Romans 6:3-11- Mark 16:1-8 

Taking the plunge

How holy is this night – it is the night above all nights, the night that tells us who we are, the night that remakes us. This is the night in which, more than any other night, we are reborn.

All the stories we have heard tonight tell of creation and re-creation, of the birth of cosmos and its restoration. In Genesis, God speaks the world into being and pronounces it good. The story of the Exodus recounts how a ragtag bunch of Hebrew slaves is released from bondage and led across the sea, and they are reborn, against all the odds, as the people of Israel, a people shepherded by God the Most High.

The prophet Ezekiel tells of an improbable rebirth from the depths of despair. When this sacred community of the Exodus has been all but annihilated, its bones scattered across the land and the remnant taken once again into slavery, God promises to bring the people of Israel back to life, joining sinew to bone and clothing them with muscle and skin, so that they may once more in their own land sing praises to the God who created, and recreated, and once again restored them.

And so we are not surprised when we discover that the story of rebirth continues with Jesus, with the news that the tomb is empty, and death could not hold him.

This year I am seeing a particular thread weaving its way through all these stories, and that thread is called grace. Grace – God’s freely given, lavishly bestowed power to bring cosmos out of chaos, freedom out of slavery, renewal out of destruction, life out of death, not just metaphorically, but really, and truly. Grace – the reality that before anything was, God is, and nothing exists without God’s radiance shining in and through it. Grace – what makes everything, and I mean everything, possible – including our response to the grace that is all around us. It is God who began this great dance of life and love – we are only responding to a sacred invitation.

It is of the essence of God’s grace not to pummel us into submission but to draw us into joyful collaboration with God in our own salvation, and the salvation of the world. The thing about grace, about that holy invitation, is that once we allow ourselves to respond, it begins to grow.

In pondering the story of the Exodus, the ancient Jewish rabbis imagined that even with God’s help, Moses might not have parted the Red Sea on his own. The story goes that when Moses and the Hebrews got to the shore and Moses raised his staff and prayed, the waters didn’t budge. But one of Moses and Aaron’s relatives, a man called Nachshon, offered to go first – he walked into the sea, step by step. It was then that the waters parted – but only when Nachshon was in the water up to his nose!

Much could be made of the fact that God didn’t clear the way to freedom until someone showed some gumption and proved that the Hebrews were worth saving. But I don’t think that’s it at all. God’s grace was already in Nachshon, drawing him toward the water, making it possible for him to trust in God’s salvation and take the plunge. Nachshon was already up to his nose in grace well before even his big toe got wet. And this is the point of it all. It’s all grace – taking the plunge is how we know it’s grace.

The Great Vigil of Easter has always been a night for taking the plunge – a night for baptisms. From earliest times, this night of waiting for the Day of Resurrection was the night that new Christians were born again through water and the Holy Spirit. They were adults, most of them, and had spent the forty days of Lent, or maybe longer, in prayer, fasting, and the study of holy scripture. In the darkness they would be brought to the font – not the little bird bath that many of our churches use, but a pool, dug into the ground with steps going down one side and up the other.

Three times they would be plunged into the water, with each profession of trust and longing: Do you believe in God the Father? I do. Plunge. Do you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God? I do. Plunge. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? I do. Plunge. Three times into the depths, and three times pulled up from the waters of sin and death. And at the end, leaving their old self behind, they emerged, dripping, from the pool, like newborn babies, to be clothed in white robes and anointed with oil as those who now shared Christ’s royal priesthood. Brought into the gathered assembly, they would greet one another with the sign of peace and share, for the first time, the sacred meal of the Eucharist – the Body and Blood of the One who passed through death to the other side.

Baptism is the sacrament of new birth – it is the sacrament that mystically unites us with Christ. And like all sacraments, baptism is from beginning to end about grace – about what God is doing to and for us, not what we do for God.

This being a night of new birth, and the night when Christians have for millennia brought new disciples to the fountain of grace, it is also a night that the Church continues to set aside for baptisms. Even when there are no baptisms, as is the case tonight, we still renew our own baptismal vows. We renew these vows, not because we need to prove to God we are worthy, or because if we just try harder this time we might succeed. We renew these vows as people who have been swept by waves of grace onto the shores of new possibility. We renew these vows because God has made us new, and God seeks through us to make all of creation new as well.

Perhaps not all of us gathered here tonight have been baptized. If you have been baptized, what does it mean to you that you have been united with Christ not only in his death, but in the new life that he lives to God?

If you have not been baptized, do you want to be? Do you feel the grace of God drawing you to the water? Are you being invited to respond to God’s invitation to be more deeply united with Christ and with his Body the Church?

For all of us, the question of this night is, how is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit drawing you into rebirth? Where do you feel the new life stirring within you? Baptized or not, grace will wash you toward freedom if you let it, although you might have to go in up to your very nose.

Holy, indeed, is this night. Holy, because Christ has risen from the dead, and with him we are reborn. Alleluia!

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