Easter Vigil--Following the One Who Has Gone Before

A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Easter Vigil, Year B—Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Mark 16:1-8
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! This evening, the entire sweep of the Holy Week liturgies comes to joyful climax with the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior. I’ve been preaching all week that the Holy Week liturgies, in their various guises, and emphases, all reveal to us a single startling fact that changes literally everything—God’s undying and unconditional love for each of us, no matter who we are, or where we’ve come from.
On Maundy Thursday we saw how the way of discipleship, of following Jesus, is the way of stripping off our robes, tying a towel around our waist, and kneeling to wash the feet of the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind. Washed by Jesus and fed at his table, we lean into our identity as a sent people booted out the door by the deacon’s dismissal, to be water to wash, oil to heal, and bread to feed to all those whom we encounter.
On Good Friday, we saw that God’s love for us—“He loved them to the end”—is so deep that He seeks to free us from the prison of our deepest sin: trying to secure peace on the backs of sacrificial victims. We saw that Venerating the Cross and calling Good Friday “good” is not about Jesus stepping into God’s justice machine (St. Anselm), but about God stepping into our justice machine and revealing to us the bankruptcy of scapegoating as a means to peace. “No more of this!” God in Jesus declares from the cross, making starkly visible in the gift of the cross the hidden and secret means by which humans have maintained peace through blood-letting since time immemorial. At the foot of the cross, a new community gathered around the gift of God in Christ and not sacrificial violence, is formed. It’s a community of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, with Jesus at its center.
This evening, we gather for the first eucharist of Easter. This is the night when we hear the epic narrative of God’s saving work proclaimed from beginning to end. We hear God’s word proclaimed in Holy Scripture and recognize that God’s only intention from before the foundation of the world is for us to find union and communion with Him. That’s the grand narrative in which we are to find our story. It’s a heroic journey from union with God in paradise, to the fall, through the calling of Israel and the repeated raising up of prophets. Time and again God reaches out his hand to us in invitation and welcome that we might find the peace, happiness, joy, and bliss for which we were fashioned. Finally, in Christ, God becomes human to show us how much he loves us—that we might be children of the light, the light of Christ, that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As the Paschal candle is processed through the nave and we light our candles from its light, we enact this profound truth of the Christian life—God is with us. Christ is in our midst. His light is our light and we gather as God’s people to learn how to live from that light, to open the gift that has been given and live out its world-changing Kingdom consequences in a church without walls.
This evening, we celebrate and welcome six people into the household of God. They have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Their old of way of making meaning of themselves and their lives was submerged under the waters and they came up for air breathing in the Holy Spirit. They live now from God’s pronouncement of them as his beloved child. They breathe, not the death-dealing staleness of unworthiness, shame, isolation, fear, scarcity, and lack, but the life-bestowing air of God’s inexhaustible, abundant love that calls them to fullness of life—to be a truly human human being. Their lives are witness to their new identity as adopted children of God, welcomed into His very life as partakers of the divine nature and fellow workers with Christ for the building up of the Kingdom.
This is the night, when we, too, are reminded of our Baptismal Covenant—of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the one who has gone ahead of us into Galilee. The resurrection, the empty tomb, is essential to our lives as witnesses to the transformative power of God’s love for us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Without the resurrection, without being children of God who have been freed from the dominion and slavery of death we are just another social service agency. I want to look at a few ways the resurrection, being children of the light, makes a difference in how we live our lives as followers of Jesus.
I love how our gospel for this evening begins with the two Marys debating among themselves how they are going to roll away the stone from Jesus’ tomb in order to anoint his body—“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” I can almost hear one of the Marys saying, “Darn it! I forgot my crowbar. Now what are we going to do? Have you got a guy?” “I don’t have a guy, I thought you had a guy!” Isn’t that just how we approach everything in life? When we encounter some roadblock in our lives, we think we are the ones how have to roll away the stone. We think that we, under our own power, are the ones who have to solve the problem and come up with all the answers. No wonder the work for peace and justice, of reconciling the people of the world with one another and with God’s good creation can seem so exhausting! But what happens when the two Marys arrive at the tomb? They discover to their amazement that, “…the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.” God has beaten them to the punch. He has gone before them. Just like it says in our Rite I post communion prayer—“do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in”—God has prepared the way, gone ahead of us, and it’s our job as followers of Jesus to keep walking along the way, to chase after the one who has gone before, to catch up with what God is already doing and make our lives a participation in that life-giving way.
Part of what it means to live as an adopted son or daughter of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is that be on the journey forth into Galilee in the faith that God has opened a way for us already. We are a pilgrim people. We go, not under our own steam, but in the power of the Spirit, opening our lives up to its transformative power. Don’t worry, Jesus says, what you will say when you are brought before the powers of this world. The Holy Spirit will tell you what to say. You don’t have to have all the answers. That’s the good news. What we do have to do is connect to the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It’s not even so much a matter of praying to God, as it is allowing the prayer of Jesus that is already praying us in our hearts to come to fore. The gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and the reality of the Resurrection means that we don’t have to storm heaven with our prayers, or flap our arms madly about in order to get God’s attention. Our effort, if you can call it that, is simply to make a little space, to open ourselves, so that God might happen in us. We open, and wait, and God does the heavy lifting.
This night also reminds us that as we walk in “newness of life” we can silence those stories we’ve inherited from our parents, teachers, nation, and consumer culture. You know the voices that I’m talking about—the ones that tell us we are unlovable, and never enough. Not skinny enough, rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, spiritual enough, faithful enough… on and on and on. In baptism and in the life of the resurrected Christ, we know that those incomplete versions of who we are are simply bogus. We don’t have to buy that bill of goods. God has rolled away that stone, which we have pushed up the hill like Sisyphus year after year.
            The reality of who we really are is found not in those stories from the past that keep us digging in the same old dried up places for the waters gushing up to eternal life, but the living presence of Jesus who goes ahead us. We have a future, a destiny, to which we are called, and it is to be united with Christ in the Spirit to be a proper vehicle for the transformative work of God the Father. Our lives matter, precisely because we have been adopted by God in the Spirit for the bringing about of the Kingdom of God, the New Jersusalem. That’s why it’s so significant that it’s the two Marys who are the evangelists to the other disciples. The two people with no stature and standing in the patriarchal culture of Middle East are the ones who spread the Good News to all the others. God chose the least likely candidates (as he has all along) for the birth of the community centered around the Risen Christ. God chose those on the outside of the established power structures, the ones of no account, to be God-bearers for the whole world. Brothers and sisters, we are those unlikely Marys, who are charged with going out with the Good News that Christ is Risen, that our old world has changed, and that what we take as intractable realities can be overcome, transfigured, into the Kingdom of Heaven. Just ask Sojourner Truth. Just ask Nelson Mandela. Just ask Martin Luther King. Just ask the Philadelphia Eleven. Just ask Gene Robinson.
            Over and over in Holy Scripture, we hear the words, “Do not be alarmed” and “Do not be afraid.” Of course, our deepest fear is the fear of our own death, the fear of our annihilation. The resurrection is not a denial of death. Christians don’t deny death. God, after all raises Jesus from the dead. Jesus dies. But the Easter proclaimation is that God can and has triumphed over death—that when we are at the end of our resources God is not at the end of his. When we face death, God says, “I am on the far side of it.” Our lives are bounded by the horizon of death, but the young man in white robe tells us that our horizons are too small. Our horizon is not God’s horizon. And when we learn to see through the unreality of that horizon, when our fear of death begins to fall away, so many of our other fears and anxieties begin to fall away as well. We find ourselves less afraid of one another. Less afraid of what’s different or uncomfortable. We find ourselves going into Galilee of all places knowing that a little space has been cleared for us, a place where we belong with Jesus in the presence of the Father.
            When you leave this place, go without fear in knowledge that Jesus has gone before you and accompanies you every step of the way. Go knowing that you don’t have to do the heavy lifting, that that’s why there is a God. Go knowing that those stories you’ve told yourself for so long—all the “not enough” we live by—have been rolled away like the stone at the tomb. Go knowing that you have a purpose and meaning—God’s purpose and meaning—and that each of us, trembling, amazed, terrified Marys that we are, are God’s chosen vessels for a new heaven and new earth. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!


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