The Cross Within the Church

The Church is the Cross through history.

St. Paul wrote that he had determined to restrict his preaching to the Cross. (1 Cor. 2:2) This was not an effort to diminish the gospel. Rather, it was an effort to rightly understand the gospel. One of the great temptations of Christianity is to allow itself to become a “religion,” that is, to serve whatever role that religions of any sort play within a culture and the life of an individual. Despite every atheist protestation, religion abides – and if there is not one that is inherited, then a culture will invent new ones.

St. Paul’s concentration on the Cross – Jesus Christ crucified – was a direct affront to religion itself. To understand this, though, requires that we see the Cross for what it is. Christianity as religion reduces the Cross to a moment in time, a historical moment that is celebrated for its importance. On the Cross, Christ died for our sins. This simple statement, however, can itself be reductionist. “Christ died, I’m forgiven, now I can get on with my life.” St. Paul has something very different in mind. He says:

“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Yet not I, but Christ, lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)

The Cross is more than the single event in the life of Christ. It is the single event for every believer, lived moment by moment, at all times and all places. It is the very center of our being.

In Holy Baptism, we are not merely “joining the Church,” nor are we merely “washing away our sins.” Holy Baptism is not a rite of membership. Rather, Holy Baptism is being plunged into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3) and raised into the likeness of Christ’s resurrection. Believers are given a Cross to wear as part of their Baptism – a token to remind us that our new life is nothing other than living in union with the Crucified Christ.

That reality informs the commandments of Christ. We forgive our enemies because Christ forgave His enemies on the Cross (“Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”) We share what we have with others (in the Cross we can live as though we own nothing). It represents the definition of love: “Husbands love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.” (Eph. 5:25).

It is the abandonment of the Cross (or its redefinition as “religious” event) that betrays the Church and its primary identity. It was inevitable, it seems, that the Church would eventually become the “religion of the empire.” It is a position that Christianity, in nearly every form, has endured since the 4th century. There is, of course, a critique of Orthodox Christianity that its very essence was betrayed in the tolerance given by Constantine and his successors. I do not agree that the Church’s essence changed – but it would be dishonest to think that its essence was not tempted and tested. Some failed the test.

Power is an ever-present temptation in this world. It offers the notion that we can, by force (of arms or law), achieve our desired ends. That was true under emperors and tsars, and remains true within modern democracies. When Pilate questioned Jesus regarding the nature of His kingdom, Christ was very clear that His kingdom “is not of this world.” He adds that were His kingdom of this world – then His disciples would arm themselves and fight. That many Christians through the ages have imagined armed struggle to be an important element of the Christian life is a testament to our confidence in the weapons of this world and our lip-service to the Kingdom of God.

The Church is the Cross through history. The reality of the crucified life has never disappeared from among us. Before Constantine, God brought forth the movements of monasticism. While Bishops were facing the temptations of imperial blandishments, the monks and nuns were refuting every worldly option. At times, the presence of monastics created a tension within the Church. The crucified life is seen most clearly when it stands out against a background of worldliness.

I think that times of turmoil, such as we endure at present, have their own form of imperial temptation. We long for order, for normalcy, for stability. That longing can make us easy prey for the various solutions offered by the world. There is an interesting phrase in the Liturgy of St. Basil. The priest prays for God to “make the evil be good by Thy goodness.” The temptation within our hearts would likely rephrase that prayer – simply saying, “Make the evil be good.”

God has never offered us any solution other than the Cross. St. Paul readily admitted that the Cross appears to be “weakness” and “foolishness.” The Cross is a clown in a world of scholars. He nevertheless declares it to be the “wisdom and power of God.”

As we gather to recall Christ’s death on the Cross we should rightly recall the Cross within us. We should recall that the weakness and foolishness of God is the path we have been commanded to walk. If we tremble at the thought, even saying, “Let this Cup pass away from me,” then, it would seem, we will have gotten it about right.

The Church is the Cross through history. It is the only gate to Pascha’s paradise.

 

 

Photo by Luc Constantin on Unsplash

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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19 responses to “The Cross Within the Church”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems as if there is a River Jordan in following the way of the Cross. Laying down the old man within to embrace the fullness of the Truth. Am I perceiving the truth, the reality?

  2. Shannon Avatar
    Shannon

    Fr. Stephen:

    I guessing and close to being sure that in the last phrase of the fourth paragraph from the end, your gist of meaning would have been more readily understood if you had typed “Make” in italics. As in ‘force the evil to be good.’ Like modern governments try all the time….

  3. Chris Avatar
    Chris

    Father Stephen,
    Just as we are called upon to be baptized in Jesus Christ, we are also baptized into his death. Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so too we should walk in the newness of life, no longer slaves of sin. As such, I prefer to think not so much of Christ dying for our sins, but rather for the remission of our sins. After all, what good is to come from praying for forgiveness of sin while repeating them over and over. The lesson is to cease and desist from our iniquities. As always, your article is most edifying. May the peace and grace of our savior be upon you. God Bless.

  4. Cainnech Avatar
    Cainnech

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks so much for this meditation on the Cross within the Church, including this statement: “If we tremble at the thought, even saying, ‘Let this Cup pass away from me,’ then, it would seem, we will have gotten it about right.”

    I have been contemplating for some time how the way to life often looks like death and indeed passes through death, whereas the way to death often looks like life even when it is far from it. No wonder that Jesus refers to the way to life as the narrow path.

    I also am wondering how to think about this in the context of evangelism. In the modern world, Christianity is sometimes marketed in a way that tries to be most winsome in order to attract people. However, this seems false considering that it’s a call to take up the Cross and be united with Christ in his self-giving and death. I’m struggling with this question, but when Orthodox Christians want their non-Orthodox friends or family to consider Orthodoxy, I wonder how to do so while knowing that it ultimately might be expected to cost everything.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Cainnech,
    Evangelism is problematic, I think. First, most of our ideas on the topic have been deeply affected by notions born in modern evangelicalism – something that can have a decidedly “sales pitch” approach – or as a result of apologetics, etc. In point of fact, Orthodoxy, as an option among other options – such as the denominational churches, is a “false” sales pitch. It’s a way of life. That’s a very large thing and almost impossible to describe. What happens too often is we wind up describing Orthodoxy as a “superior” option, for this reason or that (doctrine, historical roots, etc.) This too is a bit misleading.

    What I think is most legitimate is for us to describe our own experience – what is happening in ourselves, etc. The work of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. From our side, there is no cause and effect – no doing something in order to make thus and such happen. We bear witness to what we know – that is enough. Well – also – to actually live what we know. The first and greatest task of an Orthodox parish is to BE and Orthodox Church, so that when someone comes to it, they can actually SEE the Church (and not some sort of ersatz imitation).

    Christ is risen! Let love abound!

  6. Cainnech Avatar
    Cainnech

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, that is helpful. Indeed He is risen!

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your reply to Cainnech was both revealing and thought provoking. Thank you

  8. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I had often considered asking you similar questions to Cainnech’s and am thankful for his opening. Your previous post “Benedict in the Suburbs” (March 29, 2017), I think, amplifies on what you say above.

    On a personal level for me…

    “Living a half-hour away from a parish, isolated from fellow believers, may very well be the most serious moral choice we make after Holy Baptism, despite how innocuous it may seem.”

    …hits home as my commute to St. Anne is 50 minutes.

    In a similar vein, then, how obligated are American Christians to emulate Solzhenitsyn’s admonitions necessary to “become an honest man”? To pick one example from his list: should we “immediately walk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda”?

    Has our society devolved to such a state that a radical response similar to Solzhenitsyn’s warranted? Or is that just picking unnecessary fights? I read Father Hopko’s maxims often, and it does not seem in the spirit of much of what he says.

  9. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Cainnech,
    there’s an interesting and rather germane description of an atheist who happened to once meet a contemporary Greek saint. This particular saint never quite ‘evangelised’ to the atheist, he simply spoke to him about whatever everyday matter the atheist inquired – as he would to any good friend (albeit, the saint’s attire was that of a monk, a thing also that ‘speaks’ silently, I guess). The saint, in fact, purposefully avoided speaking of God, even though he had an internal ‘fire’ of unceasing prayer, assuredness, and joy that was “blazing” and otherworldly.
    The atheist’s description of being in that saint’s presence was that: “While you were around him, you actually forgot your unbelief, you believed in God completely, naturally, without doubts, like a child, without being aware that this was out of character with your previous self, and with a rather strong fervour transmitted to you by the saint. This lasted until you defaulted back to your usual ways after some time, when you would start analysing the strangeness of these previous feelings”.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    Our “obligations” are torn between those of “politeness” and those of “integrity.” There are many things, no doubt, to which we give a pass, simply as a matter of politeness. Increasingly (as some of the culture lies become ever bolder), silence begins to corrupt our souls – we make some sort of illegitimate peace with the lie. At some point, we discover that the lie has become the default position that will not allow itself to be questioned.

    I am torn by this. When I was living my last years as an Anglican – lets say most of the 90’s – I knew I was headed towards Orthodoxy, but was unable to move as quickly as I might have wished (it was complicated). There were growing “lies” around me – many of them in the area of sexual morality. I decided to be bold in the matter and authored a number of efforts to confront the lie. I got in a fair amount of trouble at the time – most of which consisted in being ostracized and slandered. Had I remained, it would have become yet more serious.

    When I converted (1998), one of the things that I carried with me was a deep disdain for lies. Some of that is, doubtless, just me reacting to the pains of the wounds I endured. But I watched lots of “good men” learn to live with the lie until they were largely forced into silence, patiently awaiting retirement. It was sad.

    The present cultural world, particularly for those who are in certain institutional settings, is strongly marked by the lies of gender/sexuality/etc. that have been elevated into “moral” positions. Opposing them will get you fired, often enough.

    It should be noted that Solzhenitsyn’s maxims were not put into effect. The Soviet Union did not collapse because of an army of Solzhenitsyns. That is, perhaps, the weakness in The Benedict Option’s approach. It’s not what happened.

    The most germane question is: how do I preserve my soul and its integrity before God? If we stop asking that question, then we’re in trouble. But, when asking the question, I do not think there is a single, standard answer other than that we cling to Christ at all times, in all things, in all places.

    It’s hard, I think.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I have been contemplating the true nature of my “identity” recently. Perhaps a piece on the nature of identity in a deeply Christian sense?

  12. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    “The most germane question is: how do I preserve my soul and its integrity before God? If we stop asking that question, then we’re in trouble. But, when asking the question, I do not think there is a single, standard answer other than that we cling to Christ at all times, in all things, in all places.”
    This quote Fr. Stephen shoots straight to my heart and situation. I keep asking that question as I worship, teach alongside my husband and his family as church leaders in youth group and children’s programs. I feel like I am trying to translate much Orthodox teaching into a format that

  13. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    …will be understood and accepted without making it appear to be about “religion” in the manner you discussed.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle,
    Your comment touches on one of the things that always troubled me about the Penal Substitionary Atonement Theory. It starts off by explaining a very “religious” problem. “God is righteous. His justice demands the punishment of sinners. We sinned and deserve to be punished. So God punished His Son in our place…etc.” As a teenager I thought, “But if God would just relax a bit, we would all be fine…” That’s terribly blasphemous, I suppose, but it is what I thought.

    As a priest, when speaking of the Atonement, I’ve preferred to discuss things “ontologically.” God is the source of all existence. Or, as St. Basil said, “The only truly existing One.” We were/are created in communion with Him. He is the source of our life. We we break/broke communion with Him (which is the nature of sin) we encounter and encourage death/non-existence within ourselves. Christ came among us, and entered into death/Hades and re-established communion with us. We are Baptized into His death in order to be united to His life. We are called to live in communion with Him at every moment. When we stray from that communion, we return to Him and repent. Etc.

    We can talk about life/existence, etc., without having to sound overly “religious” in the sense I have used that word. It’s a way of speaking that is of a piece with all of the sacraments of the Church (they are all about union with Christ/God).

  15. Cainnech Avatar
    Cainnech

    Thank you, Dino, for that germane and edifying description, and thanks to everyone for your helpful comments.

    Christ is risen!

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Michelle,
    The key for me is to realize that the Cross is not about punishment but about Mercy and Repentance. A Mercy unavailable to human beings except through the Cross.
    I seem to carry around a kit bag full of various identities that I use to get along or protect my self from my shame.
    Then there is who I really am by the Mercy of Christ. The Saint Dino mentions has the knowledge and can function as a full person in Christ. He continues to live a life of repentance and the Kingdom shows forth.
    Me, still futzing with my incomplete identities which are each a representation of “me” but ontologically artificial. Some even toxic, wholly based in shame and sin..

  17. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michael,
    The interesting thing about that magnetic integrity bestowed upon such saints, is that it is readily available to us all as soon as we completely turn our attention to God: not to ask for anything though, but to give him our martyrdom. OK we should admit that it is momentary and it can also be “theoretical” , but it is still hugely significant (being the proper directing of our “nous”) . This always initiates healing and – these decisions of reorientation of attention are actually within our own hnds.
    permanency and genuiness then comes from God whenever the time is right.

  18. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Dino,

    Thank you for this comment to Michael.

    Recently, I have so much “martyrdom” in my life that I seem to drown in the sea of it.
    In moments of complete desperation (not at all from any kind of ‘magnetic integrity’) I turn to God, because there is no other person to turn to. Just as you say, it’s ‘momentary and theoretical’, but it almost always results in something consoling God sends my way. Maybe not immediately, more like “when the time is right”.

    Thank you for reminding me to keep trying, maybe God will grant me that blessed permanency and genuineness, eventually.

  19. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Agata,
    That (involuntary) martyrdom requires recourse to patience in the trusting spirit of “Thy will and not mine be done”.
    The fervour for martyrdom referenced earlier is not yet about the voluntary one, can be as little as the desire to stand while not needed due to the fire of wanting to please the Lord.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…


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