go away unless I admit that a problem or experience of suffering is bothering me and I pray to Christ to help me to face that suffering, and, if possible, remove it.
Now, if we wish to be disciples of Christ, and we are willing to deny ourselves and to take up our own crosses, a final challenge awaits us—to follow Christ. How can we do that? I close with the advice of St Caesarius: “To what place are we to follow Christ,” he asks, “if not [to] where He has already gone? We know that He has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow Him. . . . By ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise. . . . One who [seeks to be] in Christ ought to walk as He walked. Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as He was humble. Do not scorn his lowliness if you wish to reach his exaltation [that is, to be lifted up]. Human sin made the road rough. Christ’s Resurrection [and Ascension] levelled it. By passing over [that rough road] Himself [Christ] transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway. Two feet are needed to run along this highway; [those two feet] are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top [that is, to heaven]—well,” preached St Caesarius, “the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing” [end of quote].
So today, as we seek to follow Christ, let us each take that first step of humility and see what path Christ has prepared for each of us.