A sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.         Ezekiel 36:26-28

Many years ago, I stood in a darkened church on the night before Easter and watched as the paschal candle was lighted from the new fire.

I watched as people lit their own little candles from that flame, and then passed it along until the whole church was filled with the glow of that warm light.

I didn’t know anyone there. I’d never been in that church before. I couldn’t even have told you why I was there, exactly. I only knew that for some reason I wanted to be in that place, with those people, on that night, more than anything. Sometimes God’s love just pulls us in that way.

You’ll have to forgive me if I’ve told you this story before—and I have to warn you that there’s a good chance I’ll tell it again. It’s one of those stories that I tell over and over, because it’s a story that helps me understand something about who I am and how I got to where I am today.

Stories can do that: the stories we have in common, and those that are strictly personal. We all have those stories.

Maybe yours is about the time you decided to take a certain job or move to a new city, or the day you took a chance and started a conversation with someone who became a life-long friend—or maybe that turned out to be the person you married.

Maybe some book or movie or person touched your life and gave you a new perspective, so you never saw things in quite the same way after that.

That Easter Vigil I was touched, and afterwards I didn’t see things the same way. I made a decision to try to live the Christian faith. I’ll be honest—I still had a lot of doubts about this faith of ours, and I struggled with those for a long time.

So I didn’t become a saint overnight. But when the service was over, I went home with a new heart, filled with a new spirit.

And if walking out of that church was the end of this story, I wouldn’t be telling it here tonight.

But it wasn’t the end; it was just the beginning.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.

There’s a woman who lives in Wayne, NJ., who literally got a new heart ten years ago, when she was dying of heart failure.[1]

The donor was a 14-year-old boy who went out for a Sunday afternoon bike ride and was hit by a car.

Deep in grief, his mother told herself, “Something positive needs to come out of this.”

So the boy’s parents signed the okay to make him an organ donor, and parts of his body went to a hundred different recipients.

Kidneys and lungs, corneas and bones, and skin and other tissues—they are all the dead boy’s living legacy.

And over the years since their son died, his parents have grown close to some of those who are alive today because of him, and some of those recipients have even made friends with each other.

The woman who got his heart says, “I have a connection with them, because we were all in the same boat. We were all dying. One person brought us all together. That one person saved all of our lives.”

He brought us all together … and by dying, he saved all of our lives … Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

On the day he died, the boy—whose name was Sean—wrote on his social media profile: “We all die … The goal is to create something that lives forever.”

The woman who received his heart went on to have four children of her own. And Sean’s mother is close to this family, like another grandmother to those kids, and she likes to think that her son will live on through them.

So Sean’s death was just the beginning of a whole new story, a story full of heart-breaking sorrow and the heartfelt triumph of life over death and especially full of love, just like this story about Jesus that we tell ourselves every Easter.

When that long-ago Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out in grief, carrying spices to anoint Jesus.

They were going to say goodbye, to tend to his body in a way that would make a fitting end to his story.

It was early in the morning, when the sun had just risen, and they wondered who would help roll the heavy stone away, so they could enter the tomb.

But when they arrived, they found that the stone had already been moved.

And the body wasn’t there.

Death itself had departed that place of death, and what they found instead was life.

They saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the side. And he spoke to them:

“Do not be alarmed” he said, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

He has been raised; he is not here.

Like that grieving mother who said, “Something positive has to come out of this,” these sorrowful women couldn’t possibly have known the whole of it then, but the words they heard at the tomb were the very beginning of a new story, a story that would change the world.

To live as if we were at the beginning of a new story, not the end—that’s a one way to describe what it means to hope.

And when you have a new heart and a new spirit, how can you not be full of Resurrection hope?

And so the disciples went on from Easter morning to continue their story of life with Jesus, and they told and retold these stories, and some of them got written down, and were handed down from generation to generation until they came to us.

We’ll hear some of those stories when we take up the Book of Acts in our Wednesday morning study group after Easter.

But as it says at the very end of John’s Gospel, there are many other things that Jesus did that didn’t get written down, and “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”[2]

And we all have our stories about what happened after we met Jesus, and if every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole universe couldn’t contain the books that would be written.

And we are still writing that story.

Amen.

[1]Alison Klein, “After a teenager died, his organs provided life to others—and a bigger family to his parents.” The Washington Post, March 30, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2018/03/30/after-a-teenager-died-his-organs-provided-life-to-others-and-a-bigger-family-to-his-parents/, accessed March 31, 2018.

[2]John 21:25 NRSV