Friday, April 6, 2012

Water, Fire & Breakfast - An Easter Vigil Sermon by Bp N.T. Wright

The great Easter Vigil Mass is the most important church service of the whole year. It must begin after nightfall and before dawn. Many parishes have it on the evening of Holy Saturday. Some still hold it at midnight. Others begin it just before sunrise - often the case in England. This sermon was preached at the Easter Vigil in Durham Cathedral, on Easter Day (3rd April) 2010 by Dr N.T. "Tom" Wright, Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010, and now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. (He is widely respected ecumenically for his scholarship and in particular his historical apologetics. He was the Anglican observer and an invited speaker at the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops in 2008 on "the Word of God." His home page is HERE.) 

If you remember little else about this morning, you will probably remember it as the day you got up at half past three in the morning to go to church. I hope you remember a lot more than that, but that’s a good start: because the whole point of Easter, and of baptism and confirmation, is that it’s all about getting up ridiculously early, being splashed with water to wake you up, and perhaps, in old-fashioned houses at least, lighting a fire somewhere so that the house can warm up for everyone else. Then, when all that’s done, you can think about some breakfast. Well, that’s what we’re about this morning – the water, the fire, and the breakfast: and all because Easter is about waking up ridiculously early while everybody else is asleep. That’s why, at the first Easter, everyone was shocked and startled – the women perplexed and terrified, the men disbelieving and amazed. This was all wrong. Things shouldn’t happen like this. The world was surprised and unready. It was still asleep. And it still is. 

You see, the popular perception of Easter lets us down in a big way. I don’t just mean the chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks and rabbits. In a sense, they are all just good fun. Nobody in their right mind would mistake them for the real thing. No: the danger lies deeper. Many people in our culture, including many Christians, think of Easter basically as a happy ending after the horror and shame of Good Friday: ‘Oh, that’s all right, he came back to life, well, sort of, and so he’s in heaven now so that’s all OK, isn’t it?’ And the answer to that should be, ‘No, that’s not OK; that’s not what Easter is about at all.’ The whole point of Easter is that God is going to sort out the whole world, put the whole thing to rights once and for all – this world, not just somewhere called ‘heaven’ – and the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of that great work. 

What’s that got to do with getting up two hours before sunrise, and with the water, the fire and the breakfast? Well, pretty much everything. You see, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it’s still night-time. Nothing new has really happened. The world would much prefer to believe that Christianity is simply another ‘religion’, offering another strange spiritual option, with a few odd miracles to back up its claims, but that really nothing’s changed. Corruption and death still rule the world, and Easter simply whispers that there’s a way of escape if we want it. No! Believe it or disbelieve it (though you, here, had better believe it!), the point of Easter is that when Jesus came out of the tomb he was alive again in a bodily life which was the start of the new physical world which God is going to make. And that means that God’s time has jumped forwards, so that what we thought would happen at the very end – God putting everything to rights at last – has leapt forwards into the present, into the middle of our time, our history. When the early Christians told the story of Jesus’ resurrection, that’s what they were saying: God’s new world has begun, and you are invited to be part of that new world – part of the world which lives on God’s time, and lives in God’s new way. 

And it’s all because of Jesus, and his dying and rising again. God’s new time is the time when new life happens, but new life can only happen when death has been overcome. God’s new world is the world where sins are forgiven, but forgiveness can only happen when sins have been dealt with. God’s new life is the genuinely human life, the life that fully reflects who God actually is, but we can only even dream of that holiness if something happens to us and in us so that we ourselves make the transition from the way of death – which is what seems, to us, the ‘ordinary’ way of living – to the way of life. And the way we are brought into that new time, that new world, and that new life, is through being plunged into the death and resurrection of Jesus so that his death becomes ours, and his resurrection becomes ours. 

Jesus himself showed how we are to do this. When we are baptized, we are drowned in his death and come out the other side into his new life, his new world, his new time. This is the meaning of the water of baptism. 

But to be complete, we creatures of earth need not only the water but also the fire. When people come to confirmation they not only ‘confirm’ the promises made at their baptism – promises about dying with Jesus and rising again with him – but also pray for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the living fire of God’s own presence and power, and that fire comes to live inside us – us together, and us individually – so that we can live the new life, be part of the new world, and in particular live on God’s time, which is always ahead of the sleepy time of the rest of the world. When you pray for the Holy Spirit, and when together as a church we pray for the Spirit to come upon us – and today in particular upon you – God answers that prayer in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes it’s quite dramatic, and that’s fine. Sometimes it’s slow and quiet, and you will only gradually realise that things are different. You are to take responsibility for thinking it through and working out what God is now calling you do be and to do, what his new life will look like in and through you. As the Americans say, ‘You do the math’: figure out what are the ways in which he is calling you to wake up and live on a different time to the rest of the world, and in particular the ways in which he is lighting a fire inside you not simply to warm you up but so that, through you, he can warm up the rest of the world. 

Because that’s the point of all this. Confirmation isn’t simply about God’s gift of himself, his own Spirit, to live within you. Confirmation is about God’s gift of himself through you to the rest of the world – more particularly, to the bits of the world where he has called you and put you. You are God’s Easter-presents to your family, to your school, your place of work, to our country and our world. The early Christians used to dress people up in white clothes after baptism, to symbolize the new life they had now entered. Perhaps we should dress you up as large chocolate eggs, to make the point that God is giving you to the world all around as a delightful and delicious Easter-present. I know people don’t usually think of Christians that way, but perhaps it’s time they did. After all, in many towns and cities and villages it’s mostly Christians who are volunteering to help in the hospice, or visiting in the prisons, or doing meals on wheels, or whatever. Yes, several people do these things who are not Christians, but again and again you’ll find they are. It’s Christians, mostly, who are campaigning on behalf of asylum seekers, who are working as Town Pastors in the confused night-time world of our city streets. Christians should be at the forefront of the world’s celebrations and its tragedies: rejoice, said Paul, with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. You are the salt of the earth, said Jesus; you are the light of the world. You are the fire that God is lighting in our cold, dark, nighttime world, the fire that says it’s morning-time and the place needs warming up. Christians are people who have been washed in the water and filled with the fire, abandoning the old life and bringing the new one to birth in a surprised and unready world. 

And the water-and-fire people are then the breakfast-people. You can’t sustain the new life by yourself. You can’t live in God’s new world, on God’s new time, without constant help. And the help we need is Jesus himself – his death to go on dealing with our sins and failings, his new life to go on becoming ours, for us and through us. As we come to his feast, the bread and the wine become heavy with fresh meaning, Passover-meaning, Jesus-meaning, meaning for us and for the world through us. This, too, is shocking and puzzling to many people. How on earth can this simple, symbolic meal carry all that power? 

The short answer is: because Jesus said it would when he told us to do it. The deeper reasons are all there to be explored in due course. But today, as we come to the first Eucharist of this Easter, you come with special joy, because you are today’s water-and-fire people, and, as we share in this breakfast with you, you remind us that all of us who belong to Jesus are water-and-fire people, all of us Easter-presents to and for God’s whole world. Thank you for standing up and being counted today. Thank God for all that he’s doing in your lives and through you for the rest of us. No doubt there will be times when you, like the rest of us and like those first disciples, will be perplexed and amazed, perhaps even disbelieving and terrified. But Jesus Christ is risen again! He is on the loose, on the move, at work in his world and in our midst, and you today are the living witnesses to the power of his death and resurrection and Spirit. Remember the water; pray for the fire; come to the breakfast, and be ready then to go out live as God’s Easter presents to his surprised and unready world.


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