Homily preached by Abba Seraphim during Vespers
at Minster Abbey, Thanet, Kent on 14 September 2002
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, One God. Amen.
“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”
– 1 Corinthians I: 23-24
Such were the responses to the gospel when the Apostle Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth and, in spite of two thousand years having intervened, the reaction is still very much the same today. The Gospel of Christ is the power and the wisdom of God to those who accept it, but it is dismissed as foolishness by the worldly and a stumbling block to the religious.
The Greek word translated as “stumbling block” in the Authorised Bible is skandalon, from which derives our English word scandal. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Jews seek signs because that is what the prophets gave them, although even then they did not believe. Their expectation of the Messiah was of one who would triumph over Israel’s enemies and establish Jerusalem as the centre of the world. Death by crucifixion was shameful and unthinkable. This was the Roman means of execution for the lowest of criminals. Their Messiah was to be exalted, not humiliated. Today it is one of the reasons for the Jewish rejection of our Lord, whilst Islam, although according him the status of a great prophet, refuses to admit his death on the cross. For Muslims the sovereignty of God would not permit His servant to suffer such an ignominious death, but would deliver him from his enemies.
Greek speculative philosophy generally regarded the realm of the spirit and ideas as good and vastly superior to the inferior world of matter. With such a world view the whole idea of a God who became man and assumed the limitations of mortality by assuming a material body subject to suffering and death, was unthinkable. For Greeks salvation was through the mystical reception of knowledge, which would free them from the bondage of the physical world and enable them to share in the spiritual realm. The whole cycle of creation and redemption was unthinkable to them.
The modern secular world is not very much different. It can accept Jesus as a good man, as a philosopher and teacher who suffered for his beliefs, but we find that the doctrines of the incarnation, the virgin birth, the crucifixion and physical resurrection are dismissed as irrational and not in accord with the supremacy of human reason. In Russia during the Communist era, works of art showing the Resurrection were displayed in art galleries or museums with a caption such as “the Apparition”, a subtle change of meaning but one which divested it of dogmatic content and reduced it to the level of classical mythology. I am reminded of a friend who went to a jewellers to buy a neck cross for his niece and was offered a choice by the shop assistant of a plain cross or “one with the little man.” Such a story would be blasphemous if it was deliberate and uncommon, but it is simply the appalling reality of our secular society, even after more than half a century of state-run compulsory religious education.
At the heart of the Christian mysteries there is usually a paradox: the Creator who becomes a creature; the virgin who gives birth but remains a virgin; of the way to life being through death; of the poor being rich; of the weak being strong. To the unbeliever it is simply contradiction and disingenuous, proving the foolishness of the Gospel, and the credulity of Christians. Saint Paul names them as “disputers” and “wise men” – the Greek sophos, giving rise to the English sophist, a captious or fallacious reasoner, a quibbler. To the believer, however, the wisdom of God is not the same as the wisdom of this world. Origen states that it is the world’s wisdom that is foolish “even though the simplicity of God’s wisdom makes those who have it appear foolish in the eyes of the world. Believers have received this divine wisdom and thus in this world appear to be fools.” It is not surprising that the Orthodox Church has a whole category of saints known as “Fools for Christ.”
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Philippians (II: 5-11), explains that Christ Jesus, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” He who was nothing less than God from eternity, voluntarily emptied Himself of His glory and assumed flesh, a flesh subject to every human propensity, sin only excepted, and the experience of anguish, pain and ultimately death. This Kenosis, or ‘emptying’ demonstrates perfectly the incomparable wonder of the love of God for creation, St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “He became like us that we might become like him. The work of the Spirit seeks to transform us by grace into a perfect copy of his humbling.”
There is a danger, even among Christians today, to regard material things as inherently inferior to spiritual; an echo of ancient heresies that taught that matter was evil. Certainly the whole of creation is in a fallen condition through the advent of sin, with its legacy of death and decay, but in Christian teaching matter is not to be discarded, but redeemed. The incarnation was not merely the assumption of human nature by God, but also extends to the potential for all created things to be transformed and transfigured. Through the power of the Holy Spirit bread and wine become the Lord’s Body and Blood; persons and objects anointed with the Holy Myron become sanctified and capable of bearing grace. In Orthodox theology the holy ikons are much, much more than edifying religious art. The Risen Christ was raised in His Body, bearing for all time the marks of His passion, just as we also shall be resurrected in our bodies. Pope Shenouda has observed that in making the sign of the cross we declare our belief in the Incarnation and Redemption. In signing ourselves from forehead to chest, we remember that God came down from earth to heaven and from left to right, that we have passed from darkness to light, from life to death.
That humbling of which Saint Cyril speaks, means that we also must bear our cross with the Lord. In the Gospels the Lord invites anyone who desires to come after him to deny himself, “take up his cross” and follow Him (Matthew XVI: 24 & Mark VIII: 34). There is no doubt of the imperative nature of this command as He also warns that “whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke XIV: 27) This simple message, summed up in the old maxim, “No cross, no crown” inspired the apostles in proclaiming the Gospel; it has sustained the faith of Christians through times of fierce persecution and personal tragedy; it has animated the monastic fathers and ascetics. In the Coptic tradition the monastic fathers are known as “the cross bearers.” Following in the footsteps of the Lord, the saints and martyrs of every age, and still today, have willingly borne their crosses.
St. Paul, writing to the Galatians says, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians VI: 14). For Saint Paul the ‘World’, meaning ambition, human praise, position, reputation, wealth, all the things by which we are judged to be successful, is dead to him and he talks of another kind of death, dying to the world itself. It is a determined renunciation of everything in our lives which we know is contrary to God’s will. It is an absolute challenge because once accepted there can be partial or half-hearted response. The late A.W. Tozer, an American pastor, vividly reminds us that the cross is a symbol of death:
“It stands for the abrupt, violent death of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.”
Saint John Chrysostom highlights the paradox that it is in the very offence of the cross that we discover its call. He says, “The gospel produces the exact opposite of what people want and expect, but it is that very fact which persuades them to accept it in the end. The apostles won their case, not simply without a sign, but by something which appeared to go against all the known signs. The cross seems to be a cause of offence, but far from simply offending, it attracts and calls believers to itself.”
The message of the cross has such a power because it is a crucial component in the economy of salvation. Just as the cross of the Lord preceded His Resurrection, so our dying to sin and submission to His purpose, leads to our new life. Symbolised by our immersion in the baptismal waters, we rise to become partakers of the divine nature and incorporated into the Body of Christ. We suffer with Him that we may be glorified together (Romans VIII: 17); He tells us that if we suffer reviling, persecution and falsehoods for His sake we should “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” because our reward in heaven will be great (Matthew V: 11-12). Indeed, the glory we receive through bearing the cross is beyond our comprehension. Saint Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans VIII: 18).
From an object of destruction and shame, the cross has become the emblem of pride and respect. We raise it high over our churches; we decorate our most sacred objects with it whether they are buildings, or fabrics; we suspend it around our necks; in the Coptic tradition it is tattooed on the wrists and hands of infants; in the Oriental Orthodox churches the priests and bishops always carry a handcross to confer blessings; we begin our prayers with it; we use it to bless our food; it is to be found in all services and sacraments of the church and in the benediction of parents to their children. It is an ubiquitous and potent symbol. In itself it is a means of grace. Saint Macarios of Egypt declares, “After the sign of the cross, grace immediately thus operates and composes all the members and the heart, so that the soul from its abounding gladness seems as a youth that knows not evil.” Indeed it drives away evil. Saint Antony the Great speaks of defending himself by faith and the sign of the cross and Saint Athanasios the Apostolic says, “By the sign of the cross all magic ceases; all incantations are powerless; every idol is abandoned and deserted; all irrational voluptuousness is quelled, and each one looks up from earth to heaven.” Many Coptic Christians proudly bear the name Salib, which means cross.
However, it is of little use expressing such beliefs without them manifesting their fruits in practical expression. The Apostle Paul tells the Galatians (V: 24) that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” This imposes an obligation of strict discipleship on the Christian: the restraint of our senses, the reining in of our tongues, the control of our thoughts, the checking of our appetites. We remember also our sins, which the Lord has borne on the cross so that we might be stirred to deeper repentance. Like the penitent thief we desire to make a good confession and beseech the Saviour, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.”
I have always rather liked the apocryphal legend portrayed in Carracci’s famous painting “Domine quo vadis ?” (which also inspired a Hollywood film) showing the Apostle Peter encountering the Lord on the Appian Way. Saint Peter had left Rome to escape persecution but met his Lord bearing the cross heading for the city. When he reverently enquired, “Lord, where are you going?” he received the reply, “I go to be crucified anew.” The legend states that Saint Peter turned back to Rome to face martyrdom, through death on the cross. The Apostle Peter, being a Galileean fisherman, is surely one of those whom Saint Paul refers to as being “low and despised in the world” (1 Corinthians I: 28) but who was chosen by God to shame the wise. When our Lord was arrested he gave in to fear and weakness and denied his Lord. Later, as a witness to the Resurrection and empowered by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we see a changed man when he eloquently addresses the crowds on the Day of Pentecost. “God chose the weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians I: 27). To those who are called and triumph through bearing the cross, Christ is truly the power of God and the wisdom of God. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians I: 25).