The Cross is The Weapon of Our Peace!
Sermon Preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, September 10, 2023
Today we arrive at another Sunday which falls between two of the Church’s great feasts of the liturgical year. Last Thursday we celebrated the Nativity of the Theotokos, and today we anticipate the Elevation of the Cross. The essence of both these feasts are reflected in the two readings we just heard. The Epistle reading from Galatians discussed the old law being abolished, and the new law being established with the advent of Christ coming to us.
And for clarification, when we’re talking about the “old law” we’re talking about all those rules and regulations put into place for God’s people during Old Testament times — e.g. not doing work on the Sabbath, abstaining from certain foods like pork or shellfish, and adherence to ritual cleanliness laws like circumcision as mentioned in our Epistle. When we’re talking about the “new law” on the other hand, we’re referring to our liberation from enslavement to these old laws. We, instead, embrace the freedom that comes with following after the way of Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy after all is very much in line with what Fr. Alexander Elchaninov once referred to as “absolute freedom.”  We are no longer bound in adherence to these outdated, strict rituals of old, even though there are some in the Orthodox faith who still insist upon following these. But we, instead, carry forward only the spirit of those old laws.
It’s good for us to understand that these Old Testament rituals were instituted as a means to help us love God better, and to do right by our neighbor. The theme of justice was actually overwhelming present in these old laws, even if it’s hard for us to see it from our own vantage point here in the 21st Century. “An eye for an eye,” as an example, was a principled and reasonable enactment of justice during an ancient time when one might retaliate by one-upping someone else who had wronged them. If a person assaulted another back then, the victim might retaliate by taking that person’s life, in turn. Thus, "an eye for an eye” was an equitable measure of justice that was codified into their law. But looking backward in time from where we stand today, we have to admit that this same measure of justice comes off as a bit barbaric. This is why, when Jesus came to us 2000 years ago, he brought forward the mere spirit, or the essence of these old laws without the ritual enslavement to those Bronze Age cultural mores. We see this specifically in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” Jesus takes the spirit of that old law and brings it to the next level. We are therefore to love our enemies, to not strike back, and to pray for those who persecute us. What is more is that, Christ tells us that all of those old and ancient laws revolve around two principles: Loving God, and loving your neighbor, nothing more.
Now, with respect to last Thursday’s feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Mary represents the completion and fulfillment of the old law through her own obedience to it. The Theotokos actually lived her life by the letter of the old covenant, was entirely without sin, and as was therefore worthy to give birth to Christ in whom the new law — our freedom — is established. Just so, today’s Gospel reading emphasizes how the new law abolishes the old.
John 3:16 tells us — and I prefer David Bentley Hart’s translation here — that
"God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of the Age. For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him."
And that last line is key: that the cosmos might be saved through Him! Now I know this is a slightly different iteration of John 3:16 than we are used to hearing (for god so loved the world…), but I think it’s important we understand that Christ did not come solely to save human beings in this era of the new law, but to restore and set right the entirety of the cosmos. “It is good to be reminded,” writes Hart, “that in the New Testament, and in Paul’s theology in particular, both slavery to death in sin and final liberation from death … are described as cosmic — not merely human — realities, taking in the whole of creation.” 
Indeed, the whole of creation was affected by Jesus Christ, especially in those moments of His Crucifixion. We recall at the Cross that the sun went dark, earthquakes broke the ground open, and the dead were seen walking among the living. This IS the Creator’s connection to the creation. And the hymnography of our Church emphasizes this connection. As we sing on Holy Saturday morning: “The whole creation was altered by your Passion: for all things suffered with you, O Word, that you hold all in unity.” And this altering of creation wasn’t something that happened solely at the Cross. The creation was also altered throughout Christ’s earthly life. At the Nativity, for instance, a star led the Magi to the cave where Jesus lay with Mary and Joseph amidst a small gathering of animals, all of whom recognized the significance of His coming into the world. This cosmic in-breaking and the altering of creation, took place again at Christ’s baptism. Our hymnography, again, emphasizes this fact at the Theophany where we all in unity proclaim aloud “The sea looked and fled, and the Jordan turned back!”
But more significant than this is that the whole of creation is not simply transformed by the work of God alone. Because we are fellow workers with God, as the Apostle Paul proclaims,  and because we are partakers of His divine nature,  as the Apostle Peter tells us, when we choose to freely participate with God, we also take part in the work of transforming the cosmos. And you might ask… how exactly does this work? We do this by living simply as Christ taught us to live. Love God, and love your neighbor! Love those who annoy the living snot out of you. Pray for them! When someone lashes out at you, or strikes you on one side, do not retaliate. As followers of Jesus, we choose to turn the other cheek, so as to absorb that person’s wrath, and to quell their passion. To take a person’s wrath and to remove it, and transform it is an act of peace … this is the transformative work of the Gospel message! The work of transforming the cosmos lies in our choosing to take up our Cross and to live by it. This is why our feast for the Elevation of the Cross refers to the Cross itself as “A weapon of Peace!”
"Do Thou, Who of Thine own good will wast lifted up upon the Cross, O Christ our God," that "we may be led to victory over our adversaries, having in Thine aid a weapon of peace.…”
As paradoxical is this may sound, it is our reality! What is more perplexing, however, is how quickly we forget this teaching. There is a resounding chorus of voices in America — some secular, some Christian, and some even Orthodox — who would have us make exception to this teaching for the sake of a political ideology. To favor a political ideology over our identity in Christ is purely and simply idolatry. I cannot emphasize the following point enough: When we chose to follow after Jesus Christ and to be baptized anew, we were baptized into our own death! To enter into this new life that God calls us to, requires that we embrace the Cross — the weapon of our peace! To take up arms against our neighbor on the one hand, while proclaiming to follow Jesus on the other… this is to embrace the “old law,” which was rendered obsolete by the Theotokos and done away with through the cosmic in-breaking of Jesus Christ. It is furthermore to embrace the Kingdom of this world!
“Far be it from me,” writes Paul in the Epistle… “Far be it from me to boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the [cosmos] has been crucified to me, and I to the [cosmos].” May each of us glory in nothing but the cross — the weapon of our peace! — that we may love God all the more, and transform the cosmos by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
1 Aleksander Elchaninov and Tamara Elchaninov, trans, Diary of a Russian Priest. (Queen Square, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1967), 53.
2 David Bentley Hart, trans., The New Testament: A Translation. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 559.
3 1 Corinthians 3:9
4 2 Peter 1:4.