(Heb. 11 : 33 – 12 : 2)
In his Epistle to the Hebrews, in the eleventh chapter, our good Apostle Paul speaks about faith and the power of faith, by which the righteous of the Old Testament pleased God. Among other things you heard that these heroes of the faith “through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions… Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword” (Heb. 11:33,37).
But, along with these martyrs who endured these and other innumerable torments for the sake of their faith, the Apostle praises those who, by their faith, “escaped the edge of the sword” (Heb. 11:34).
Much has been said and written about the former; however I shall be so bold as to say a few words about the latter, those who escaped the edge of the sword.
It is essential for us Serbs, perhaps more than others, to sometimes consider the importance of escaping the edge of the sword. With our proverbial hotheadedness and fiery character, we always seem to be eager to defiantly await the blow of the sword on our necks, no matter how unprepared for it we are. We have forgotten the age-old wisdom of knowing how to survive in dangerous times. Throughout our history, we have always lived and managed to survive in terrible and dangerous times, but we have rarely known how to protect our heads and to keep ourselves from danger, which was not the case with our neighbors. For example, we have not, even to the present day, learned a lesson from the tragic day of March 27, 1941, nor have we studied and reset the historical values of this event. The sad truth is that on that day the Serbs stood up for someone else’s interests and paid for it with hundreds of thousands of human lives. The Western powers, for whose interests we bared our necks so readily, rubbed their hands together in smug self-contentment, only to repay us several decades later with bombs and missiles, and poisonous gases whose consequences are a sharp rise in mysterious diseases and sudden deaths among the population.
While I was preparing my sermon, I thought about what a typical Serb would answer Satan were he to dare him to jump down from the dome of the church. I am sure the typical Serb would exclaim in indignation: “What? You think I can’t do it? Just watch me!” and he would “heroically” jump down, even knowing that he would break every bone in his body.
The Lord teaches us and shows us by His own example, that one ought to gather one’s wits, assess the situation and then act accordingly. Christ had many opportunities to be martyred, but He did not allow anyone to lay a hand on Him, “for His hour had not yet come” (Jn. 7:30). The holy Apostle Luke tells us how at one moment the angry Jews drove the Lord from the city “and they led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way” (Lk. 4:28 – 30).
The Lord did not rush to His death. He planted the seed of life deep into the core of every human being He created. When He became incarnate, He carried this seed of life deep within Himself as well. It is moving to read the testimony of all four evangelists who described His torments and the soul-racking agony He endured before He willingly bore the heavy Cross to Golgotha. The Lord confided His pain and agony to His most faithful disciples: “ ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death’ … He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will (Mk. 14:33-36). And when the hour came for the “Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn. 12:23), the Lord once again, for the last time, expressed apprehension before His death on the cross and admits that His soul is troubled. “And what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour?” But after He had overcome His agony, He said, “But for this purpose, I have come to this hour” (Jn. 12:27).
If we must bear our Cross, then we must accept it without complaining, but we must not look for suffering and martyrdom without necessity or meaning. The bearing of one’s cross must be meaningful. Even the Lord, as we just saw, waited for His hour. We must be try to avoid the edge of the sword, but if it comes to the sword, then we must be prepared for it.
The history of the Church is full of wonderful testimonies about the confessors of the faith, martyrs and sufferers. However, there were also many instances of those who hesitated in the face of the sword and even lost their faith. But the Church in its tender love took back into Her motherly embrace even those who betrayed Her in a moment of human weakness, once they cleansed themselves with repentance.
True heroes have their place in the Church. The church is built upon the blood of these martyrs. However, those who secretly but persistently performed the work of God in silence, also contributed to the growth of the Church. The noble Joseph was not known for his courageousness, but we remember him for his extraordinary goodness. He, too, was a disciple of Christ, but a secret one, “for fear of the Jews” (Jn. 19:38). A man of reputation, he was the only one who dared stand before Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus and who gave his Lord a proper burial.
I cannot pass up the opportunity to remind you, once again, one of the greatest and wisest hierarchs of the suffering Serbian Church, who was the object of the most blatant lies and notorious slanders thrown at him by hotheaded Serbs living in the luxury and safety of the West: our great patriarch Gabriel. He often gave us fatherly advice, saying: “Tread like a wise man, do not die a fool.” With these words he bade farewell to our bishop when he set off on his journey to this continent. On that occasion the patriarch reminded him of Christ’s words to His Apostles – that His shepherds were like sheep among wolves. And while the hotheaded Serbs, whose offspring could not utter a simple greeting in the Serbian language, slung insults and accusations against him, our good patriarch, treading wisely, opened numerous theological seminaries, rejuvenated the Church with young priests, restored the publishing activities of the Church, preserved the Church as a whole in very difficult times and died a natural death in his old age. Of course, he could have, as a young man, rushed with bravado into martyrdom, died of poisoning and left the Serbian Church without a wise leader for many years.
If we read the lives of the saints and compare ourselves to them, we will find that we are very weak. Comparing ourselves to the saints may make us fall into the temptation of believing that there is no sense for us to continue struggling since we cannot attain even the tiniest measure of their faith. But that is not true. We are not all the same. Some of us are given more and some less, and that applies to courageousness as well. As in everything, everyone should give back according to what he or she has received.
The venerable Seraphim of Sarov teaches us that we should always keep to the “moderate path” and that we should never take upon ourselves more than we can bear. If we do so, we will fall and the enemy will mock us, says St. Seraphim. And Elder Paisius the Athonite says, “Do not force yourselves egoistically to do more than you can, for by doing so you will only burden yourself unnecessarily without any spiritual profit. Christ is our loving Father, not a tyrant. He is always joyful when our struggles are humble.”