Source: Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What we have heard this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Mark brings us to a crescendo in the text. How so? Just prior to this pericope Jesus announces for the first time “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). And just prior to this announcement, this first prophecy of His death and resurrection, Jesus asks His disciples: “ ‘Who do men say that I Am?’ And they told Him: ‘ John the Baptist, and others say Elijah and others one of the prophets.’ He asks them: ‘But who do you say that I Am?’ Peter answers Him: ‘You are the Christ.’ And He charged them to tell no one about Him” (8:27-30).
Peter’s confession and the Lord’s prophecy of passion and resurrection help us to understand more deeply this morning’s reading about the cross. There are three conditions of discipleship that are given to us in this morning’s reading. The first condition is self- denial. But this term, self-denial, is often understood as depriving oneself of those things in life that give pleasure and security. We would have a better understanding of self-denial if we went back to the Greek verb aparneomai, which can also mean “to disown.” Therefore to be true disciples of Jesus Christ we must first disown ourselves. We must first recognize that we are not masters of our own lives.
By disowning the self we are able to express our loyalty to Christ. What Jesus tells his disciples, what Jesus is telling us, is that if we are his disciples, if we are the ones who are loyal to him then we will follow him even to where we would not wish to go. This is certainly the lesson Jesus imparts to Simon Peter. Once the disciple has established an oath of loyalty based on self-less love the Master declares: “ ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.” (John 21:18-19).
Loyalty is the second condition of discipleship that expresses a willingness to struggle against all that would compromise our relationship with the Lord. Loyalty based on the disowning of the self is a type of martyrdom that manifests the third condition of discipleship – kenotic love. Jesus empties himself in order to take the form of a servant. Christ Jesus empties himself to be born in the likeness of a man (see Phil.2:5-11) who takes upon his shoulders our sin and mortality. We disown the self, we take up the cross and pledge loyalty to the Master in order to be filled with his very life. To disown the self entails the process of being liberated from the bondage of self-love. Ultimately it is self-love that keeps us from following the Savior. Belonging to the self prevents us from belonging to Christ. Self-love prevents us from taking up his cross and making it ours. As with Simon Peter, kenotic love keeps us on the path of the cross, which may someday lead us to shed our own blood for the sake of our Lord and his gospel.
“Disowning the self” is a very difficult concept let alone a very difficult act. We live in a culture that focuses on the self. We live in a culture that thrives on selfishness. We have to be careful not to give the impression of being unpatriotic, but let us never forget that the engine of capitalism exists to serve the self. We are in a culture that thrives on consumption. And we are the ones who are the consumer. We take, we possess, and so often we waste. We live in a culture where the ego, the self, is idolized. Everyone and everything exist for this idol to remain as the center of the universe.
Therefore when we hear this Gospel, we have to feel its sting. We have to feel its prodding. We have to be able to discern its great challenge, because it is saying something to us that is absolutely contrary to the ethos of our culture. It is proclaiming something absolutely antithetical to how our culture functions. It is presenting to us the good news that tells us that life comes not from consumption, not from selfishness, but from disowning the self, so that the One Who is Life and Light can possess us. Unless we are willing to give up the self, unless we are willing to disown ourselves, we will continue to be filled and nourished by the fallen world bound to sin and death.
To disown the self enables us to see that the cross is not a symbol of defeat or shame, but is in fact the very sign of victory, the victory over sin, the victory over death. To follow the Lord, to follow the Master as good and faithful disciples, as good and faithful students brings us – as I tried to express last week – to the knowledge that goes beyond reason, the knowledge which brings us into the very presence of God, the knowledge which in truth permeates us with the very divinity of God.
The Lord tells us to deny, to disown, the self. Where else do we hear this term “denial” or the disowning of self in relationship to the passion of the Lord? In the courtyard of the high priest Peter denies the Master three times. Now in order to try to present or try to feel the impact of this term “disowning” or “denying” let us reflect on what Peter does. The disciple who confesses Jesus to be the Christ is the one who by his denial disowns his Master. He turns away from his Master. He renounces his Master. So Peter’s denial is not merely, in this case, lying to the people around him. By denying his master he disowns him – he turns his back to him. And as Peter is doing this he enters a state of great suffering while encountering a great internal crisis.
Now we are compelled to ask ourselves if, like Peter, we have disowned our Lord, having confessed again and again with our lips that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The answer is clear. No one here can say that he or she has not denied or disowned the Master. Our acts, our thoughts and our priorities have exposed us. He who is the very foundation of life is so often placed on the periphery of life. This morning’s Gospel calls us to wake up. It is especially pertinent to those who will be baptized, because it is telling the catechumens “Beware!” because if your catechumenate is real and if the parish you will be part of will sincerely take up the cross of Christ, then you and your community will stand contra mundi. For only when the body of Christ is against the world can it exist as an offering for the life of the world. We are called to look upon the cross, displayed in the center of the nave, and discover who we are. For this cross is the very word of discipleship. It is the word that calls us to disown the self. It is the word that beckons us to follow the One Who is Truth even if this leads to our own martyrdom. It is the word that proclaims to us as the body of Christ and to the world that we follow the path that takes us into that great Passover, the Passover of the Lord, the Passover of death to life.
As we sing hymns about the cross, as we venerate the cross, and as we gather here to celebrate the Lord’s Eucharist, let us make sure that the word of the cross is truly our word. As the body of Christ we are given the great responsibility to show that what is considered shameful, what is considered to be a sign of weakness, what is considered to be absolutely irrational in the eyes of the world, is the transfiguring power and glory of God. We have the responsibility to show that the irrational conditions of discipleship lead to new and eternal life with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.