Easter Vigil 2002
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
We stand here tonight at the cusp – post-Crucifixion, pre-Resurrection. We stand in the darkness remembering the despair of Jesus’ friends and followers; feeling our own despair – our own pain and losses -- kindled. We rehearse our sacred history – telling stories of the many times God’s people have stood in darkness and hopelessness and found, against all the odds, against all reason, their lives redeemed, restored, even resurrected. We stand here in darkness, with only this one small flame of hope to sustain us, trying to make sense of it all and trying to believe that the light will break through again.
Trying to make sense of it all. There’s an ancient theory offered to make sense of the Crucifixion. It’s the theory of the Atonement. That theory holds that this is all about a bill come due, a debt that had to be paid. The thinking is that the world is held in a delicate balance. That every sin must be atoned for, every debt paid. And since no human is sinless nor able to set right the sins we daily commit we would all have to die in the end – to give up our lives and souls for eternity – to pay our debts. The only way we can be saved is for someone else to pay our debt. But no one is sinless; no one has the capital to pay our way out. So God, loving us and unwilling to lose us, sent God’s own self, sinless, to live among us and take on our debt. The suffering and death of Jesus, according to the theory of the Atonement, pays for our sins and buys our salvation.
It’s an interesting theory, but not one that I find compelling. I’m not convinced by the idea of a bookkeeper God who demands payment from us for being the less than perfect creatures we were created to be. I’m certainly not inclined to worship such a God.
I’m more moved and convinced by what someone else (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who) once said: Crucifixion is not God’s response to human sin. It is human sin’s response to God’s Love.
We’ve talked before about the authorities killing Jesus because he threatened the status quo and, therefore, their positions. But we’re reminded in the various Passion readings that it was not only the Romans and temple authorities who called for the Crucifixion, but the regular folks as well – the folks who suffered under the status quo. This is, perhaps, harder to understand, bewildering even, unless we listen again to the Exodus story we heard tonight. The people of Israel, people who had suffered grievously in Egypt, became angry at Moses for leading them to freedom. Blessed with water in the desert, manna and quail from heaven, and freedom, they yearned for the life that they knew, that was familiar to them and they turned on Moses. So maybe it’s not a surprise that the people turned on Jesus. He threatened change – profound change – and change, even change for the better, is frightening.
But I want to suggest that the cry to crucify Jesus was rooted not just in fear of change but that it was the response of sin to God’s love.
Sin prefers to live in darkness. It grows in darkness. The light can kill it. Those of us gathered here don’t want to be sinners. We’d like to clean up our lives. We’d like to go down into those dark places and clean them out – or at least we’d like for them to be clean. But too often we take a look and are overwhelmed. There’s mold in that basement, and other bad stuff. It’s too big a job. So we close our eyes and close the door … and our sin flourishes undisturbed.
But Jesus, God’s very Love incarnate, just by being Jesus, exposes sin. Jesus, in his very being, by the way he lived his life: by his integrity, his steadfast refusal to compromise or to bully, by his sinlessness and authenticity, showed, in contrast, our sinfulness and inauthenticity. He turns on the lights. And sin’s response is to try to turn them off again.
Sin has another trick, as well – diversion. But it doesn’t work with Jesus. Jesus won’t bite. If he had just got mad and yelled, coerced, complained – if he had just done that, then the sinners could get mad in return. Their attention (our attention) could be drawn away from their own failings and focussed instead on the conflict. But Jesus would never bite. He never got drawn in. Never provided that escape. He didn’t say, “you must do this, you must stop that”. He said, “if you want what it is you see in me, eternal life, oneness with God, to be entirely and only what and who you were created to be, if you want these things, then here is what you must do. Follow me. Give away all your possessions, feed the hungry… But it’s entirely up to you.”
He would never bite. Never provide the conflict that provided the escape.
And so, when Jesus was around, when Jesus is around, there is no way to avoid that gaze that reflects back to us the depths and reality of ourselves.
And so all those things we can admit to in a pro-forma way: Oh yes, there’s mold in the basement. Bad thing, that. We’ll be wanting to do something about that. Or, as in the General Confession: We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have done those things which we ought not to have done and not done those things which we ought to have done… we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, not loved God with our whole heart.
Or, more explicitly (from the Ash Wednesday confession):
we have been jealous of those more fortunate than ourselves.
We have been impatient with those who are different.
We’ve not been careful of the environment, failing to treat it as God’s own creation and to protect it for generations to come.
We’ve held onto resentments, refusing to forgive.
We’ve held onto pride, refusing to ask for, or accept, forgiveness.
We’ve spent our resources of money, time, and spirit in ways rooted more in fear than in generosity.
We’ve done things that were selfish.
We’ve said things that were hurtful – even destructive.
We’ve thought things that were uncharitable.
We’ve failed to commend the good/the God that is in us.
We’ve failed to use our talents – to spend ourselves.
We have sinned against God, against our neighbors, and against ourselves.
But, though we can read the words out when it comes to that place in our common prayers, we don’t really want to look deep inside and identify the ways those things are particularly, specifically, true about ourselves.
But – when we encounter Jesus, we have no choice. Standing next to his presence, his unflinching authenticity and sinlessness, every corner, every nook and cranny, of our souls is cast into clear, unavoidable, unambiguous, unrationalizable relief.
The only way for sin to avoid looking at itself when confronted with Jesus is to create a diversion, to pick a fight. And Jesus won’t play along – he won’t fight.
So sin kills him.
People like us did it once. They nailed him to a cross to get away from that confrontation. We do it – every time we turn him into a plastic icon rather than a real presence in our lives. Every time we close our eyes or turn away to avoid letting him live in us. Every time we mouth the words without letting them penetrate to the places where we really live. Sin, our sin killed and kills him.
But then there’s Love.
Jesus’ love that goes to his death rather than be untrue to God, himself, or us.
LOVE that knowingly walks the path that leads to his own torment in order to show us who and whose we are and who and how we can be.
LOVE that, knowing it is our sin, our choices, that killed and kill him, goes to his death loving us still, praying for us still. And then comes back – to us.
Love bears all things – even our sins.
believes all things – believes in us still
hopes all things – that we will, indeed, embrace our own salvation, claim the love that is there for, with, and in us.
endures all things – the agony of as-yet unrequited love, as-yet unfulfilled hopes.
Love never dies. Jesus’ love, God’s love, never dies. But neither does the love given to us to live in us. Within us still, every one of us, is love.
Love that can find the faith to look Jesus, our God, in the eye and not flinch from what we see of ourselves there.
Love that is able to accept the understanding and forgiveness and LOVE which we see in response.
Love that has the courage to surrender itself to LOVE and open itself to be changed – to be healed.
Love, in us, will allow LOVE to wash away our sins and make us clean and whole and authentic.
Sin kills in order that it might continue to hide in darkened confinement.
Love endures the agonies and the ecstasies of birthing new life.
Even now Jesus is arising to offer his embrace to those he loves – to us.
And, just like those who crucified him, and those who followed, and gave their lives to, him, we have within us – each of us – sin and love.
With which will you greet his return?