The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: A Sermon

Readings

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: how might we join in this feast’s celebration today?

We might start with that scene at the end of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, is now second only to Pharaoh, and he’s been providing for his family in Egypt. But their father Jacob has just died, and the brothers fear that Joseph will now settle some scores. Here’s Joseph’s response:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:19-21).

You intended to do harm; God intended it for good. This is likely one of the primary uses of that divine sovereignty celebrated in our first reading and psalm. Human intentions aren’t the only ones in play. And the Holy Cross is one of the most potent symbols of that. When it came to Jesus, the cross did not accomplish what the Romans and religious authorities intended. For all their use of it, the Romans weren’t even able to control what the cross means—as a visit to any jewelry store will attest.

So, with Joseph “Do not be afraid!” The Holy Cross—what God has done with that cross—just might unsettle our assumptions about what deserves our fear.

But this is perhaps to get ahead of ourselves, as does, I suspect, the collect for today’s feast. “Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him…” Well, yes, of course. But moving immediately to “take up our cross and follow him” is perhaps to encourage us to run while we’re still trying to get the hang of walking.

So I really appreciate Paul’s choices about when to speak of the cross in our second reading. The Romans with their endless supply of crosses haven’t gone anywhere. Earlier in the letter he speaks of some of the readers suffering, but that’s not where he speaks of the cross (“Jesus bore his cross; you bear yours.”) Rather, he speaks of it in the context of the conflicts that are normal in communities and parishes: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…” And what he wants them—us—to see is the cross as the expression of Jesus’ “mind,” Jesus’ way of approaching things, Jesus’ way of making decisions. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” That’s Jesus’ “mind,” and the motor for the story Paul retells. Had Jesus looked to his own interests, “equality with God as something to be exploited” would have been just the ticket! But Jesus looks to the interests of others, and so begins a story that bottoms out on the cross, and results in the healing and restoration to which all creation had been invited. From today’s Isaiah reading: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!”

Put differently, we might hear the collect’s “grace to take up our cross and follow him” in dramatic or heroic terms. Paul’s “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” reminds us that most of the time looking to the interests of others is where taking up the cross starts. Not at all dramatic or heroic, but perhaps even more difficult given my standing—but never articulated—assumption that my interests, my perspectives really do deserve to be first in line.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” OK, preacher, how does Paul think we’re supposed to do that? Well, three things that we might observe.

First, this “mind…that was in Christ Jesus,” this way, is at once Jesus’ way and our way. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” is not something to file under advanced forms of Christian spirituality for those who are into that sort of thing, but core to our Christian identity. This doesn’t answer the “how” question, but does tell us we’re not dealing with something optional.

Second, elsewhere in the letter Paul reminds his hearers of how Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself have embodied this way in their dealings with the Christians in Philippi. “I am hard pressed between the two”—writes Paul—”my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” The point is to pay attention to the folk in our lives who’ve looked “to the interests of others.” That just might nourish our desire that this way be more central to our identity.

Third, toward the end of the letter we hear “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel…” (Phil. 4:2-3). This looking to the interests of others—not easy, and we need each other’s support.

Let’s pull the camera back. Joseph: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” Jesus, from our reading a few weeks back: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). This “mind…that was in Christ Jesus” rests of Jesus’ trust that God has Jesus’ back—so Jesus can attend to other’s backs. As Paul describes it, it turns out to be a virtuous circle: as I trust that God has my back I’m freer to attend to others’ backs. As I attend to others’ backs, I find it easier to trust that God has mine.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: an invitation to enter into the mystery of our salvation as captured in Morning Prayer’s collect for Friday:

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.”

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