On the Inevitability of Suffering: A Sermon on the Cross
By New Hieromartyr John, Archbishop of Riga and Latvia, who, for his unyielding witness to the Truth suffered many persecutions and was burned alive by communist assassins in the night of October 12, 1934.
From that time, Jesus began to show to His disciples that it is necessary for Him to go away to Jerusalem, and to suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and to be killed, and to be raised the third day. And Peter took Him to himself and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘May God be gracious to Thee, Lord; this in no wise shall be to Thee.’ But He turned and said to Peter,
Get thee behind Me, Satan; thou art an offense to Me, for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.
This revelation of the Lord concerning the sufferings which awaited Him, struck His disciples like a thunderclap from a clear sky. Earlier, He had told them that His path was also their path: The servant is not greater than his master.
He who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.
And in the lives of Christ’s true disciples there is a time of suffering passion when each must enter his own Jerusalem, ascend his Golgotha and the fateful cross, and take up the fateful cup – even unto death.
Even the sons of this world each have their own Golgotha. Unforeseen and uninvited, suffering enters the house. You must suffer whether you like it or not. The bitter “must.” This “must” is bitter even for the faithful disciple of Christ. And the cross of suffering frightens even him. In his soul is heard the voice of Peter: ‘have mercy on yourself, do not let this happen, protect yourself.’ And this is not surprising, for after all, the Great Sufferer Himself prayed:
If it be possible, take this cup from Me
Mt. 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22:42.
This “must” is altogether necessary and we are powerless to stand against it.
From that time, Jesus began to show to His disciples that it is necessary for Him to go away to Jerusalem, and to suffer many things….
If the way of the Lord leads to Jerusalem, if His fate is to be decided by the scribes, the Pharisees, the elders, then it is natural that He must suffer and be killed. This Jerusalem towards which Christ directed His steps is not the Heavenly Jerusalem, but an earthly city filled with the spirit of this world, which had fallen away from its God, not recognizing, not comprehending the visitation of the Lord.
This is the same Jerusalem which, at the altar of the Lord, killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to it [cf. Mt. 23:37; Lk. 11:47-51]. And the world, my brothers, even unto this day stands on that same foundation. Perhaps it does not have the same outward appearance. Nowadays they do not crucify people on crosses as they did Peter, nor are people stoned like Stephen. People have become too indifferent towards faith to suffer for its sake.
Our path is less rocky and whoever murmurs at the harshness and the evil of this world should know that he is far from suffering unto blood. Nevertheless, now as never before, the words of the Lord contain a sacred truth:
If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world–but I chose you for Myself out of the world–therefore the world hateth you
It cannot do otherwise.
The natural desire of man’s heart is to live at peace with everyone. Many a youthful heart has decided to follow the path of reliance on oneself: ‘I want to get along with everyone; I must not antagonize anyone.’ But even the best-intentioned soon realize that this is impossible. Even the meekest lamb is sure to meet on his way a ferocious wolf that says: ‘You are a thorn in my side.’
He who believes must confess his faith. He who desires to serve God in this world must act according to his faith. But every confession inevitably arouses antagonism and every action is sure to meet with hostility. To see that his honest persuasion and striving are not recognized by the world; that his good deeds are everywhere met with opposition; that there where he sows only love, he must reap evil – this is obviously very grievous to the follower of Christ. And he is often ready to ask, together with his Master: ‘What evil has been done to you? Or how have I offended thee?’ [from the hymns of Great and Holy Friday of Passion Week]. The truth which you proclaim and which you confess and which the world cannot gainsay, or the righteousness manifest in your life which silently reproaches the world, or the peace of the Lord written on your face which the world cannot forgive, or the heavenly other-worldliness of your behavior which shames and accuses their earthly way of life – this is how you have offended the world. And the world would sooner pardon you of ten vices and crimes which get you on a level with others, than forgive one good deed which elevates you above the rest. Why did Cain murder Abel? Because Cain’s actions were evil and the actions of Abel were good and righteous [cf. 1 Jn. 3:12]. Why did the scribes and Pharisees condemn the Savior? Because He was Light and darkness cannot abide the light [cf. Jn 3:16-21].
Do not be astonished then, my dear brothers, if the world hates you. It is to be expected. This is nothing unusual. Do not let evil mockings and the vicious hatred of evil doers lead you astray. Go along the straight road with the name of the Lord, through the world which lies in evil and think in yourself “I must…” and the world cannot do otherwise. It would not be the world if it did not prefer the lies of its errors to truth; egoism to love; its laziness to zeal for God; worldly vanity to righteousness. I am not a disciple of Christ, not His soldier, if I do what is pleasing to everyone, if I go along the broad path together with the crowd instead of keeping to the narrow path where there are few travelers.
And so let us step forward in the name of the Lord with the conscious awareness that “I must.”
There is another aspect to this “I must.” When the Son of Man told His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and there to suffer much and to die, He was aware that this was necessary even for Himself.
Because He was obedient unto death, even death on the cross, God raised Him up and gave Him a name above every name.
If the Heavenly Father so willed that even His only-begotten Son would drink from the cup of suffering, is it for us sinners who are so imperfect to shun this cup of suffering, this school of suffering, when we are such a long way from perfection and still have so much to learn in order to become worthy disciples of the Great Sufferer?
Some think: ‘How much more fervently and willingly I would serve my Lord if only my life’s path were easier, if it were not so thickly strewn with sharp rocks.’ In saying this, you yourself obviously do not know who and what you are, what is beneficial for you and what is harmful, what you need and what you do not need. It is true when they say that a man tolerates least of all his own well-being. Days of happiness, days of success, when everything goes according to one’s own wishes – how many times have such days woven a fatal net which captures the soul? What dissoluteness grows on man’s heart, like rust on the blade of an unused battle-sword, or like a garden which becomes overgrown if not tended by the gardener’s shears. Tell me, O Christian, what preserves you from haughtiness which so easily penetrates even the strongest hearts, even the hearts of Christ’s disciples? Is it not the cross of suffering? What humbles the passionate inclinations of the flesh which so quickly and easily spread in times of well being and prosperity, like insects in a swamp on a sunny day? What teaches you to shun this uncleanness? Is it not the rod of misfortunes and sorrows? What arouses you from the sleep of self-assurance, lulled to sleep as we so easily are by times of happiness: Or what is more conducive to a routine of laziness than cloudless, carefree days of prosperity? At such times a storm can only be regarded as a blessing. What will draw you out of the dangerous state of insensibility? Will not sorrows? Will not illness? What tears us away from our worldly attachments, the love for the world and all that is in it? Is it not necessity and misfortunes? Do not trials teach us to take life more seriously? Do not sorrows teach us to be prepared for death? Wild brambles of the heart cannot be uprooted without the pruning shears of the Heavenly Gardener and the good fruit of truth and righteousness will not grow without the rain of tears and sorrows. Nowhere can true obedience be better tested than in the bearing of the bitter cup of sorrows, when one can only say:
…not my will, but Thine be done, Father
cf. Mt. 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22:42
And submission to God’s will is never manifested so clearly as in days and hours of storm when in the midst of menacing and frightful waves the Christian gives himself totally into the hands of Him Whose very hand holds these waves and tempests.
When can the steadfastness, courage, and strength of a soldier of Christ be better demonstrated than when trials and obstacles must be turned into deeds, than in the war against evil, or in times of danger? All the noble strength of the Christian soul, of the Christian character shines forth most brightly in times of distress, misfortunes and sufferings. All the miracles of God’s grace are most evident in times when the waters of grief and misfortunes flood our souls and we are forced to recognize our helplessness, our weakness and draw all strength and understanding from Almighty God.
Or, when God Himself chastises you and calls you to account, are you going to ask “what for” and “why”? Or when the Lords sends you to the school of the cross, will you say: “I have not need of its teachings”? Rather you must say: “I need this; I must go to this school of the cross; I must suffer with Christ in order to be raised with Him” [cf. Rom. 6:3-8; 2 Tim. 2:11-12]. When the Lord chastens me I must think and feel like a child chastened by the loving right hand of the Lord, like a grapevine under the pruning shears of the gardener, like iron beneath the smith’s hammer, like gold in the purifying fire. This “I must” is of God and I must not shrink from it.
If you, my friends, agree to what I say, here in the house of God, then hold onto this principle when you are visited by grief, and yours becomes the way of the cross. These are basic truths which must be repeated before each bed of sickness and with each student entering the school of sorrows. Pastors know this. He who preached these truths a thousand times to others must repeat them for himself in every situation. Thou, Lord, help us to understand more fully and to plant deep within ourselves this lesson of the divine “I must.”
Even the ancient Greeks and other people bowed before the divine will, before sacred duty, before immutable destiny, man’s dependence upon Providence. The submission of one’s will before this divine “I must,” the exact fulfillment of divine decrees – in the wise this was called wisdom, in heroes, it was courage, in the righteous, sanctity. How much more willingly must we Christians fulfill our duty when we know that we are not being led by blind faith, but by the good will of the Father which led even Christ to Golgotha and the Cross, but through Golgotha and the Cross to the glorious Resurrection. And so we must put our faith and trust in Him even when we cannot comprehend the meaning of the guidance. Mankind would have been deprived of so much goodness, such glory and blessedness, if the Savior had harkened to the voice of Peter: ‘defend yourself’.
Let each soul bow before the divine “I must;” for the will of God is good, perfect, guiding all men to salvation. And you, O son of dust and corruption, bend your neck under His almighty hand before which your strength is as nothing. Trust to divine wisdom before which your light is but a dark shadow. Give yourself over to the fatherly guidance of Him who desires not enmity and sorrows, but peace and blessedness for all mankind. When you submit your thoughts and your will to His thought and will, then no cup will be for you too bitter, and no cross too heavy. You will be able to withstand it. Such is the will of God.
If your spouse, children, friends, and everyone you love surround you; if they try to persuade you to have pity on yourself, not to destroy yourself – do not look at their tears, do not listen to their pleadings. Point to the Heavens and say: “Do not burden my heart; thus it is pleasing to God and I must. You are reasoning according to man’s wisdom and not God’s.” And if from your own heart there cries out the voice of flesh and blood, and begins to persuade you: “…this cannot happen to you; defend yourself…” – turn away from this counsel of your own heart and follow after that which glorifies God.
We can more easily bear our afflictions if we keep in mind the example of the Savior. See with what peaceful and holy determination He goes to His Passion. And then follow Him along the path of the cross until with His last breath you hear from His lips the divine words:
It is finished.
And then ask yourself: are not you inspired by this example? Do you not understand now the commandment:
…he who wishes to follow Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow after Me?
Mt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23
Do you not share the conviction of that disciple who said: “I cannot wear a crown of roses when my Savior is wearing a crown of thorns”?
At the cross of Christ even the most suffering souls among us can find consolation. I have endured, and even now endure much, but my Divine Savior endures still more.
And if you find this example too lofty, read what the holy Apostle Paul says:
Thrice was I beaten with rods; once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils in the city in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
2 Cor. 11:23-30
See what he endured for Christ’s sake, how many times he was beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and then understand how far we are from him. Everywhere the cross is the sign of Christianity.
A Christian cannot be without his cross. Amen.