A sermon on the Great Vigil of Easter
The question I put to you tonight is are you saved? If you are then from what are you saved?
This is a rather nasty question to ask Episcopalians. If we were Baptists or Evangelicals of any kind my guess is that we would instantly know the answer. We would know that Jesus died for our sins upon the cross. Jesus is God’s sacrifice for the sin of the world. Jesus died in my place as the payment God exacted for my sins and the sins of the world. As Episcopalians does being saved mean anything to us any more when the fear of hell and damnation recedes? When our eyes no longer anxiously focus on the future prospect of salvation in the afterlife as a precarious prize that can be at any moment snatched away from us if we do the wrong thing.
The question are we saved becomes of little interest for us. Yet, it’s a question that remains at the heart of this liturgy of the Great Vigil of Easter. It’s a question at the heart of our Baptism and our weekly participation in the Eucharist. Yet, it’s a question we tend to skip the question by saying – of course we are saved. Doesn’t a loving God desire to save everyone. I personally believe this to be true. But when we can no longer say with any conviction that it’s the fires of eternal hell that we feel saved from – then the question – from what is it we are saved remains a problematic one.
The simple answer to the question of what are we saved from is that we are saved from life as a living death without the promise of new life. In the Epistle we read tonight, Paul is at pains to show that Jesus’ death and resurrection is not only about Jesus, it is also about us. For he says: do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death …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. For Paul, Jesus’ death is not a substitution for ours as atonement theology would have it. It is an invitation to participation. God’s saving love invites us into a covenant whereby we join Jesus in his death so that we too might be raised to new life. Paul says so consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Rather like the question I began with – are you saved? The language of dying to sin is problematic language for Episcopalians. As a group we’re not much into sin anymore. Why is that?
I think its not that we reject the notion of sin, but we tend to disidentify from the way a largely absolutist Christian culture, both Catholic and Protestant defines sin as something private and personal and largely to do with sexual behavior. For Anglicans – community is at the heart of our identity. For us sin cannot be narrowly defined as private. Although individual confession has its place, our standard practice is corporate confession because sin is something that distorts our community life. Sin is systemic and manifests as a struggle against the principalities and forces that dominate and control our world. In other words sin lodges in systems and as Individuals we need to respond.
Anglican understanding is very Pauline. For Paul the Cross and Resurrection confront the values of Roman imperialism. This is what Paul means when he talks of the world. He is referring to the political values that enthrone oppression through violence. Personal sin for Paul is the way cosmic forces of fear, oppression and violence become internalized in each of us and become accepted as our own moral compass. We become conformed to the values of the world. Our old self of sin needs transformation through our own participation in the death and rising of Christ.
At the personal level how is this transformation accomplished? If sin is systemic, societal, cultural, or as Paul would put it, cosmic, each of us has to recognize and own our part in this. When we do we become transformed from the inside out. Although society and its cultural and political order remains much as it is, we are no longer conformed by it or conformed to it. We come to have minds of our own.
Paul tells us this internal transformation comes about as a result of our baptism into the death and new life of Christ. He means more than the ceremony of Christening. He means becoming alive to the implications of the baptismal promises we have just reaffirmed this night. If we let them these promises transform and liberate us. Paul’s life experience gives us the clue. He experiences a major shift in his identity. Saul becomes Paul. Persecutor becomes apostle. Anger and rage transform into love and passion. If we live out the implications of our baptismal promises what can we expect to notice?
We can expect to notice a shift in our identity. So what is identity? Identity is a kind of story we construct to tell ourselves and others about who we are. When we become more aware of our identity as rooted in the story we have come to tell ourselves about ourselves it then becomes possible to wonder – is this the only story I can tell? This process of coming to a deeper awareness is the process of the spiritual life. Being saved is being baptized into the death of Christ through the continual day-by-day process of dying to our old selves and becoming alive to the new life God invites us to take up. This involves a shift in identity, a change in the personal story we construct from our experience to tell us and the world who we are. As our hearts and our minds open through our spiritual practice of prayer, worship and service God’s Grace rushes into the opening. Grace then becomes and integral part of the process of transformation. For in the larger scheme our transformation is part of God’s work of redeeming the world. We begin to tell a different story about who we are and this heralds a shift in identity. New identities express through different choices leading to different actions. We notice a deepening of gratitude, an increase in generosity, a strengthening of participation in community through service.
Never forget that we are baptized into community where your story and my story are in the perpetual process of becoming our story. New life is breathed into dry bones.