What Shall a Man Give in Exchange for His Soul
3rd Sunday of Great Lent – Holy Cross
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters, this is now the midpoint of the fast, the Sunday in which we exalt the All-Holy Cross, the third Sunday of Great Lent.
In this gospel that we read today, there are many important points, and there are important questions which you must answer. I think the most important question is this: What shall a man give in exchange for his soul? The question before it is: What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? But that is sort of, more of a general question.
The question that follows it, what shall a man give in exchange for his own soul, applies to every moment of your life. It's not just a general theoretical question. These are not rhetorical questions.
In Christianity, and any discipline or belief, whether you want to become a doctor or a basketball player, you must make value judgments. You must decide what is important and what is not important. If it's important to become a doctor, then you're going to study when you would otherwise want to watch TV or go out and party. If you were a Christian, you will pray when you don't really feel like praying; you will fast when you don't feel like fasting; you will forgive when you don't feel like forgiving; you will struggle even when you don't feel like struggling. Why? Always because this question should be being answered in your soul: What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
What is worth your soul? What on earth, what can you possibly gain in this world that is worth your soul? There's nothing. The whole world is going away. Everything is temporary. Everything in the world really is filled with vice and with some mixture of pride and hidden agendas and everything else. There's nothing pure in the world. There's nothing worth saving in the world, except those that become like Christ and are not of the world. So in your daily life you should be answering this question every single moment.
The alarm clock rings and you're kind of sleepy and you don't want to get up, but if you don't get up and you wait for the snooze two or three times or maybe you oversleep, then you have to hurry, throw on your clothes and run to work and you miss your prayers. What kind of an exchange was that? Perhaps you'll forget about it, but you've lost something. You had an opportunity for Grace and you squandered it.
You're driving to work and you see someone cut you off. I guess that happens a lot around here. And you want to be angry at that person, perhaps even curse at that person or gesture at them or say something nasty about them. But if you do that, you lose Grace, you lose peace. Your holy Guardian Angel flees from you when you act in such a way. Is that a good exchange? Just to exercise your self-righteous ego for a few moments?
You can answer this question in everything you do, in everything in your life. Everything is an exchange, everything.
In the Great Canon, Saint Andrew talks about being a good trader. We must be a trader, and our currency is our selves. We give of our selves to God, and He gives us eternal life. And everything is a trade. Don't kid yourself. Everything you do has consequences. Every single thing you do and say and think is a trade, is an exchange. Either you do what is good or you do what is bad. There's not any in between. Either our thoughts are holy or they're not.
Now, I know that our thoughts can be mixed with un-holiness. We can try to do a good thing and then feel proud about it. Don't worry about that; just do the good thing and then confess to God that you're proud. But everything is an exchange. As for involuntary sins like feeling proud because you did a good thing – God will help you with those. But you must struggle to make your exchange in the things that you can do, such as fasting, prayer, attending the services and praying at the services, not just being a candle holder at the services, but attending them with attention. And all these things are an exchange for your soul.
It is apropos that on the Sunday of the Cross, this reading would be read. Of course it's about the Cross, and it mentions specifically that we must take up our Cross. Really, fundamentally, if you do not take up your Cross, if you do not exchange that which is worthless for that which is beyond worth, then you cannot be saved.
We live in an age of self-indulgence. I think people were always self-indulgent, but they didn't have as much time or energy to be able to devote to self-indulgence as we do now. Now with better help and technologies, we can truly entertain ourselves and indulge ourselves almost all day long. Even when we are ostensibly at work we can indulge ourselves.
In this age of self-indulgence, we don't know much about denying ourselves, and in fact it seems to be against our modern creed to deny ourselves.
What does it mean to deny our self? It means to make an exchange. When the Lord said, "Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow Me," He repeats the same thought in the question: "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" Because denying yourself is denying things that are worthless, that have no permanence, that lead you away from God. It means self-discipline, it means understanding what's important in life and going about obtaining it.
And we, worldwide, are mediocre as Christians because we don't understand what's important; and when we do have some glimmer of it, we don't really proceed after it with zeal. If we did, our churches would be full to overflowing, and our people would be full of grace and would attract other people to the faith.
Instead, we are sometimes almost like little enclaves because we are mediocre in our Christianity. That's not what God intended for us. He said, deny yourself, take up your Cross and follow Him. Make value judgments every moment of your life.
Is it worth it to break the fast because you're a little hungry and your belly is growling? Because you say there's only cheese and meat around? Is it really worth it? Is it worth losing that grace? Is it worth sullying your soul? Is it worth judging another person? It's an exchange. Every single thing you do is an exchange. May God help you to have this understanding.
I think most of my task as a pastor has been to teach about this exchange, to teach that there are eternal things that matter and we must live for eternity. The whole world wants to live in the moment, but we must live for eternity. And when you look for eternity, you do not get satisfaction immediately. It comes slowly, but when it comes, it never ends. This is unlike the world where gratification can come immediately but then it dissipates, leaving us hungry for more gratification which then will always dissipate and we are always hungry, we are always starving. It is better to pursue things that are eternal. This is what this gospel is speaking about.
May God help you to deny yourself. In order to deny yourself, you have to decide what's important in life. Your ego, your self-gratification, your comfort, all those things are not important. All that's important is Christ and whether or not there is Christ in you. And the only way to have Christ in you is to be able to make judgments, value judgments, to be able to always think of something as: Is this worth exchanging for my soul.
Now, of course, doing one thing or not doing another thing does not obliterate your soul; but I will tell you, you should think of it that way. Every sin is very, very dangerous; because if you sin in a certain way, how do you know that you're going to stop? How do you know that it's not going to affect the rest of your life and bring you far down? You don't know this. The only thing you know is that: If you cleave to God, you will always be safe.
So let's make judgments, moment by moment. Let's always ask this question. Have this question, not in your mind, not something that you think of cognitively; but let it be deeply, deeply in your soul, that you're always making a judgment: Is what I'm about to do or say or more likely think, is that worth doing or saying or thinking, in exchange for my soul? May God help you. Amen.
Transcribed by the hand of Helen, May God save her and her loved ones.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2011 St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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