At the Great Vigil of Easter

Sermon for Saturday, April 4, 2015
The Great Vigil of Easter
8:00pm at St. John’s, Newtonville

Several years ago I remember inviting a neighbor “to come to Easter at Trinity.”   He had a 7 year-old son whom he wanted to bring to church for the first time.   Now, I remember inviting this neighbor “to come to Easter at Trinity” assuming he’d come to the service at 10:00 o’clock on Sunday morning.  Imagine my great surprise when they walked into the Vigil on Saturday night.  I thought, “OMG, this could either really work or… that young man is never going step foot in church again.”

I happened to bump into young “Kevin” walking to school on Monday morning.  Wondering how things went for him, I paused, took a deep breath and said, “Kevin, it was great to have you and your family at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.  What was it like for you to be there?”  Kevin said, “It was so cool; it was just like being in Star Wars!”  After I picked up my jaw from off the sidewalk, I said,  “Just like being in Star Wars…?”  “Totally.  The big fire outside and all those candles were just like the Ewok’s village during the victory celebration in the last episode.  Being in that building was just like being in the Jedi temple.  And that costume you wore, you could have been in the Imperial Senate!  And instead of saying, ‘May the force be with you,’ you said ‘May the Lord be with you.’”

Leave it to a seven year-old to recognize that what we’re doing here this evening is part of a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.  The world we live in, because of the choice that we humans made, is broken and fallen.  As our Baptismal liturgy puts it, we live in a world filled with “evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”  We need but read the newspapers to see every day the ways in which “Satan” is at work in our world.  The name may grate on our Episcopal ears, but we use it in our Baptismal liturgy:  “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness” are rebelling against God.  All around us we can see the effects of his rebellion.

We live in a world that is broken and fallen, AND… God is taking it back.  We live in the midst of this cosmic struggle between “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness,” and God and the forces of goodness and light.  To us in the midst of this struggle God has sent Jesus to save us, and Jesus issues us an invitation:  “Will you join me in my mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other?   My mission is a matter of life and death, not just for you but for the whole world.  I need you.”  Baptism is our saying “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation.

If I were trying to explain to my seven year-old neighbor and Star Wars fan what Baptism means, I might remind him of the original Star Wars movie in which the rebels – the “good guys” – had found a weakness in the Death Star’s defense.  (Remember: the “Death Star” was the Empire’s secret weapon, a battle station with a laser beam powerful enough to destroy whole planets.)  The weakness was a small exhaust port that led to the reactor chambers that powered the Death Star.  If the rebels could fly small fighters in close, they might be able to launch missiles into the exhaust port and set off a chain reaction of explosions that would destroy the Death Star and save the galaxy.  The rebels were able to recruit pilots to fly this dangerous mission, and in a tense scene, the rebel commander briefs the pilots before their departure.  The commander tells how the galaxy’s hopes rest of them, of the difficulty of their mission and of the Death Star’s formidable defenses.

“What good are [we] going to be against that?”  one pilot asks about the defenses.  The commander concedes: “The approach will not be easy.  The target is only two meters wide.  A precise hit will start the chain reaction, and only a precise hit.”    The urgency in their voices lets us know that their mission is a matter of life and death, that the galaxy is counting on them.   The resolve on their faces tells us that they are determined to fly this mission, knowing well it could be their last.  The scene concludes as the commander sends the pilots off:  “May the force be with you!”

That’s how I might explain to my unchurched, Star Wars-loving seven year-old neighbor what Baptism is about:  We are in a cosmic struggle between good and evil.   Our entry into this struggle is a matter of life and death, not just for us but for the world.  Baptism is our saying “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation to join him in his mission, not to fly planes and launch missiles, but to live lives reconciled to God, to live lives filled with forgiveness and love, to live lives that will help Jesus take back this world for God.  “Will you join me in my mission?” Jesus asks.  “I need you.”

To help us understand what Baptism is about, I would point to the Baptismal liturgy itself.  I would point to its language of “Satan” and rebellion, of evil powers that corrupt and destroy.   In that liturgy, in order to help God restore this world to God’s self, Jesus invites us “to turn to him and accept him as our Savior, to put our whole trust in his grace and love, and to follow and obey him as our Lord.“  “Will you join me in my mission?” Jesus asks.  “I need you.”

Unlike in Star Wars, we need not be great pilots to accept Jesus’ invitation.  To work alongside Jesus, to be effective as one of the Baptized, we are called instead be great lovers, able to open ourselves to Jesus’ love for us.   We open ourselves to Jesus’ love by spending time with him – week by week in worship and regularly during the week in prayer.  For as we spend time with him and get to know him, we cannot help but come to love him.  And as we come to love him, we cannot help but want to join him in his mission.  It’s a risky mission – the reading from Romans will soon remind us that, “We have been baptized into his death.”  But our cause for hope – our “Luke Skywalker,” if you will – is that Jesus has already triumphed over death.  The “force” is with him; sin and death cannot touch him.  With Jesus at our side, we need fear no evil, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death; his rod and staff will comfort us.

Some days I wonder if St. Paul was a fan of Star Wars, because there are several “Star Wars”-sounding passages in his letters.  One is in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians, the famous chapter on resurrection.  Paul has just spoken of Christ as the “first fruits of those who have died,” the one who will be raised first, and then those who belong to Christ.  Paul writes:

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:24-25).

I think my seven year-old neighbor would understand what Paul was talking about.

In just a moment, we will revisit a portion of our Baptismal liturgy and renew our Baptismal vows.  I hope that as we do, we remember what is at stake in our Baptism:  our faith is a matter of life and death, not just for us, but for the whole world.  I hope we remember our mission:  to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  I hope we will remember, too, how much Jesus loves us.  All the stories of this past week – from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to the liturgy last night and into this evening – all the stories we have heard this past week tell us of God’s immense, intimate love for us.  Love is the means whereby Jesus will “put all his enemies under his feet.”  Jesus is counting on us, the Baptized, to manifest his love in the world.  “Will you join in my mission?”  Jesus asks us.  “I need you.”

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