Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
One of the most difficult things for human persons to face is rejection. Think of a time in your life when you felt rejected. Think of the feelings you had – sadness, betrayal, alienation and aloneness, and, for even a moment, a bitter lack of love and confidence in oneself. Rejection strikes at the heart of who we are. It is painful whether it is by a stranger or acquaintance, and even more agonizing when it is by someone we love and whom we thought loved us.
On the third Sunday of Lent, we venerate the world’s cosmic sign of rejection — the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, the throne of the Crucified God. We often focus on the suffering dimension of the Cross and get caught up in the “physicality” of the event. Yet the Cross is not simply about physical suffering, it is also about rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed it this way: “If we have watered down the Gospel into an emotional uplift which makes no costly demands of us, then we cannot help regarding the Cross as an ordinary, everyday calamity, one of the trials and tribulations of life. We will have forgotten that the Cross is also about rejection. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die!”
Throughout His life, Jesus well knew rejection. His own “earthly” family challenged his leadership (John 7:3-5). People from his home town discounted His identity and ministry. (Mark 3:1-6) Many followers turned away from Him. (John 6:60-71) He was mocked by the spiritual leaders and others. (Matt. 27) He was betrayed by a close friend. (Matt. 26:14) He was rejected, denied, and unjustly condemned (Mark 14:50; Matt 26:69-74) On the Cross, in his last moments, Jesus in his naked humanity felt that even His Father had no use for Him – “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
The Cross seemed to be the final earthly sign that the life and teaching of this Rabbi from Nazareth, was inconsequential and meant precious little to the world. What seemed like a love story that should trace the steps of love between God and His people instead appears to be a history of failures. At this point, God the Father of all, seems to fail in His quest for the heart of man. This is because He opened up His own heart and became vulnerable in the heart of Christ, His incarnate Word. In that apparent moment of desperation, love was vindicated, salvation was ushered in, and we received the great summons to die with Him.
The Cross is not only about rejection. It is a sign of God’s ultimate vulnerability. Seven hundred years before Christ’s birth, the Prophet Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah to come would be despised and rejected of men. (Isaiah 53:3)
C.S. Lewis reminds us: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping your heart intact, you must give it to no one….” The Cross is proof that God opened His heart, became vulnerable, and exposed Himself to absolute, cosmic rejection. “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 2:32) The Cross of Christ is the Cross of rejection. The Cross of Christ allows us to know what it feels like to have our heart pierced. What does this have to do with rejection in our lives?
The Cross tells us there is a cost to discipleship In our lives, often, “discipleship” is one of those “warm fuzzy” terms that sounds pious but is virtually disconnected from our daily living. Here is Jesus’ definition of discipleship: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me before you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:18-21)
At the heart of being a disciple of Jesus is the reality of rejection, of having our heart yearn for a place far beyond this world’s promises, of paying the cost of discipleship. It means that everyday you and I need to Cross-carry ourselves behind Jesus. It means we have to change our lifestyle, to literally rethink our life-priorities, our family rhythm, our habits, to shed all the ways of speaking and relating to others that do not make us vulnerable. Discipleship means “giving our hearts away.” It means that being Baptized is NOT enough!
Our life has to reflect the cost of following the Crucified Lord. It must have an element of rejection in it that reminds us that Christian discipleship is not about being comfortable — It is about being faithful.
How has your discipleship cost you? What have you paid for the privilege of sharing the weight of Christ’s Cross? How have you changed your life, your thinking, how you spend your time, on what you spend your money, how often you pray daily and whether or not you take up God’s Word to read it every day? Remember, if you admit that your discipleship is not costing you, there’s something wrong with your discipleship!
The spiritual writer J.C. Ryle once wrote “A cheap Christianity, without a Cross, will prove in the end a useless Christianity, without a crown.” There are theological trends today that speak of developing a “Christianity without the Cross.” The cross seems to have become an inconvenience once again, a theological stumbling block to be reconciled and then pushed aside as we righteously blaze the path to prosperity, success, reputation, and power.
Followers of this Christianity-without-the-Cross embrace a Christianity sanitized of rejection, suffering, self-denial, and self-discipline. It is preferring the “wide way” to the “narrow gate.” It is discipleship without cost. The Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina faced this Crossless-Christianity head-on: “False prophets are preaching an attenuated form of Christianity, a Christianity of comfortable compromise, taking out the Cross of Christ – and thus every vehicle of our redemption.”
Sunday’s Gospel passage confirms this: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever would save his life, will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) How do I integrate the Cross into my daily life? How do I handle any suffering, pain, or frustration that comes my way? Do I seek to die to my passions and embrace a God-centered way of living or am I caught in the web of self-deception that yielding to my passions causes?
The Cross tells us that God shares our struggles. God’s nature would truly be sadistic if He watched us flail about in our pain, suffering, rejection and woundedness – and did nothing. Looking at the Cross, we often forget one thing: God is with us in our Cross-carrying! There is one quote that expresses this so well, from the Greman theologian Jurgen Moltmann. In itself, the citation is a perfect meditation. “When the Crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. He is not greater than He is in this humiliation. He is not more glorious than He is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than He is in this helplessness. He is not more divine than He is in this humanity. The core of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the Cross is a God event.” (The Crucified God, 1974)
When we venerated the Precious and Life-Giving Cross last week, Christ was speaking directly to our hearts — “Because God loves you completely, He sent me to stretch from earth to heaven – for you.” The self-indicting rejection that Jesus knows is the vehicle through which God’s love and grace are expressed to us all. The rejection that Jesus faced on the Cross, the rejection that we face because of Him, is transformed into something else entirely: an embrace. For Christ’s arms were not fixed in pain to that bloody wood forever, they left the Cross and wrapped around us in Resurrection, and in that moment we knew what it is to be truly saved. To the Crucified God be glory unto ages of ages. Amen!
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