Brothers and sisters, a Christian must always be able to answer questions. You must always be comparing things. Constantly, daily, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, you should be making comparisons and you should be making trades. St. Andrew of Crete, in his Great Canon, urges himself to be a great trader.
What is this that he is trading? What shall we trade?
There is a question — several questions, actually — that the Lord asks us in the Gospel for the Cross today. He says, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” This is not a rhetorical question. This question has a correct answer. Actually, it has two answers that are equally correct.
One answer is that a man can give nothing to deserve salvation, nothing in exchange for his soul. Nothing is worth eternal life. There is no way he can pay God so that he will deserve salvation. That is one answer.
And then, there is another answer, which is the more important of the two, I would say. What can a man give in exchange for his own soul? His life. If a man gives his life, God — God redeems him. We don’t deserve it, we are weak, but we can give our heart to God, give our way of thinking to God, give our priorities to God, give our striving and our effort to God. Not our successes, not our abilities, because we can give nothing in exchange for our soul. We don’t have enough ability to give to God; all God wants of us is our heart, and He provides us with the ability.
And how so? St. Paul very succinctly, tersely, beautifully sums up the meaning of — the reason for — the Incarnation of God. He says “we have a great High Priest, Who has passed into the heavens,” and he goes on to say, “We have not a High Priest Which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Jesus Christ became as we are, the same stuff that we are made of, tempted in all ways as we are, and yet did not sin — and not only did He not sin, but He ascended back to His Father, in the flesh. The things which He tells us to do — and He tells us many things — we are capable of doing because He Himself fulfilled these things. He is not some unreachable, far away High Priest that we cannot identify with. He bore our weaknesses and made them strong. He bore our infirmities and healed them. Everything that He expects of us, He has already done! As a man, he has done these things. If we understand what Christ has done for us, then we will understand how we can give our life in exchange for our soul. There is nothing that we have of ourselves that is worth salvation — to be able to gaze up on our God. But Jesus Christ has made us capable.
Now, how do we go about making this exchange — this exchange of things corruptible for things incorruptible, things temporal for things eternal, things that fade away for things that endure, things that will be forgotten for eternal remembrance? How can we make this exchange, brothers and sisters? This question should be one which you are answering moment-by-moment. We make this exchange by denying ourselves, and taking up our cross, and following our Savior on the same path that He walked and the same path that the saints walked.
And how is it that you deny yourself? You deny those things that are not according to God; your deny those things that are corrupt and that will go away; but trade, trade with you will, your heart, your desire, so that you can create a great treasure in Heaven. The way of the Cross is a way of denial, it is a way many times of sorrow, and pain, but it is a way of enlightenment, and of being invigorated. Good comes out of the soul when God dwells in it, and you desire to do what is right because God dwells within you, and you can think nothing else. Denying yourself, brothers and sisters, is just denying what you already know is going to go away. If you struggle against a lustful thought, that struggle is eternal and will be remembered. If you say one kind word to someone, that will be remembered. The promotions you get, the television programs you watch, the vacations you go on, the foods you eat–all of that will be forgotten. None of that is eternal. But any good work done in the name of God is remembered and is permanent.
Brothers and sisters, in our hearts is a desire for eternal life. All men have it — that is why people want to be famous, that is why people want to leave things to their heirs, that is why people want to do something big in the world — because they have a desire for significance. But that desire for all those things is really just a perversion, a twisting, of that good desire that God has put in our heart to be permanent, to not change, to be perfected, to be whole. This is what the Christian life offers us. Have you ever wondered why at the end of this reading the Lord says “There are some that stand here that shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power?” Why does He say that? He is talking about the Cross, a little bit, and all of a sudden, almost out of the blue, He says “there are some here that will not taste of death, until they see the kingdom of God come with power.” What He is referring to is what happens right afterwards, which is: He goes up on a mountain at night, with Peter, James, and John, and He is transfigured before them, and they see Him as He is, the Uncreated Light, God — so as to show them, and therefore, through them, us, that He is reliable; the things He tells us to do, they will get us where He wants us to go, and where we should desire as well. After He came down the mountain, He looked just like any other man, and when He was on the Cross, He bled like any other man, and He felt pain like any other man, and He died like any other man. But the apostles remembered, and we should remember too, the One Who hangs on the Cross is the One Who hung the stars in the heaven. The One Who suffers on the Cross is the One Who takes away every suffering. The path that He tells us to walk, He walked Himself, and He did more so besides.
Now we understand in secular things that it is nonsensical to pay more or something than it is worth, or that it is nonsensical if there is a great bargain not to take it. Why in spiritual things do we understand the medium of exchange so poorly? Why is it that we pick things that will not last, things that will only indulge ourselves for a moment, for a season, and then they’re forgotten, they’re gone? Why do we do this? The Lord says, “What can a man give in exchange for His soul?” Nothing, and everything. Everything you do should be in exchange for your soul, brothers and sisters, not for your indulgence. Everything you do should be for your salvation. Deny those things that you know are wrong, and live for Christ.
Now, some people are frightened by Christianity, even within the Church, because they think of Christianity as only denial, self denial: “I can’t have any pleasure, I can’t have any fun.” That’s not it at all. If a person follows Christ even a little, inside their heart is such happiness that it is all they desire. Any amount of denial is inconsequential to them. Does an athlete, when he is stretching for the finish, having raced a long race, tired, with pains in his legs and in his lungs–does he care about his physical pain? When he is stretching for the finish, he only sees the victory ahead of him. Everything else is inconsequential; it matters not. For a Christian, we feel pain, things are difficult. But it should not matter. Does a woman, after her travail, regret that she went through pain? Does it matter to her when she has her baby? Not at all. If this were the case, that she had regret, everyone would have only one child. But she is willing to go through the pain again because of the love for that child.
Brothers and sisters, the Christian life is really in many ways no different than secular life. If you put effort into it, and desire, you will be rewarded. Without effort, there is no fruit. An athlete who does not train is mediocre. A scholar who does not study does not know the things that he purports to know. The big difference between the Christian life and secular life is that your efforts, if they are in denying yourself and taking up the cross, are eternal.
The taking up the cross that He is speaking of is not just to be suffering. If suffering happens, so be it. But the taking up the cross is “You, walk as I walk. I have given you an example, you follow it.” When your enemy smites you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to him also. If your adversary has taken your tunic, give him your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two. This is taking up the cross. The Christian life should be mostly described in terms of positives. In the old testament — we were speaking in the Bible study yesterday, that Jesus Christ, when He referred to the Old Testament in His sermon on the mount, He would say “you have heard it said…,” or “the ancients said….” In the old days it was said that you shalt not do this, you shalt not do this, and there were strict penalties for all these things. But when Jesus Christ came with the new revelation, with the fulfillment of the old, with the perfection of the old, which was only barely, barely seen in the old days, Jesus Christ didn’t say thou shalt not, but thou shalt. That’s what the beatitudes are — the Christian commandments.
And all the rest that Christ did showed us how to live. We are capable of it because we have a great High Priest, Who went through everything we went through, and more so besides, and was successful. The only way to appropriate this success, brothers and sisters, is to deny the things that you know in your heart are wrong, and to strive for righteousness. Only the righteous can understand righteousness, only the pure can understand purity. It is a great joy when one is pure. But you can’t understand this joy without striving for it — which means casting off things that are impure and struggling to take up your cross and live the Christian life.
I’ve told you before, I guess I’ll say it a thousand times more: the greatest heresy of our age — the greatest heresy, I believe, of the era since Christ came — is that salvation can be won without labor. What a nonsensical thing. The Lord says “take up your cross.” He will make you able to carry your cross. And in your self-denial, you will be free.
We are in the middle of the fast — a period when we are supposed to be denying ourselves. Some people look at Lent as a difficult, long ordeal. I tell you, I wish lent lasted all the year. I’m never more at peace then during Lent. A time when things kind of settle down — I can see things a little more clearly.
Brothers and sisters, deny those things that are not of God. Struggle to take up your cross. The Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, struggled with His Cross as well, and was victorious. His Cross was much larger than ours; His Cross included our cross. He has already made us capable; He has already walked the path. All we need do is follow Him. What a glorious thing it is to be a Christian. There is no greater name, no greater honor, than to be able to suffer if need be for our Savior. May God grant you true spiritual wisdom to be able to trade that which will not endure for that which will become eternal. Amen.
This sermon was transcribed from one given on the Third Sunday of Great Lent, 2002, at St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church, Dallas, Texas