Easter Vigil sermon.
The text is Romans 6:3-11
Dearly beloved, we gather together this evening to celebrate the mystery of resurrection.
The resurrection of Christ is the central event of the Christian faith. In the season of Easter, we remember how the disciples, in some way that defies rational explanation, experienced Jesus as alive after his crucifixion and death. Many historians over the past two millennia, secular and religious alike, have debated the evidence about what really happened on Easter. What they all agree on, however, is that something significant happened that set Christianity apart from other Messianic Jewish movements of the time (of which there were many) and that the unanimous agreement among the earliest Christians was that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Tonight, I will not presume to settle this longstanding debate about the historical facts. Such questions matter deeply, but I leave the resolution of factual questions to archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars better equipped and better educated than myself. Christian faith in the resurrection is about more than just picking sides between competing sets of alternative facts.
Resurrection, as I said at the beginning, is a mystery. As such, it is more than an historical event that happened once upon a time in Jerusalem; it is an eternal event that is always happening, in every time and place. That is why I say that we have gathered to celebrate the mystery of resurrection, and not merely commemorate it.
When we celebrate something, we give honor to an event that is also an ongoing reality. When we gather together for a birthday or an anniversary, we don’t just remember a birth or a wedding, we celebrate the ongoing reality of a person or a marriage. The Church does the same thing in our celebration of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection.
St. Paul elucidates this aspect of celebration in the passage we read tonight from his Letter to the Romans. Paul writes:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
For Paul, the mystery of the resurrection is an eternal event, in which we all participate. The ritual that makes this eternal event real to us is the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, Paul says, we come to participate consciously in the death and resurrection of Christ. The significance of this conscious participation is primarily ethical, according to Paul. He says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
Paul’s presentation of death and resurrection in Baptism is akin to philosopher John Hick’s description of the spiritual journey as “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” According to both Hick and Paul, the spiritual journey of death and resurrection is a paradigm shift of Copernican proportions, in which our fragile egos come to realize that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe. In the mystery of death and resurrection, we come to embrace the reality that our true selves are rooted and grounded in the sacred energy that is eternally giving birth to the cosmos. Our individual selves are temporary manifestations of that energy, like waves on the surface of an infinitely vast ocean. Our true life, as it were, “is hidden with Christ in God”(Colossians 3:3), and this eternal life is one over which death has no final victory.
Dearly beloved, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to a single event in first-century Judea, but has been unfolding from the beginning of time until now, and I have every reason to trust that it will continue to do so in perpetuity. Furthermore, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to Christians, humans, or even planet Earth, but is active in all corners of the universe simultaneously.
I do not ask you to tonight to put blind faith in these statements, simply because they have been spoken from a pulpit. I invite you to examine the facts for yourselves.
Approximately sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid more than six miles wide slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The impact made a crater 110 miles wide and twelve miles deep, deposited a layer of iridium in soil around the planet, and set off our planet’s fifth mass extinction. Seventy-five percent of all life on the planet, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out by the environmental devastation unleashed by this impact.
There can be no debate about the profound destructiveness of this event, but there is a wonderful and creative aspect to the story that is often overlooked. During the time of the dinosaurs, mammals were small in size and few in number. Tiny shrew-like rodents huddled together in underground burrows in order to avoid the gargantuan lizards that dominated Earth’s surface.
Unlike the reptiles, natural selection had gifted these little mammals with a powerful new tool in their brains, called “the limbic system.” The limbic system is the part of our brains where emotions are produced. It governs our social relationships and allows us to make more complex judgment calls than the basic survival instincts of our brain stem. Because of the limbic system, mammals were able to care for their young andform bonded family groups. Those little rodents were more to us than just vermin infesting the forest floor; they were our great-great-great grandparents.
When the dust finally settled after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, our mammalian ancestors cautiously emerged from their underground dens and began to explore the surface the Earth. In time, they evolved into primates with a highly developed neocortex (that’s the computer part of our brains) and, eventually, into humans.
So, the asteroid impact that caused the death of the dinosaurs also led to the evolution of new forms of life. Because of our cuddly mammalian ancestors and their beautiful little limbic systems, this cataclysmic extinction event opened the door for deeper expressions of love than had ever existed before on planet Earth. And you, the people sitting in these pews tonight, are the direct descendants of those brave and loving creatures.
Here, in the very fabric of our planet, we discover the mystery of resurrection at work on a timescale that predates the human by millions of years. There is also, in this discovery, a profound harmonization between the scientific story of nature and the biblical story of creation. Dr. Francis Collins writes, “God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover [God’s] methods… For me scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship” (Time Magazine, August 7, 2005).
Turning from the Christian story of Easter and the scientific story of creation, we can also findthe great mystery of resurrection at work in our lives today. In every life, it is said, a little rain (and not a few asteroids) must fall. Each of us endures moments (or seasons) of crisis, in which we die a little (or a lot) to one way of being and rise to another. Perhaps a job or a relationship has not turned out as expected; perhaps a diagnosis or accident has derailed one’s plans for the future; perhaps a person or community, in whom one had trusted, has utterly betrayed that trust. Even happy events, like weddings and graduations, can be occasions of death for one’s former way of life.
Like most parents, I can remember that there was once a time before I had children, but I no longer have any emotional access to that memory. Since becoming a father, my energy, my time, and (Lord knows) my money are no longer my own. Adapting Paul’s words to my present circumstances, I can definitively testify that the luxury of my formerly child-free life has been “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” but I can also testify that the experience of parenthood has opened my heart to greater depths of love and raised me to “newness of life” in ways that I could never have imagined. In my life as a father, and in my life as a Christian, I must come to admit that I am no longer the center of my own little world. Instead, I am but a speck of dust in company with my fellow specks, orbiting around a much greater center of our being. My self-centeredness has died and been resurrected as wonder and love on a cosmic scale.
This Easter, I invite you to consider the many deaths and resurrections you have endured in your life. I invite you to ask yourself: What are the cataclysms and crises that brought an end to an old way of life for you? What helped you make it through those days? What new insights and perspectives did you gain from those crises that you continue to carry to this day? Finally, looking at the present challenges in your life or the world around you, what new possibilities might be emerging from just below the surface?
As you ask yourself these questions, I pray that the answers you find and the meaning you create will lead you to “newness of life” in the mystery of resurrection. Whoever you are, whatever your personal beliefs or faith tradition may be, and in whatever way is most meaningful to you, may you journey alongside us Christians in the spirit of our Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”