In the Presence of the Risen One
The Great Vigil of Easter
April 20, 2019
Let us remember that now, and at all times and in all places, we are in the holy presence of God.
If we could take everything we do in the course of a year, every time we worship, ever time we pray, every good deed done in the name of Jesus; take all that and the reason why we do it, package it, and you have tonight.
This is the night we celebrate that Jesus is alive; that he is still with us, which means, we are WITH him.We live in his presence.
That’s why I started by inviting you to remember that holy presence.
That invitation actually comes from the De la Salle Christian Brothers who taught me in high school.The brothers would start every class that way.And when you hear, “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God,” class after class, week after week, year after year, it has a way of staying with you.
So tonight, l offer you that practice, as we look for the Risen Jesus.
The early Christians were certainly aware that they lived in the presence of God; and not just those who knew Jesus before his death, but even those who came after.They would gather on a night like this.They believed, as they understood things then, that Jesus might use this “anniversary” of his death and resurrection to come back in glory.So they would gather and bring with them new believers – baptizing them, as we are about to do – and wait. They would keep vigil.
And while they waited, they would link the stories of God’s salvation – how he made his presence known to them through Hebrew Scripture – to the story of Jesus. We just did that ourselves.We heard…
..how God created this magnificent universe and gave it to us; how he saw that it was good; and how we humans, well, we did not think it was good enough. We wanted more.
..how God said, “You are still my people. I will lead you to where you are going – to where you need to be – even if I have to part the seas to get you there safely.”
..how God could take dry, brittle bones and put flesh on them and breathe life into them, and bring them up out of their graves.
What incredible stories!Such dramatic events!(And given how rain has affected our Holy Week services this year, we easily could have added the story of The Flood to these readings.)
Then, finally the greatest story of all…
..how Jesus Himself, willingly killed on the cross, dead three days, bursts out of the tomb, alive and well!And oh, how lucky those disciples who witnessed it.If only we could have been there.How much easier it would be for us to believe.
But was it so easy for them?
If you look closely at those followers – how they live and how they act – you’ll see that they are very much like us, and we like them.
In the Gospel we just heard, the women are going to the tomb for a customary task. When they discover that things aren’t what they were expecting, they’re naturally “perplexed.”In the uncertainty of that moment, you might allow them to be “terrified.” Now the apostles, they don’t believe a word. And Peter, yes, Peter the great Rock, the best that can be said is that he was curious.And then what? He saw the empty tomb and simply went home “amazed.” Nothing else. He just went home.
Sounds like basic human behavior to me; somewhere between predictable and totally perplexing.
In other Resurrection accounts, the disciples are slow to recognize Jesus.He’s the stranger that butts into the conversation of the two disciples making their way to Emmaus as they try to figure out what the heck just happened.
And he’s the stranger on the beach yelling out fishing tips to the apostles who weren’t having much luck in their boats. Remember, Jesus had done that.So, when John says to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”, I often imagine John giving Peter the elbow, like “Duh! Anything familiar going on here?”That scene reminds me of how you can see one person in someone else, because that person has so strongly taken on the characteristics of the other. You might know this when someone says to you, “You are just like your father.”“You ARE your mother!”
So, often the disciples end up encountering Jesus in ways they did not expect.True, at other times Jesus appears and seems to be immediately recognized, with a body that can be touched and a body that wants to eat.
That’s what the Gospels tell us. But that was then, and the question tonight – in remembering that we are always in the presence of God – is how can we still encounter the Risen Jesus, Himself?
I think the answer can be found by going back to The Tomb and to that stone.
The Gospels say the stone was massive.I’ve always pictured it about the size of a really big person, with a large, commanding presence – a Ted Babcock-like big; Peter Balfe big; Alex Brownfield big (OK, tall!)
Then one day I was holding a stone in my hand. It was about the size of my fist.And I thought of something else that size.[Fist to chest.]Right, you have something that size, as well.
And here, the words of Ezekiel from earlier tonight come into play: “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”The modern songwriter, Dan Schutte, paraphrases it in a song we sing at church, “I will take their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.”
And good news!That stone, like the one at the tomb, has already been removed.Rolled away!We had nothing to do with it.It is God who removes the stone.Our part of the deal is NOT to act as if that stone is still in place.
So, with that new spirit we can look upon creation with the eyes of God, and see that it is indeed good; that we do not need more; that God is leading us to where we need to be; that God gives us life, abundant life, by simply knowing Jesus whom he raised from the dead so that we can be always with God. The Fall has been forgiven.The cycle is complete: In the beginning God said “let there be light” and that light turns out to be Jesus.
We can encounter Jesus when we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Jesus promised us we will encounter him. Matthew 25: “just as you did it to the least, you did it TO ME.”
These encounters need not be incredible, dramatic events.But Jesus is there, in the simplest interactions of life; commonplace events, no fanfare, no flourish.
But maybe, just maybe, one of these interactions, if God wills it, will be such a profound experience, you’ll sense something so powerful in the moment, that the only way to comprehend it is to believe that you ARE right then in the presence of the Risen Christ, in whatever form he has taken.
So, look for him.Keep remembering that you are in his presence. Proclaim him alive and well. Jesus is alive, not “out” there and not “up” there.He is alive here with us, in us; with you, in you; with me, in me; because, that stone already has been rolled away.
And with our hearts of stone also removed, we can say (as the Christian Brothers would end their prayers), “Live Jesus in our hearts, forever!”
Would you give me a “forever”?
Live Jesus in our hearts... Forever!