31 - Saved by Grace Through faith: Third Sunday of Great Lent, April 7, 2013

Hebrews 4:14-5:6

Mark 8:34-9:1

Do you remember what the Lord said to the paralytic whom He healed in last Sunday’s Gospel? It’s what He says to most all those whom He heals. In one form or another He says, after He has healed them: ‘Arise! Take up your bed and go home.” Can you hear this in the command we hear from the Lord this morning? The Lord says, “Whoever wants to follow after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Let him take up his bed and go home.

Do you remember that after He created Adam and Eve, the Lord gave them a command? From the Tree of Life you may eat; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat. (The Tree of Life, by the way – so the Church’s liturgical texts tell us – is the Cross.)

Do you remember the story of the Exodus? After the Lord delivered Israel from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, then He led them through the wilderness and to Mt Sinai, where He gave them His Law that they were to live by as they continued on their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Do you see a pattern here? It is the “pattern” of salvation. We are first raised from death to life, as Adam and Eve were raised from nothing into being; we are first made well, we are saved. Then, we are given a command: “Take up your bed and go home.” “Take up your cross and follow Me – if you want to go where I would lead you.”

This is what St Paul is talking about when he says that we have been saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8): “Even when we were dead through our trespasses,” he writes, “God made us alive together with Christ – i.e., by grace you have been saved!” (Eph 2:5) That is to say, grace is the power of God by which He destroys the power of death that is in us by His death and gives life to those in the tombs; to us, that is, who were dead in our sins and trespasses.

We were spiritual corpses because we were dead in our sins and trespasses. A corpse cannot raise itself and give itself life; and so we could not make ourselves spiritually alive – because we were dead in our sins and trespasses. By the power, the grace, of His Holy Spirit, Christ raises us from the dead in our baptism, when we are united to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection. By His death on the Cross, Christ has destroyed the death that is in us, and by our union with Him in holy baptism, we who were dead are made alive in the grace,the power of His Holy Resurrection.

Now that we are spiritually alive, saved, having received the gift of the power of God’s grace, now we are able to act on the Lord’s command, we have received the power of God’s life-giving grace to “take up our bed and go home,” to “take up our cross and follow Him, if we want to go where He would lead us.

Taking up our cross and following Christ is faith in its living, active essence. Faith is our response to the gift of the grace given us by God, the grace by which He raised us from non-existence into being, and by which He united Himself to us in our death and destroyed the power of death in us so that we could be united with Him in the Life of His Resurrection.

I am hoping to correct what I believe is a misunderstanding of our being saved by grace through faith. Grace is much more than God’s “good favor” toward us. It is the life-creating power of His Holy Spirit by which He creates the world from nothing, by which He raised Jesus from the dead, and by which He raises us who were dead in our sins and trespasses from death to life. And, faith is much more than assent to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Faith is the work of love by which we strive to unite ourselves to Christ. Faith is the living, active, let’s even say, divinely empowered response of taking up our cross in obedience to the command of Christ and following Him because we love Him and because we want to unite ourselves to Him.

So, where would Christ lead us if we would follow Him?

Note that after He was baptized by John in the Jordan, Christ was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. The Gospel says that it was for the purpose of being tempted by the devil; but, I think we could just as truly say that it was for the purpose of triumphing over the devil.

If we are baptized into Christ under the oath to unite ourselves to Christ, we, too, can be sure that we will be led into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil; or rather, in Christ, to triumph over the devil.

The nave of the Church, that space through which you were led from the font of your baptism to the Chalice, is an image of that wilderness into which you are led,
following Christ, after your baptism. It is the wilderness, the desert, the emptiness and loneliness of our soul, an emptiness that we try to fill with the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life that are of the world that is passing away. If we take up our Cross to follow Christ, if we take up the work of uniting ourselves to Christ, as we swore we would do at our baptism, we will be led into this wilderness of our soul. And, there, we will be tempted by the devil to go back to the city; or, like the Israelites in the wilderness to go back to Egypt; or like the Israelites in Canaan, to give in to the seduction of the idols of this world and fill the emptiness and loneliness of our soul with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.

If we follow Christ out of the city and into the ascetic life, the wilderness, of the Church, if we choose to remain in the wilderness, to remain steadfast in the ascetic life of the Church – the life of fasting from the lusts of the world, in the work of cultivating unceasing prayer in the stillness, the “Sabbath rest,” ofour hearts – and not give in to the seduction to go after the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, then we are taking up our cross and denying ourselves and following Christ in the grace, in the life-giving power, of His Resurrection that He gives to us through His Cross. That is how we make incarnate the oath we swore at our baptism, because we are working to unite ourselves to Christ not just in word but in deed, in our heart.

And, look at the nave. In a typical Orthodox Church, the nave is in the shape of a boat – the ark of Noah – or of the Cross; and, it is beautifully adorned with icons of Christ, His Holy Mother, the saints, with candles and flowers and beautiful appointments. The nave in the Church sets before us the desert of our inner life in Christ; the desert of our souls that has been made to blossom like the rose when in the work of faith we take up the Cross and follow Christ to Golgotha, to His Cross, and to the tomb of His Holy Pascha that opens onto the Garden of Eden.

We take up our cross by practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church. They are the “flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross.” This is how we go about in deed and not just in word uniting ourselves to Christ in a death like His. What we are denying when we deny ourselves through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, and what we are dying to when we are united to Christ in a death like His, is death and its terrible fruits: the terror of aloneness and darkness, the stench and ugliness of decay and corruption.

So, if we are dying to death when we follow Christ and take up our Cross and die with Him, we are coming to life in Him; and, all the seeds of His divine life begin to grow in us until they blossom in the beauty of heavenly love, fellowship, light, peace, goodness, and joy.

By the power of divine grace that has been given to us, let us in faith and love take up our cross, the Lenten fast, and follow Christ who first loved us to the joy of His Holy Pascha. Amen.