Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baptized by the Spirit

Easter 2A * May 1, 2011
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene
John 20:19-31

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. (John 14:27) Jesus says this to the disciples at the Last Supper. Christ’s peace is a greeting, a goodbye, an invitation to renewed ministry, and much, much more.

When the resurrected Jesus appears to his frightened disciples huddled together in their locked room he greets them three different times with these words, “Peace be with you.”

We use this greeting, ‘the Peace of the Lord be always with you,’ in our liturgy as we segue from hearing the Word of God to participating in the Holy Communion. The events on Easter Day, in the disciple’s locked and private room, are remarkably similar to what we experience here, week after week, during our service of Holy Eucharist.

We begin with readings from Hebrew and New Testament scriptures reminding us where we have come from and where Christ is asking us to pack up our bags and journey toward.

The sermon should reveal what is hidden in our travel itinerary. Like Jesus, revealing himself to his friends to be the risen Christ, preachers must reveal the Good News embedded in the ancient and familiar words.

It is with fear and trembling that I continue.

After we experience a ‘revelation’, if you will, of Christ’s message for us today, we re-enact Christ sharing his peace with us. Like the disciples, we are in our own private room of prayer and holy dining. And, just as the disciples were required to do, we turn to our neighbor and do likewise.

We greet one another in the name of the Lord, reminding one another that the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, is the powerful force, the Holy and unruly Wind that will change the world. Peace be with you. Abide in peace as you abide in Christ. And take Christ with you as you enter the world outside these doors.
We pass the peace to remind each other that Christ continues to come to us in scripture, is present in our own good works, and is the creative spark of new life in Christ.

Christ comes to each of us through the channels of peace, revealing his divinity in surprising ways, as we hear in today’s gospel. Christ knows how uniquely human is our doubt and unbelief.

Peace be with you – these deceivingly simple words carry with them the promise that our prayers have been and will be answered, our quavering faith fulfilled, and our isolation vanquished.

The disciples gather in their locked room on the evening of the first day of the week. It is still Easter day, the day that begins with Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb and finding it abandoned.

It is in the early hours before dawn when Mary sees that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. She runs frantically to tell the other disciples that something is wrong. For a painful moment in time, she and the disciples remain in the darkness and fear of unbelief. They do not know what the empty tomb means.

As dawn begins to lighten the sky, Peter approaches the tomb to see for himself what Mary claimed was true. He gazes into the empty tomb and still does not understand what he is seeing. In the darkness, he returns to the frightened disciples, while Mary keeps a tearful watch at the empty tomb.

In the revealing light of dawn Jesus appears to Mary, yet she doesn’t recognize her Lord. Her inability to see, or her unbelief, needs only to hear her name called in that sweet, familiar voice to be completely dissolved. She then believes, and runs in haste and with deep joy to tell the other disciples.
They still do not believe her report.

When Jesus finally appears to Peter and the others, it is the evening of that same day. Darkness in John’s Gospel always denotes confusion and unbelief. (It was in the dark of night that Nicodemus approached Jesus with his first questions.) The darkness mirrors the doubt, fear and confusion of the disciples.

Jesus then uses the pivotal words meant to remind them who he really is, “Peace be with you.” Don’t you remember?

His greeting is intended to pull them back in time to their last meal together, shared in this same room, when he promised that he would return to them.

He had said to them, “Peace I leave with you; my [own] peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father.’” (John 14:27-28)

When Jesus shows himself to the disciples it is the fulfillment of the promise he made to them, just a few days before, at the Last Supper. He comes to them in order to abide with them – to call them each by name, to dwell with them in the peace that passes understanding, and to prepare them for their baptism in the Spirit.

John the Baptist testified that, “the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33) This is the moment of the baptism.

But, if we believe the text, Peter and the others still do not understand. It is not until Jesus intimately reveals to them his wounded hands and side that they finally believe, and finally rejoice, as a community, just as he promised that they would.

He reveals himself to them in a way that breaks through the fear and denial so that, through the chinks in their armor, he can blow the Holy Spirit into them, baptizing them in the Spirit, changing them forever more.

Peter had three chances to wake up, smell the coffee, and believe that he was really in the presence of the risen Lord. As we have experienced with Peter, it always takes three times for him to absorb Jesus’ teachings. (John’s gospel ends with the story of Jesus telling Peter three times to “Feed my sheep.”)

Once Peter and the others finally twig to who it is, standing among them, they rejoice, but they do not profess their belief in Jesus’ true nature: the Risen Christ, Son of God, in their very own presence.

That honor is reserved for Thomas. Once we understand how difficult it is for the disciples to understand, who know Jesus so well yet cannot recognize him in this resurrected form, we can have some compassion for Thomas.

Those who are in the room with Jesus need time and some extra help from their teacher in order to fully comprehend the ramifications of what they are seeing. Thomas isn’t there, for one reason or another, and his reaction to the news that they have seen the Lord is the same as the disciples hearing Mary’s report.

“I have seen the Lord!” cries Mary, but they believe her not. “We have seen the Lord!” cry the disciples, but Thomas believes them not. Peter didn’t believe when Mary told him, so why should Thomas believe what he hasn’t seen?

We need to take a step away from this story for a minute to see the full context of this locked room where the revelations take place. We must remember that this gospel was written during a time of great persecution and betrayal. The new Christian movement was literally being disowned by their parents in the faith – the Jewish authorities.

When we hear the words, ‘for fear of the Jews’ we are reminded of the context in which this gospel was written. Early Christian communities were being persecuted, punished, and banned permanently from the synagogues. Church took place in family homes, in rooms that were often locked and guarded for fear that they would be raided and run out of town, or worse.

Much of what we read in this story of Jesus appearing, in his newly resurrected form, to his community of disciples is designed to mirror early Christian worship and prayer.

Christians secretly gathered together in private rooms to share their experiences of Christ in their midst, to read passages of Hebrew scripture, to hear the occasional letter from Christian missionaries, like Paul, and to share in the Eucharistic Feast. From these early meetings evolved our current liturgies of worship and praise.

But fear was an integral part of the early Christian experience. When Christ says, ‘Peace be with you’, he is wiping away fear and replacing it with faith.
God intends for them to be right where they are, doing exactly what they are doing. Just as we, thousands of years later, are acting out our faith in the drama of our familiar liturgy – eager to hear God’s words of Peace to us, so that we can leave refreshed, comforted, and free of fear.

Jesus baptizes them with the Holy Spirit, creating in them a new humanity, reminding us that God created the original Adam, or earth-being, by blowing God-breath into lifeless creatures: inspiring new life.

It is as new life-forms that Jesus sends them out into the world, as he was sent into the world. Just as he revealed himself to the disciples, they are to reveal themselves to others as Christ-bearers. ‘Peace be with you,’ is to become the emblem of bearing Christ, and a sign of the new community.

When we come back to the locked room a week later, it is a Sunday evening. We recognize that this is just like the gathering of Christians on Sundays – a practice already in use during the time this gospel was written, in the late first century.

Thomas is with the disciples when Jesus appears and singles him out. In the midst of all of his friends, Jesus calls him to come and touch the wounds so that he can believe. And that is all it takes. At Jesus’ invitation Thomas falls on his knees and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Each part of the story has presented a different way to perceive the Lord. Mary hears Jesus say her name, Peter and the other disciples see his wounds, and Thomas is invited to actually touch the risen Christ, which is enough to inspire the first proclamation of Jesus’ true nature – Lord and God.

The climax of this story occurs just after Thomas’ witness. Jesus first addresses Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then, Jesus turns to us, to the readers of this gospel and says to us, gathered here, in this room, “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We are the climax of this story because we depend on the hearing the Good News from others. Blessed are we who have come to believe that Jesus came into the world in order save us from ourselves.

The descriptions of the various ways Jesus’ disciples experience his risen form is one of the most compelling proofs of the resurrection. Something powerful happened to Christ’s followers after his death. Each one of them experienced the resurrection in a different way. Each received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in ways that called upon their individual gifts and created new, often powerful and courageous beings.

God raised Jesus from the dead in order to establish once and for all that the birth pangs of death are destroyed. Death no longer has the power to create or control life beyond the grave. Creation is in the hands of God. And it is through God that we receive the gift of the Spirit – the innovative, creative force that calls us to become bearers of Truth.

It is in Peace that we carry the message of hope out into the world. The Peace of the Lord is none other than the power of God, pulling Christ out of the grave in order to bring us life.

May the Peace of the Lord be always with you. Amen.

Easter Vigil, 2011

And God Saw that it was Good
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene
Easter Vigil 2011

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to visit Jesus’ tomb it was the dawn of a new creation. In the twilight of this momentous morning God was doing a new thing. Like the beginning of time, on the first day of the week, when God separated the formless void of chaos and darkness by blowing His Holy Wind over the waters, God again blew a powerful wind deep into the earth shaking it fiercely with the birth pangs of resurrecting Christ, our new light. And God saw that it was good.

Christ is the new light through which we participate in birthing a new world.
The Paschal candle plays a primary role in the Great Vigil of Easter, reminding us that when Christ died our light went out, but with his resurrection at dawn, “on the first day” the light of our own new life with Christ is lit forever, never to go out again.

The two Marys, through their simple act of being present to Christ throughout his suffering and death, never once abandoning him, were the first to hear the Easter message, “Do not be afraid, for He is risen!”

Like the dawn of creation, Christ’s resurrection is the creation of a new form of life: inviting us all to abandon our old ways of thinking in order to follow Christ into an unknown, but abundantly creative and surprising future.

Tonight, we are literally co-creators with God as we bring new life to pass through Christ, in our liturgy. God is doing a new thing which we celebrate through an ancient and mystical midnight service, signifying the end of Lent. Tonight’s great liturgy of Easter pulls us into the present moment, where Christ rises again and leads us all into a new and resurrected life.

Christ’s death and resurrection is a culmination of the ancient Jewish celebration of Passover (or pascha). As God rescued the Hebrew people from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, so God rescues us through the death and resurrection of Christ: the central saving act of God in the New Testament.

God has a habit of creating new things when we least expect it. Tonight we hear the story of our Hebrew ancestors crossing the Red Sea. This parting of the waters is another mirror of the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit-filled wind separated the waters as it had once separated the dark and watery void from the light.

It was in this new light that God beckoned his people to follow Moses into the Promised Land, never again to be bound as slaves in Egypt. Our Christian ancestors in the faith saw in this deliverance of the Israelites an image of our passing through the waters of death into the promised land of our Baptism in Christ.
We participate sacramentally in Christ’s death and resurrection each time we celebrate the Eucharist, but the primary celebration of our Christian year is this Great Vigil of Easter.

During the Vigil the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist come together in dramatic fashion in the celebration of joy that is ours on Easter morn. This night of all nights is also the night of our own salvation, where all who believe in Christ are forever saved from sin and death.

In the words of Leonel Mitchell, in his book “Praying Shapes Believing”, it is “in the baptismal waters [where] sin is washed away and grace [is] given – a grace which establishes, through Christ, a new relationship between God and the race of Adam”.

Tonight we hear the great narrative of our Christian faith from a series of readings out of the Hebrew and New Testaments, plus multiple collects and psalms that draw our attention to Paschal, or Easter, themes. The readings are our final class, or a catechumenate review of Scripture, to prepare us all for Baptism.

This ancient Vigil service contains the passion and resurrection in a single, unitive celebration. Early Christian liturgists and theologians developed this service out of an instinct that the power of God in the resurrection is a mystery that emerges by, through, and in human suffering.

In our participation in the renewal of our baptismal covenant, we are plunged into the water of our own baptismal renewal, before we receive the Eucharist as if for the first time. The effect is powerful.

In the early church, baptism into the body of Christ occurred at Easter, after months (and sometimes years) of catechumenate study. Baptism was seen as the entry point into the great Paschal Mystery which focused their attention on the great redemptive themes of our faith.

Immersion into the water is intended as a burial into Christ’s death, followed by a physical rising out of the water as a sign of our resurrection with Christ. We enter the life of the resurrected where time is compressed and the end of time is upon us now, calling us to urgent and new action based in Christ’s love.

The order for Holy Baptism emphasizes God’s role in creation: especially in the Thanksgiving over the Water:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage
in Egypt into the land of promise.

In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy
Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death
and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are
buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his
resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

It is in the reborn state that we approach the Eucharist. In our Eucharistic Prayer we affirm the relation of God to all of creation. The earliest Eucharistic prayers always included a thanksgiving for God’s creation, echoing the ancient Jewish prayers of thanksgiving.

Eucharistic Prayer II in Rite I includes the line, “for that thou didst create heaven and earth,” and in Eucharistic Prayer A, which we will use tonight, we hear this:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and every-
where to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of
heaven and earth.

But chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious
resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the
true Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and has taken
away the sin of the world. By his death he has destroyed
death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us
everlasting life.

This prayer, known as the Proper Preface for Easter, contains the images of Christ’s triumph over death, reminding us that suffering does not have the last word.

As the Hebrew people suffered during the years of slavery in Egypt, and as Christ’s followers suffered in their bewildered horror at his painful death, we have a tendency to suffer through our days as if we have not been already saved.

In our weekly liturgy we are asked to gather up our sufferings in order to present them to God as our gift – along with our faith and hope in the new life we receive through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Like the two women at the tomb, the light of Christ beckons us to follow Christ as he awaits us in Galilee. The only way there is through actively reaching out to others to join us in the quest. We are on our way to salvation, and we must spread the Good News.

“Go quickly,” says the angel, “and tell the others, ‘He has been raised from the dead and has gone ahead of you – waiting for you as he leads the way.’” And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day of our renewed life in Christ.