About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and taught. 15 The Jews marveled at it, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” 16 So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; 17 if any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. 18 He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but he who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. 19 Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” 20 The people answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” 21 Jesus answered them, “I did one deed, and you all marvel at it. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man upon the sabbath. 23 If on the sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Zadeeg, Feast of the Appearance of the Holy Cross), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Appearance of the Holy Cross
On May 7 in the year 351, those living in Jerusalem witnessed an intensely illumined cross appear in the sky extending from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives; a span of almost two miles. In the letter of St. Cyril the Bishop of Jerusalem to the Emperor Constantius of Constantinople, he mentions the response of those who witnessed the miracle, that as the cross remained visible for several hours, the population of Jerusalem flooded into the church to praise Jesus Christ for the miraculous sign:
But you, most pious Lord Emperor, have surpassed your father’s piety with an even greater reverence for the divine, and in your time miracles have now appeared no longer from the ground but in the heavens: the trophy of the victory which our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, won over death – I refer to the blessed Cross – has been seen flashing like lightning over Jerusalem.
In these holy days of the Easter season, on May 7 at about the third hour, a huge cross made of light appeared in the sky above holy Golgotha extending as far as the holy Mount of Olives. It was not revealed to one or two people alone, but it appeared unmistakably to everyone in the city. It was not as if one might conclude that one had suffered a momentary optical illusion; it was visible to the human eye above the earth for several hours. The flashes it emitted outshone the rays of the sun, which would have outshone and obscured it themselves if it had not presented the watchers with a more powerful illumination than the sun. It prompted the whole populace at once to run together into the holy church, overcome both with fear and joy at the divine vision. Young and old, men and women of every age, even young girls confined to their rooms at home, natives and foreigners, Christians and pagans visiting from abroad, all together as if with a single voice raised a hymn of praise to God’s Only-begotten Son the wonder-worker. They had the evidence of their own senses that the holy faith of Christians is not based on the persuasive arguments of philosophy but on the revelation of the Spirit and power (cf. I Corinthians 2:4); it is not proclaimed by mere human beings but testified from heaven by God himself. (trans. Edward Yarnold, S.J. Cyril of Jerusalem, Routledge, 2000)
Today, the Feast of the Appearance of the Holy Cross (Երեւումն Սուրբ Խաչին) has the same effect the miracle in the sky had on those in Jerusalem. As glorious as the event in 351 was, we don’t have to look up to the sky to see the Cross. The Cross still appears in the world around us, and it compels us to gather with one another in the church to give praise to God, because the Cross has changed us, healed us, and given us true and eternal life. The Cross, and everything it stands for, has accomplished, and its reality in our lives is so powerful, it even compels us to continue gathering as best we can during times when we are unable to gather inside a church building, whether it’s curbside ministry or video conferencing. The Cross points us to the path of Jesus Christ and reminds us how to live rightly, authentically, and victoriously. Suffering and death, because of the Cross, are redeemed. Wherever there is opportunity for sacrifice, healing, forgiveness, mercy, redemption, and love in the name of Jesus Christ, there is the Cross. Pray that God opens our eyes to its appearance and look for it today.
The Demand of the Gospel
Perhaps Jesus’ listeners recalled the warning about false prophets from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), which instructed the Israelites not to follow any prophet who leads them to worship unknown gods but to remain on the path God placed them to walk, to fear him and keep his commandments. Such a deceiver was to be put to death by stoning, and first-century Palestine was no stranger to false prophets and those falsely claiming to be the Messiah. Even Jesus warns of them (see Matthew 24:4-5, 24). If wondering about Jesus’ authenticity as a prophet wasn’t enough, the Jews in this narrative also questioned the source of his knowledge of the Scriptures and the Law, which surpassed those of the rabbis. Perhaps his listeners have a right to be on high alert in order to keep on God’s true path, but Jesus, as always, knows their true intent, as he does ours.
Jesus affirms that his teaching does indeed come from God and that if anyone follows his will, they will know its divine source. But the Jews, rather than follow his will first, would rather critique his teaching, and then weigh whether or not Jesus is from God. Does that not seem like the logical thing to do when presented with a new or different teaching, not knowing if it is true or false, safe or dangerous? The problem with this approach, and the heart of the Jews in the presence of Jesus, is that we often decide in our minds what we want or do not want God to be saying to us. Many of us may have preconceived notions of God, assumptions, expectations not true to his nature, and as a result, can easily dismiss his teachings and authority, even when they are true!
Perhaps due to our perception of God, we cannot always see or hear what he wants from us. Do we expect him to serve us as our “personal Savior,” do we perceive him as a cosmic vending machine granting any prayer we deem sensible, or is he a wrathful God seeking justice and vengeance at any opportunity? Is it possible that at some point, unknowingly, based on popular but faulty ideas of God foreign to not only the Armenian Church tradition, but to Christianity as a whole, we have recreated God in our own image, which closes off our heart and mind to his will, love, and peace?
Jesus invites us to do away with these false perceptions and to trust and follow him because of who he is, the Son of God. He teaches us that we will know a false prophet from a true prophet by the fruit they bear:
A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. (Matthew 7:15-20)
As he calls us to bear the same fruit as he bears, the question becomes what do we really want? Do we want to create our own version of God, dismissing the true God who does not fit our agendas – personal, economical, social, political, cultural – or are we ready to live up to the demands of the Gospel, embodied by Jesus Christ, which place all of our agendas in relation to God. In other words, things such as wealth, pleasure, titles, goals, ambitions, successes, accomplishments, legacies, degrees, friendships, family, ancestry, and anything and everything in between that defines us or in which we find security, identity, and our place in this world, must find its meaning in relation to God if we are to take our baptism and faith seriously and call ourselves Christians who belong to the Body of Christ.
Does the Cross stand at the center of our lives, appearing to everyone around us? Are we ready to love our enemies, forgive everyone for everything, share what we have, do good to those who do evil, suffer with others, put God’s Kingdom above everything, trust in God for our daily needs, and even die as a martyr? How far are we willing to let our faith take us? Are we afraid of allowing the parish community be and do what God calls us to be and do? Do we really want God’s will, what that means for us, the cost involved? In order to experience the “newness of life” that St. Paul talks about, we must first be baptized into his death (Romans 6:3-4), and follow Christ wherever he leads us as his disciples. Whenever we put ourselves to death (the struggle to put God first), we are raised into new life. The demand may always be high, but his grace and the reward is eternal.
Jesus was not making up his teaching, claiming that it came from his Father who sent him. In order to test this claim, Jesus challenges his listeners, which includes us today. If we really want to do his will, if that is our authentic intent, then we will know Jesus is from God. But why would we have to live for God in order to know that he is from God? It almost sounds like a trick. But it’s not. When we live a life consecrated, set apart for God with him at the center informing and influencing everything we say and do, first of all, we are not trying to make ourselves look good, but give glory to God, and secondly, we fulfill what God intended for his creation, to be worshippers of him, to live in union/communion with him.
In other words, to live for God is to live authentically, it is the right way to live, and we will know it is right because union with our Creator fulfills our true purpose and end in life. Jesus demonstrated what our lives should look like by taking on human flesh and blood and living like one of us. We often wish for a model or manual telling us how to live. That model is the Cross. The world has been shown how to live through the person of Jesus Christ – sacrifice, death, resurrection, healing, victory, all of it an expression of his unbridled love for us. In Christ, we know who we are supposed to be, as individuals and as the Church.
When we live otherwise, looking to false models of happiness and success, whatever paradigm or person we set up as our model or exemplar, we are not living to our fullest as human beings, who we are created to be and what we are created to do. This is evident when we sin, that which draws us away from communion with God, resulting in insecurities, fear, anxiety, fighting, addictions, violence, war, unforgiveness, suspicions, distrust, and hatred of one another. Commenting on this Gospel reading, St. John Chrysostom writes,
What [Jesus] is saying is this, “Cast out from yourselves the malice and wrath and envy and hatred which has without cause been conceived against me, then there is nothing to hinder you from knowing that my words are indeed the words of God. For at present these things cast a darkness over you, and destroy the light of right judgment, while if you remove them this shall no longer be your case.”
None of this means we cannot and do not go through the motions, turn on good behavior for show, or hide behind rules and traditions, nitpicking in order to judge others and do what is seemingly right while ignoring what is authentically right. Jesus addresses this in the latter portion of the Gospel reading when he exposes the Jews for having a distorted view of the law and tradition, nitpicking things that were far less important than his healing of an entire person a few months prior (see John 5:2-9).
To live authentically is to keep on the path on which we are placed at baptism. It is a life during which we continually need to be cleansed with repentance and in which we regularly need to recall and fulfill our baptismal vows:
For courage to struggle and triumph over the Adversary, for strength to keep the commandments that enjoin virtuous deeds, for perfect discipline and for the exercise of godliness, to the end that being enlightened in mind he/she may live in this world for the salvation of his/her soul…and may be worthy to enter into the inheritance of the state of the saints.
Are we speaking and acting and living in a way that boosts our own message, status, title, or ego? As a parish community, do we advance our own ideas, agendas, rather than God’s message to us, to be the Church, to give, put others first, tell others about the truth of the Gospel? Where do we put our resources and wealth? What do we value? If the Church is really living out the Gospel, if each person is living out the promises made at his or her baptism, it will be obvious to the community and to the world that we are not seeking our own glory, but the glory of Jesus Christ. Look at Jesus, learn from him, and look at the world through the lens of the Cross. Through him we know our purpose, who we are meant to be as individuals and as the Church. When we authentically live for Jesus Christ, imitating him, uniting with him, and loving one another, we will know that he is from God, because he is God.