Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Vigil

April 23, 2011

Gethsemane Cathedral

+ This evening my best friend from high school, Greg, is in town. Greg is an avowed and militant atheist. He’s a wonderful person. He’s moral. He’s upright. He’s one of the most compassionate people I know. But he does have a little problem with this whole concept of God. And this whole, weird, strange world of the Church just baffles the poor man.

When I told him tonight at supper with his wife and daughters that I couldn’t spend time with him tonight by going to a movie because I was preaching at a 9:00 pm Easter Vigil service, he gave me a look like I was crazy. And I think even some Christians think it’s crazy that we’re gathered here together on this evening, walking about in the dark, starting bonfires, carrying around a big candle and lighting little candles.

But, for me, this is what it’s all about. Tonight—and tomorrow—is what being a Christian is all about. Easter—this glorious, victorious feast—is THE day for us. The highpoint of our lives as Christians is not, as some people think, Christmas.

Christmas is nice. Christmas can be a beautiful holiday. But Christmas can’t hold a candle to Easter—no pun intended.

Now, I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of Christmas. Some people think I am an absolute heathen when I say that I don’t particularly like Christmas. I don’t know. I never have. But I think many Christians seem to equate Christmas as being the high point of the Christian year. As holy of a season as Christmas may be, it is not the high-point of our lives as Christians.

This evening is. Easter is. This is the point from which everything happens. Everything revolves around this single event in the life of Jesus. His birth in Bethlehem only points to this moment.

This is THE moment.

Because this is the moment when everything changed. This is the moment when death was trampled upon and life—eternal, unending life—won out for good.

During this week of Holy Week I have been very diligent in my spiritual discipline of reading a spiritually productive book. The book I read was a wonderful book by Rob Bell, a very popular Christian writer. The book is Love Wins. Rob Bell, like most of the so-called Emergent writers that I have been reading compulsively over the last couple of years, is not your typical Christian writer. When he published this book just this past month, he actually created a big controversy in the wider Christian community.

In fact, Pastor Chad Holz, a United Methodist Pastor, was fired last month from his church in Henderson, North Carolina simply because he posted a comment on Facebook supporting Bell’s somewhat amazingly effective views in which he questions popular Christian belief about eternal hell and damnation.

Of course, I’ve been preaching what Bell has written about for years. The book not controversial to me at all, nor do I think it would be for most of us here. We Episcopalians just don’t have these kind of issues. And I can tell you that for me, at St. Stephen’s, this is not an issue. The last thing in the world they would fire me for at St. Stephen’s is preaching that everyone’s invited to Jesus’ party in heaven. In fact, I probably WOULD get fired if I preached about people not being allowed in to Jesus’ kingdom.

Now it’s easy for people who have never read the book to bash it and to put it down. Christians have a great reputation for condemning things they have never read or seen. Or experiencing personally, for that matter. The fact is, even if one doesn’t agree with Bell’s views of heaven and hell, he does have some really great insights into God’s amazing and all-accepting love for us.

One of the insights Bell makes in this latest book is one that I think really speaks to us tonight, celebrating this wonderful and incredible service in which e too are being reminded of how truly great and unlimited that love of God for us is. Bell shares this insight:

“Eternal life doesn’t start when we die,” Bell writes. “it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

I love that.

Most of us, as Christians, think that life simply involves waiting around for this big moment to happen. Usually we think this big moment is going to happen after we die, when all of a sudden everything will be made right. This life—with all terrible failures and disappointments—will be done away with and we will be made into new creations. The fact is, what we are celebrating tonight is something that has already happened and continues to happen right now. Right here in our lives.

Resurrection is something we often really don’t think about as Christians. Oftentimes we have rationalized it away, or made it into some kind of symbol. But the fact is, as Christians, we truly DO believe that Jesus was resurrected. He was raised in his body. We profess that belief every time we say the Creed together. And in a few moments we will again profess that belief when we gather around the baptismal font and renew our baptismal vows.

This is not light, fairy tale thinking we are dealing with here. This is a kind reality that we, as Christians, are called to live into. And it’s not just something we believe happens after we die.

We are called to live into that Resurrection NOW. Jesus calls us to live into that joy and that beautiful life NOW. The alleluias we sing tonight are not for some beautiful moment after we have breathed our last. Those alleluias are for now, as well as for later. Those alleluias, those joyful sounds we make, this Light we celebrate, is a Light that shines now—in this moment.

We are alive in Christ now. We have already died with Christ when we were baptized. And in those waters, we were raised with him, just as he is raised today and always.

Easter and our whole lives as Christians is all about this fact. Our lives should be joyful because of this fact—this reality—that Jesus died and is risen and by doing so has destroyed our deaths. This is what it means to be a Christian. Easter is about this radical new life. It is about living in another dimension that, to our rational minds, makes no sense.

Outsiders, watching us this evening here in this light-filled cathedral, will no doubt think we are a bit crazy. If my friend Greg were here tonight we would think we are absolutely nuts. Here we are at 9:00 on a Saturday night, beginning a church service in the dark. We are lighting bonfires in a courtyard while dressed in funny white clothes. Here we are following around a big candle. Here we are celebrating light in the midst of darkness. Here we are being sprinkled with water. And when we start talking about what it is all these things symbolize, it doesn’t make our argument any more plausible.

What do these things symbolize? They symbolize the fact that a person who was both God and human, was betrayed, was tortured, was murdered, was buried in a tomb and is now…alive. Fully and completely alive. Alive in a real body. Alive in a body that only a day before was lying, broken and dead, in a tomb. And…as if that wasn’t enough, we are also celebrating the fact that we truly believe we too are experiencing this too.

Experiencing this. In the present tense.

Yes, we too will one day die. But, THAT doesn’t matter. What matters is that that death is already defeated. We are already living, by our very lives, by our baptisms and our faith in Jesus, into the eternal, unending, glorious life that Jesus lives in this moment. Our bodies MAY be broken. Our bodies WILL die. But we will live for eternity because Jesus already did.

Yes, people must think we are insane when we tell them these things. But, for us, this is not insane. This is not some strange, over-the-top mass religious hysteria we are deceiving ourselves with. What we are celebrating tonight is reality. What we are celebrating tonight is the fact that this resurrected life which we are witnessing in Jesus is the only reality. And that death is only an illusion.

We aren’t deceiving ourselves. We’re not a na├»ve people who think everything is just peachy keen and wonderful. We know what darkness is. We know what death is. We know what suffering and pain are. We just traveled through 40 days of self-denial. We have just emerged from a week of betrayal and torture and death. And darkness. Our journey with Jesus took us to that place. Jesus knew those things first-hand. And so do all us.

But what we do tonight and through all of our lives as followers of Jesus is live into the reality that that darkness is not the end of our story. Death is not the end. The Light of Christ is the ultimate end. And the Light of Christ is the new beginning.

Rob Bell writes: “When you’ve experience the resurrected Jesus…you can’t help but talk about him. You’ve tapped into the joy that fills the entire universe, and so naturally you want others to meet this God. This is a God worth telling people about.”

This is truly a God worth telling people about. This is an event truly worth telling people about—even if they think it is insane. This is a reality worth living out in our day-to-day lives. Easter doesn’t end when the sun rises tomorrow. Or when the sun goes down tomorrow night. Or when the Season of Easter ends in June.

Easter is what we carry within us as Christians ALL the time. Easter is living out the Resurrection by our very presence.

Nobody wants dour, sad, angry, bitter Christians. Trust me. There’s too many of them out there. Besides, there is no such thing as dour, sad, angry, bitter Christian. Not a true Christian anyway. A Christian is, as St. Augustine once said, an Alleluia from head to toe.

We are, each of us, carrying within us the Light of Christ we celebrate tonight. All the time. It is here, in our very souls, in our very bodies, in our very selves. With that Light burning within us, being reflected in what we do and say, in the love we show to God and to each other, what more can we say on this glorious night? What more can we say when God’s glorious, all-loving, resurrected realty breaks through to us in glorious light and transforms us;

Alleluia! is what we say. Alleluia Alleluia! Alleulia!

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