Sunday, April 12, 2009

Die to Self to Live for All

Easter Vigil 2009
11 April 2009

St Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

+ Lover of the universe, your goodness is stronger than evil; your love is stronger than hate; your light is stronger than darkness; your life in us is stronger than death; your victory is ours through Jesus your Beloved who loved us. Amen.

There are few occasions on which it is more difficult to preach than the Easter Vigil or tomorrow morning’s celebration of Easter. The first difficulty is, of course, the challenge of preaching on the resurrection itself. Are we talking about the resuscitation of a corpse, the immortality of the soul or the Jewish-Christian belief that, on the day of God’s choosing, we shall rise from the dead, clothed in flesh? Frederick Buechner, an American novelist and theologian, writes

4. All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made him the particular human being he was and which he needs something like a body to express: his personality, the way he looked, the sound of his voice, his peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense his face.
5. The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of man’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love.
(Buechner 1992, 235-236)

But a more significant challenge is to resist the tendency of some Christians to devote their energies discussing the resurrection as a matter only of the past or the future. There are Christians who will tonight and tomorrow expend considerable energy in a vigorous defence of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. While this is a faithful exercise, it is a past-oriented one. There are other Christians who will expend considerable energy tonight and tomorrow focusing on either a spiritual understanding of the resurrection, that is to say, the immortality of the soul or the power of life over death or they will speak about various end-of-time scenarios, some of these scenarios being more dramatic than others. These Christians are engaged in what I would call a future-oriented exercise.

But in tonight’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, we hear a man engaged in a present-oriented exercise of Christian theology. While he does speak of past and future, I want you to hear again some of the present-oriented language he uses.

4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

I do not doubt that Paul has faith in the future resurrection of the body, but his present concern is to encourage the Christians in Rome to live today in the power of the resurrection. To borrow an old saying, Paul does not want the Christians in Rome to be so heavenly-minded that they are no damn earthly good.

Paul speaks of our dying with Christ. Let me unpack that phrase a little bit, so that you can hear what I mean when I say we are being called to a present-oriented understanding of resurrection.

I have long believed that we pay too little attention to the drama in the garden when Jesus utters those fateful words, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42) An early Christian theologian, Irenaeus, compared the life of Jesus with the life of Adam. Both were formed by God’s Spirit from virgin material; both were given a mission to undertake. Adam disobeyed and death came into the world; Jesus obeyed and death was defeated. The key moment is the decision to choose to participate in God’s mission rather than one’s own self-interest. We hear echoes of the importance of this choice in a passage from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death --- even death on a cross.

This is the death in which we share. There is perhaps no more difficult death than dying to the illusion that I am the centre of the kosmos and to our culture’s illusion of the all-powerful self that claims my allegiance. To be baptized, whether as a child or as an adult, is to die to the powerful Western myth of an individual autonomy that makes us a law unto ourselves.

To be baptized is to pray next to Jesus in the garden, ‘Holy One, not my will but yours be done.’ To be baptized is to become who we really are, the beloved of God who have been called by God to share in carrying out the plan of salvation, to raise up things which were cast down, to make new things which had grown old and to bring all things to their perfection as made known in Jesus of Nazareth. We are to participate in the here and now in a project spoken of by the same Irenaeus I mentioned earlier: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’

The glory of God is found in a human being who has learned to live the resurrection in the present as well as remember the past and hope for the future. The glory of God is found in a human being who has learned that eternal life is not only a future hope but is also a present reality. The glory of God is found in a human being who is not afraid to die to the counterfeits that masquerade as truth in the marketplace of a consumer culture.

The Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, wrote a collection of poems entitled Threatened with Resurrection. These poems come from her experience of the oppression and violence that consumed her country and sent many Guatemalans to this country as refugees. Let me close with just one.

You seduced me, Lord,
and I was seduced.

You grasped my heart firmly
with the outstretched hand
of the old Indian
who has been dying for centuries
without a roof,
without medicines,
without a doctor,
asking for the bread of justice
at the door of a locked church.

You seduced me, Lord,
and I let myself be seduced.
You have conquered me,
you have been stronger than I.

This is why those who were my friends
are retreating in fear
and close their doors to me.
Because each time
I hear your Word
I must cry out:
Violence and ruin
to those who manufacture
orphans, misery, and death!
How many times
did I wish to close my ears
to your voice,
to harden my heart,
to seal my lips,
to forget forever
the pain of the persecuted,
the helplessness of the outcast,
and the agony of the tortured,
but your pain
was my own
and your love burned in my heart.

You accompany me,
you weep with my weeping,
and moan during my prayer,
and pour yourself out in my cry.

Because you are
stronger than I,
I have let myself be a captive,
and your love
burns in my heart.
(Morley 1992, 58-59)

This poem speaks of a human being fully alive, a human being who lives the resurrection in the present. The powers of our world that still deny the dignity of every human person and that still find ways to perpetuate injustice are not threatened by ancient stories; but they are threatened by resurrection, a reality that is unleashed in the present. The illusions of our consumer culture that tell us that our self-worth depends upon possessing this commodity or looking like this celebrity are not threatened by future hopes; but they are threatened by resurrection, the revelation of what it means to be a human being truly alive.

Let us not forget the stories of the Lord’s resurrection, for they are the foundation of our present. Let us not forget our hopes for the future, for they are the fuel that powers our present. But let us not forget to live in the present, to call others to die to self in order to live for all. Amen.

Works cited

Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

Janet Morley, ed., Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992).