9/14/2013 sermon: True vitality

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
Holy Cross Day

True vitality

I want to talk about vitality today, on this Feast of Holy Cross. You’re going to have to listen for the “vitality” part, though, because vitality and cross don’t often go together.


I was a hospice chaplain when I met Ann. She was a vital woman, despite her cancer, vibrantly alive, even though she was dying. Perhaps this was because Ann was in denial about her “decline” (although I don’t think so; I think Ann was vibrantly alive because she knew Jesus, the author of vitality). Ann was in denial about her “decline,” about her coming death, despite the radiation, despite the chemo, despite her small and faithful family gathered all around her, crying.

“Why are you crying?” Ann asked her loved ones. Everyone looked at each other, and finally her oldest child choked out, “You’re going to die tonight, Mama. That’s what your doctors say.”

I knew that Ann was a devout Christian, a vital woman, so I expected her to witness to her family from her deathbed about going to heaven. That’s not what happened, though. Instead, Ann got very angry. “I don’t understand why I’m going to die,” she yelled with all the force she could muster, “I’ve done EVERYTHING right. My whole life. I’ve done everything right.”

I’ve been thinking of Ann a lot lately. I thought about Ann when I visited two very large churches in California last month. Well, the church facilities were each very large. But in each case there were only a couple dozen of us there for worship. I wondered if these churches, like Ann, asked why they were dying, despite living presumably good lives, lives faithful to Jesus?

HolyCrossRedI thought of Ann when I read the lessons for today, Holy Cross Day. Our lessons remind us that there is a PURPOSE for the Cross. Jesus’ death on a cross was a necessary prerequisite for him to provide us with eternal life.

That’s what the early Jesus-followers struggled with. “Why,” they asked themselves, “if Jesus were the Messiah, the Christ, had he been crucified?” The answer that they worked out the answer for themselves was the Christ Hymn, the very first piece of the Christian liturgy that we know of. The Christ Hymn is our epistle reading today. This Christ Hymn tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” of the majesty of his holiness as God, his majesty as God, and came to earth in human form, changing himself and suffering death on the cross, making and showing us the way of salvation.

The cross has become for all Christians the center of our faith, precisely because of Jesus’ Resurrection. We are Easter people, Resurrection people, so we often forget the necessity of the cross. Yes, Christ has died, but Christ is also risen, AND Christ will come again.

Sound familiar? We have embraced THAT cross.

We are devout Jesus followers. We have done everything right—more or less—and we have vital congregations, vital faith. Despite all that, our life seems to be slipping away.

I’ll bet that this is the way things looked to those first Jesus followers as they faced the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion. They didn’t know, as we know today, that some deaths are necessary to bring a whole new reality into existence.

What will OUR new life look like? I don’t know. We’ve yet to discern our resurrected existence together. We’re here today, gathered at the foot of the Cross. I’ll bet that, like Ann and her family, we have:

  • A little denying to do,
  • A little anger to express,
  • A little mourning to do.

But, in the end, we have a LOT of resurrecting to do.

Do you think it a mere coincidence that we are gathered here today—at the Church of the Resurrection—on Holy Cross Day—to talk together about creating a whole new reality for our churches? We didn’t plan things this way. Originally this service was to have been last night, when we could have taken comfort in “though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I call the way things ended up a “God-incidence.”

Jesus’ first followers left the cross and went to the uttermost parts of the world and witnessed to his resurrection. We ourselves will go and bear witness in Maryland, and in Massachusetts, and in Richmond, Mechanicsville, Manokin Sabot, Colonial Beach, Madison, Rixeyville, King George, Fredericksburg, Herndon, Falls Church, Franconia, Arlington, Alexandria, and … everywhere.

Jesus says:

The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that darkness may not overtake you.

I say, while you are walking in the light, towards your cross, claim the new reality that we are being called, in Christ’s name, to bring into existence.

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