Easter Liturgy: Salvation

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Saturday 11th April 2020 (Easter Eve)
Genesis 1.1­—2.4a; Psalm 104.1–7; Exodus 14.10–15.1a; Song of Moses and Miriam; Jonah 1.1—2.10; Psalm 130; Ezekiel 36.24–28; Psalm 42.1–7; Romans 6.3–11; Psalm 114; Matthew 28.1–10

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
O Universe, dance around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the victorious trumpet of salvation! (The Exsultet)

In less than ideal circumstances, we’ve finally made it to Easter, the night when we celebrate Christ’s victory, our salvation – but what is salvation?

Many of us were probably brought up with an extremely narrow idea of salvation – salvation is being saved from hell, or saved from the consequences of our sins, or saved from death so that we can hope to go to heaven. In this picture God doesn’t really have much to do with this world – he might answer some of our prayers, but he doesn’t have great plans for his creation. Our true home is in heaven, and heaven is God’s focus too – the earth is going to pass away, so there’s no point worrying too much about our lives here.

While this is the emphasis of some parts of the Bible, if we look at it as a whole, as tonight’s liturgy encourages us to do, we find a much broader idea of salvation. Easter is seen through the lens of the Passover, the rescuing of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and the only Old Testament reading that absolutely must be used is the reading from Exodus about the crossing of the Red Sea. What picture of salvation do we get from this reading, and the other Old Testament readings?

The reading from Genesis sets the scene by telling the story of creation. Here we’re reminded that God saw that what he had made was good – he likes creation. The Bible doesn’t begin the story in a way that suggests the ultimate aim is to escape all of this for somewhere better.

Then comes the Exodus reading, the central story of salvation in the Old Testament – but it’s not about personal sin, or getting to heaven. It’s about an oppressed people being saved by God for a better life in their own land. This is the story we’re supposed to use as a lens for understanding Easter!

Then the next reading we had this evening was part of the story of Jonah, who was rescued by God from the belly of the fish. Our use of this story tonight is supposed to make us think of baptism – the water we are brought through to new life.

Finally, our fourth Old Testament reading was from the prophet Ezekiel, who is talking about God returning the people of Israel from exile in Babylon, but also about a time when he will convert them, putting his spirit within them, so that they will live righteous lives.

So here we have three pictures of salvation: salvation from oppression to a life of freedom and justice, salvation from death to new life, and salvation from sin to righteousness. Salvation includes them all.

Now let’s turn to the resurrection. Just as in the Old Testament, the salvation offered by the resurrection of Jesus is wider than we might think. When the later Old Testament writers started thinking about resurrection, it wasn’t because they were particularly bothered by death per se. The Jews had got on perfectly well for hundreds of years without much belief in a life beyond death – they tended to think that everyone went to a place called Sheol, an underworld like the Greek Hades.

A few centuries before Christ, however, Jews were being put to death for being faithful Jews – for refusing to worship other gods, for refusing to eat pork, and for fighting for an independent Jewish state – and this led people to wonder, Did God care? Did God care about the suffering? Were these victims just defeated, going down to the dead, or did God have something greater in store?

The writers of the very latest parts of the Old Testament, the book of Daniel and the apocrypha, came to believe that, in the end, good would triumph over evil – there would be a general resurrection, and God would set things right. There would be justice for victims and for perpetrators.

This is the context in which the resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed. It’s not being proclaimed just as the victory of life over death – it’s being proclaimed as the victory of justice over injustice: the one who was persecuted, unjustly condemned, and crucified – that one has been raised from the dead. That is the good news that we celebrate tonight.

So if the resurrection is a sign of hope for those who suffer injustice – the injustice of poverty, the injustice of illness, the injustice of being abandoned by society – then how do we live this hope out in our lives?

I preached in Advent last year that our hope for the kingdom of God shouldn’t be a passive hope, but that we should be active in seeking to make that hope a reality. The same is true of our hope in the resurrection. If the resurrection is at least partly about justice for victims, the poor being raised up, the socially dead being brought back to life, then it is our job as witnesses of the resurrection to try to make these things happen: the theologian Jon Sobrino describes it as ‘taking the crucified people down from the cross’.

That’s what I mean by love as salvation. Salvation is a work of God – it may seem unlikely, hard to believe in, even impossible. But the impossible happened in the resurrection of Jesus, and great things can happen when people attempt the impossible. The resurrection invites us to hope big, and to match that hope with loving big – so big that it could be called ‘salvation’. The Baptist missionary William Carey (1761–1834) was often quoted in my childhood: ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.’ Practising love that could be called salvation isn’t just being nice – it’s bolder, coming from and feeding a hope for real transformation.

In the last few days we’ve thought about Jesus’s life and death as service, about Jesus’s suffering and death as solidarity, and now about Jesus’s resurrection from the dead as salvation. In a moment we’re going to renew our baptismal promises as we do on this day every year. As we do so, we remind ourselves that we have been united to Christ, and that his pattern of love – service, solidarity, and salvation – is our pattern of love. Can we attempt this year to love others: to serve them, to stand in solidarity with them, and even to save them?

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