Message from Good Friday, April 10, 2020 at Faith Lutheran Church, Bellaire, TX. Sermon written by Bishop Sue Briner, Southwestern Texas Synod, ELCA.
Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.
I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.
Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.
Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.
Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.
I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.
If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.
As we prepare for Holy Week, I invite you to invest your time in worship. Specifically I invite you to join in stride with Jesus as he advances through the last days of his pre-resurrected life. The three services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil unfold like three movements within a larger composition. Individually they stand on their own as thematic events, but bound together they walk us through Jesus’ passage from death to life. These three services are sometimes called Triduum, or Three Days. The meaning of Easter is embedded in these Three Days.
“The Way of the Cross” is a living Stations of the Cross presentation using dramatic tableau (or “living picture”). I adapted the traditional 14 stations down to 10.
I am very happy with how this service came out! This is the third time I have used this service on a Good Friday (Grace Baptist in 2006, and Covenant Lutheran in 2010). Bravo to the actors in this one – they may not have to memorize any lines, but their part was intense.
One of the best parts of this presentation is the voice of the congregation on these hymns. You can hear their hearts.
One of my favorite twists during these contemplative services is to end by singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – an Advent hymn of expectation. The longing for deliverance expressed in these words ties so well to Jesus’ death.
The texts assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Saturday of Holy Week are Job 14:1-14 (affliction, pain, and suffering), Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 (in your unfailing love, rescue me), 1 Peter 4:1-8 (live not by desires, but by the will of God), and Matthew 27:57-66 (the burial of our Lord Jesus).
The Easter Vigil service is a separate service with a large number of readings. The readings rehearse the story of salvation through the Hebrew Bible as well as the first Easter story. The historical use of the Vigil was a baptismal service for converts that had been prepared over a period of several years for entrance into the church. Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (circa 225 AD) gives some details of the event:
They shall all keep vigil all night, reading and instructing them. Those who are to be baptized are not to bring any vessel, only that which each brings for the eucharist. It is indeed proper that each bring the oblation in the same hour. At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.
Even a tree has more hope!
If it is cut down, it will sprout again
and grow new branches.
Though its roots have grown old in the earth
and its stump decays,
at the scent of water it will bud
and sprout again like a new seedling.
Low in the Grave He Lay, stanzas of the hymn text by Robert Lowry (1874):
Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!
Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!
The texts assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Good Friday of Holy Week are Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (the Suffering Servant endured our pain), Psalm 22 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), Hebrews 10:16-25 (Jesus our Great High Priest gives us confidence), and John 18:1-19:42 (the Passion of our Lord Jesus).
From With One Voice by Reggie Kidd (p. 88-92):
He hung alone. Well, not completely alone. There were the thieves – one a new friend, one a scoffer. There were the three Mary’s, his own mother among them. There were the soldiers, doctors of pain and humiliation. And there was the crowd, wagging their heads and hurling abuse. Although Jesus was not completely alone, he was. He was left desolate by the One whose presence truly mattered. God’s Son lifts a bitter dirge of forsakenness to a Father who promised he would never abandon his own. He who knew the Father’s voice from eternity and was the author of sound for all creation heard nothing but silence. God seemed for an instant to be an atheist. Jesus, feeling the presence of the Father being withdrawn from him, quotes one of the laments David gave to Israel in Psalm 22. To know the God who is, is to look to him even when he won’t make eye contact. To know the God who keeps covenant is to sing to him, even, perhaps especially, when you fear he may not be listening.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, hymn by Isaac Watts (1707):
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.