What shall a man give in exchange for his soul? The Christian life is all about priorities. What are we denying?

The Third Sunday Of Great Lent  – Sunday of the Precious Cross

 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Today is the third Sunday of Great Lent and the day in which we adore the precious and life-giving cross of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

 

In life, if you do anything, if you're to be successful, then there are two main ingredients for this success. One is the knowledge of what you want, how you should do it — you must have understanding. Then you must also have the correct priority based on this understanding — or should I say, based on reality.

 

You must be able to perceive what reality is. If you wish to become extremely good at basketball, then the reality is you must work over and over and over again on the fundamentals of basketball. If you wish to be a musician or a scholar or a Christian, you must work over and over and over again on the fundamentals of that discipline, of that way of life. And you must know what is good and what is bad for your desire, and you must have your priorities set straight, so that you will act in accordance with what is good and cast away what is bad.

 

Today, this reading really speaks about priorities. It speaks about reality, about the ultimate reality. And it poses a question that every one of us should ask of ourselves every day:

"What can a man give in exchange for his soul?" [1]

 

Nothing; nothing is worth as much as the soul. Our Lord said, if He gains the whole world, it's not worth one soul. All that is corruptible, all that is passing away, you can hold onto for a while, but it's like catching wind, because when you die, there's nothing left. So what does it matter if you gain that which is corruptible? What does it matter if you plant flowers in your garden if it's going to be bulldozed the next day? What does it matter when you paint your house, if it's burning? That's what's happening in this world. The world is passing away, so if we hold on to the things of this world, we hold onto that which is corruptible.

 

Underlying the priorities of a Christian is the understanding of reality, the understanding that the world is passing way. And this is not a bad thing; this not a gruesome thing. Who wants to save the world the way it is? With corruption, with death, with sadness, with imperfection, incompleteness, with that longing in our hearts that can't be fulfilled by anything in the world? Who wants to save the world the way it is? Even people that are outside of Christianity don't like the world the way it is. Sometimes they invent things to cover it up, or they lose themselves in some sort of debauchery or some sort of bad opinion or heresy or something of that nature, but basically they’re dissatisfied with the world.

 

But there's a strong illusion that the Evil One puts upon men. And we're willing; we allow it to come into our hearts. The evil one disguises the reality that the world is passing away, disguises the reality of Whom Jesus Christ is, and that to be a Christian is to become like Christ, to struggle, to work, to labor, to sweat, to desire. He disguises this. People want to have power, or wealth, or comfort, or sex, or drugs, or something else that is their passion, something that they think of as life. Now, some people are completely immersed in this thing, in these things of the world. But then others, such as Christians who have not yet perfected themselves, are influenced by the world, by the cares of the world, by their ambitions and their passions.

 

And so constantly we must make an effort to see the difference between reality and what the world presents as reality.

 

The only solution for us to be able to look past all this delusion–and it is powerful delusion, very, very powerful delusion — the only solution is to labor in the Church. That's all. Not labor outside of the Church; labor within the Church. We have to labor where Christ is to be found. And we must recognize who we are — the reality — who we are, why we're here, why we were born. And we must recognize the purity, the dignity of our soul. Our bodies contain that which is of infinite worth. The Lord equates nothing else to the high worth of our soul. He says that everything in the world is not worth one soul. No matter how much money, no matter how much prestige, no matter what goes on in the world — none of it can be bartered for a man's soul. That's a terrible trade.

 

Today's Gospel summarizes how we are to live, and why. It tells us about real reality. Not what the world tells us is real, but about how a Christian should live, how a Christian should think, how he should be. Our Lord said,

 

"Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." [2]

 

It almost sounds like a riddle. To many people in the world this makes no sense whatsoever, and unfortunately also to many Orthodox Christians. They don't understand it. "What do you mean, deny myself?"  We spoke about this a little bit last night. God knows that we have built into our character a desire for survival, a desire for life. We don't wish to do harm to ourselves; we wish to protect ourselves. We don't wish to harm our loved ones; we want to nurture them and help them. This is not the kind of denial that's being spoken of.

 

The denial that's being spoken of is the denial of what we think of as ourselves that is actually cruel delusion, when we define our lives by how we live in the world, by our passions, by our lusts, by our desires. No, we are far above those things.

 

We are created for a purpose. We are created to know the Holy Trinity, intimately, and the whole purpose of our time on earth is to know God. And I tell you, you cannot know someone without loving them. And you cannot love someone without desiring to be like them.

 

Even in a secular sense we understand this. We love people as far as we should love all men, but I mean in the context of loving someone intimately, a husband or a wife or our children. We see that which is good in them, and we rejoice in it.  And we might see a friend or a spouse and say, "There's something that is good and wholesome in them, and I want to emulate them. I want to become like that." It's our nature to want to return good for good. That's why it says, "We love Him because He first loved us." [3] God loves us, and we return that love. This is the reality of life.

 

God also said here, whosoever will. In other words, whosoever desires. If you desire, I will fill you, says the Lord Jesus Christ. If you do not desire, I will not force you. But deny yourself. Deny those things in you that are not in keeping with who you are. Deny those things that are on the outside of you. Don't let them come inside — the passions and lusts and all the things that will fall away.

 

But I tell you, He said, if you wish, if you desire. Compel yourself! He gives you the choice, but as a man you shouldn't give yourself the choice. Over and over you should compel yourself to do good and to avoid evil. It's a choice of the will. God will help you with this choice, absolutely, but you must make this choice. You must decide to keep the fasts, you must decide to say your prayers, you must decide the give alms, you must struggle against passions. And if you do these things, God will strengthen you and help you in them. But He won't force you.

 

And He says, take up his cross. He tells us to take up our cross. What does this mean? This means to work, to labor, but to labor with a purpose. No man digs a hole for no reason; he digs a hole for a purpose, in order to plant a tree. We labor so that we will become like our Savior, so that we will recognize Him and He recognize us, so in the eighth day when He judges all of mankind, He will say, "I know you. Come, join the angels and the saints." And He will not say those words, those terrible words, "Depart from Me, because I don't know you." [4] We don't want to hear that.

 

The only way we can know Christ is to live like Him, to become like Him. And we have no excuses. Our Savior lived just like us. What does the epistle say today? It says,

"For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." [5]

 

He fulfilled everything that He tells us to fulfill, to the letter, and beyond the letter. So we have the capability in Christ to live godly, holy, pure lives – but with effort, by taking up our cross, by making an effort.

 

So, deny yourselves.

 

Don't deny yourself of godliness;

deny your passions and affirm good works.

Deny things earthly,

and think on things heavenly.

Deny grumbling and laziness,

and be obedient.

Deny illusion, all that is within the world that is illusory,

and affirm truth.

Feed on truth,

which is to be found in the Church.

Deny corruption,

and strive for perfection.

 

This is our life, and I tell you, when you give into your passions, whatever they are, no matter how big or how small, you are denying reality. Do you realize that? You are denying reality. Now a man who is at the edge of a cliff and says, well, you know, I think I have got anti-gravity shoes on, and jumps off the cliff, is crazy, and everyone would realize he is denying the reality of gravity. Well, just as real is the pernicious effect of sin in our life. And every single time that we sin, we deny that which is within us. That's craziness. It's actually insanity. To sin is to be insane. Well, God will heal us, though, of our insanity, if we struggle, if we take up our cross.

 

Now the cross is bitter, isn't it? The cross is a bitter way to die. It was known as the most bitter way to die in ancient times; it was reserved only for the arch-criminals. A Roman couldn't be put to death on the cross — only strangers and foreigners. It was a very painful way to die, and it was shameful. Well, medicine can be painful and can be difficult to take. But if we don't take it we won't get well. So our Lord showed that He could take the bitterest of medicines for our salvation. So we should be willing to quaff a little bit of bitterness from our cup.

 

I tell you, it's not really so bitter, because once you start to taste the sweetness of Christ, you want nothing else. Once you feel His yoke setting easily on your shoulders, and you're at peace, you wish to labor. You wish to work harder. You wish to become better. It's from within, not from without. It's from inside a man, because that's where God lives, and that's where God enlightens. He lives in the heart and He enlightens us, and we wish to become better, and better, and better. And if we do become better, it's because we have an understanding of what God will do for us and what He's already done, and we deny those things that are not in keeping with that. That's the meaning of this phrase, deny yourself.

 

Then our Lord continues,

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it." [6]

 

To those in the world, another difficult riddle. How can I lose my life? My life is precious to me, says the world. Yes indeed, your life is precious, but eternal life is what God is talking about here.

 

He says, if you lose that which is outside of eternal life, that which is of the world, if you lose the things that are going to go away anyway, then you will save your life.

 

See, there are two lives here. One is a life in the world, a life of lust and depravity and  heedlessness, and the other life eternal, of perfection. And if you lose those things that are heedless, those things that are depraved, then you will save your life. If you lose your life for My sake, He says, and the Gospel, you will save your life. Lose your life for the sake of what God has taught you.

 

And I tell you, you only learn the Gospel inside the Church, because that's where it is preached. So all that is within the life in the Church, if you live that life, and struggle, then God will save. It's rather frightening. The Church understands about passions very well, and in hell, all men will still have their passions. That's what it means when it says that they will be thrown into "the fire that shall not be quenched, where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched" [7], where Christ describes hell in the Gospel of St. Mark. You'll still have all your passions when you're in hell. If a man has a desire for drink, or for something illicit, he'll still desire all those things, but he'll have no way to quench his desire, and they'll burn him for the rest of eternity. That's a terrible, terrible thought. But if you lose your life in this world for the sake of the gospel, then God will save you.

 

Losing your life means conquering your passions, denying the evil that's within you, and I tell you, it comes only from understanding reality, actual reality. You know, recently, I was in New York City, and I was rather amazed. It was a very invigorating place. But it was so full of illusion. I saw all these things all over, and it was such illusion. We even have words for it — the "Madison Avenue mentality", about advertising and such. But you can have illusion everywhere, in Dallas, or somewhere else, because illusion is when we allow ourselves to believe that which is untrue. And the only way that you can really believe is by living the life.

 

Philip said to Nathaniel, come and see, because he asked, "Can any good come out of Nazareth?" [8] You have to live it; you have to experience God. If you don't experience Him, then these are just words, then they are just rules. Why in the world should I fast? It smells so good; why should I fast? Why should I not have these thoughts that are only in my head; how is it bothering anyone else? Those are the kind of thoughts a man has when he doesn't understand who Christ is. You must live the life to know who Christ is.

 

And Christ asks a question you must ask of yourself every day. This is a terrible question. I tremble when I read it, every time.

 

"What shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" [9]

 

Nothing; nothing is equal to the soul. If we lived according to these words, we would not sin, at all. We'd really believe. We’d live as Christians. But we allow ourselves to be deluded over and over and over again. So we must renew ourselves over and over and over again. God knows about our infirmity, and He will save us, if we struggle, take up our cross, and follow him in truth. Ponder this question often. Fear your depravity. Not just because you realize it's a sin, but because if you continue in it, you'll be separated from God, eternally.  That's a terrifying thought. Every man should fear it. Not to fear God's judgement, so much, but to fear that you will miss the sweetness of God. That's what you should fear.

 

And then Christ says some other hard words.

 

"Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and My Word in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." [10]

 

He uses adultery here to show betrayal, dishonesty, uncleanness. Adultery is one of the most unclean of sins, because what is it? It's denying intimacy. When two people love each other and have a deep, intimate bond with each other, and when one or the other denies that bond, it is a terrible, terrible sin. Well, we indeed have an intimate bond with our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. He has given us the grace of baptism. He gives us his Holy Mysteries, and all of the life of the Church for our benefit. And when we deny him by the way we live, we are adulterers. We commit adultery.

 

So don't deny Christ, either by your attitude, by your priorities, by indulging in things that you know are unclean, or by fear of another's opinion. You know, there is that meaning to this phrase as well — when people are afraid to show that they are Christians, because especially in our country here, people sometimes think you're crazy when you're an Orthodox Christian. Too strict about fasting, or this or that. You make the sign of the Cross? What for? All these things. Or, you follow that calendar? Why do you do that? That's not the real calendar. All these questions. We should not be ashamed. God has enlightened us and planted us in his vineyard, and we must bear fruit.

 

God help you all to see reality, to see what God has done, and then, to set your face forward, to be on the plow and not to look back, but to set your priorities, to live the Christian life. God help you. Amen.

 

 



 

 

Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas

 

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Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:1-6

 

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. {15} For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. {16} Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. {5:1} For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: {2} Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity. {3} And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins. {4} And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. {5} So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee. {6} As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.

 

 

Mark 8:34-38

 

And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. {35} For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. {36} For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? {37} Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? {38} Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. {9:1}  And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.

 



[1] Cf. Mark 8:37  "Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

[2] Mark 8:34, partial

[3] 1 John 4:19

[4] Cf. Matthew 26:31-45, and especially, Luke 13:24-27: "Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. {25} When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: {26} Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. {27} But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity."

[5] Hebrews 4:15

[6] Mark 8:35 

 

[7] Cf. Mark 9:42-48  "And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. {43} And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: {44} Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. {45} And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: {46} Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. {47} And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: {48} Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."

 

[8] John 1:46  "And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see."

[9] Mark 8:36-37

[10] Mark 8:38

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