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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Vigil 2010

A few days ago, I was shopping at Sears when an announcement came—repeatedly—over the loudspeaker, telling us that in 2, then 1, then 0 minutes, all adult shoppers would receive a free gift on the second floor, toward the back of the store, just follow the laser light brightly shining on the ceiling to guide our way. I was nearby, and “free” is a word that catches my attention every time, so I joined the group gathered around an elevated work counter. By the time I was absolutely sure that this was a sales pitch, I was already hooked…and besides, by then the demonstrator had promised us not 1, not 2, but **3** free gifts!

The first was this fabulous kitchen multi-tool, now selling for $5-7 in the housewares department of major stores. He pulled us all in close, and after a demo on how we could zest and peel citrus, and be the envy of our neighbors with our baskets made out of watermelon, we all did indeed receive, immediately, a free one. After that, urged again to draw near, came the paring knife one could use to make a cucumber shark, and a twisty thing for making curly fries; he promised that both of these would be ours free as well in a few minutes. The piece de resistance appeared next, the current incarnation of the Ginzu carving knife, its durability proven as he cut into a steel hammer head and carved a chunk of wood. This is not yet available in stores, mind you, but conveniently one could buy it from him that day. Alas, he was not authorized to discount the retail price of $29.99…but—hang on!—he did have factory permission to give us a second one free. And not only that, but, as it ultimately turned out, also the paring knife, curly fry cutter, 4 steak knives, chef’s knife, and Chef Paul’s guide to garnishes! All these would be ours free—far more than the originally promised 1, 2, or 3 gifts—with the purchase of the carving knife, and we would discover anew the joys of our daily bread, or vegetables, or frozen meats, confident that we could dice them, slice them, carve them, curl them, trim them and twist them. However, since I didn’t want the $30 carving knife, even with the lifetime guarantee, all I got was 20 cents worth of plastic, and that was with an investment of 25 minutes of my time…

I knew all along that there’s not much in life that is really, truly free. Isn’t that what financial experts have been trying to drill into our minds?: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Modern humans simply aren’t that good at either side of free; we’re reluctant to make the offer and we’re suspicious of receiving a gift on that basis, as enticing as it may sound. And yet we gather here tonight to celebrate a free gift. Could this possibly be the real thing? What’s the catch?

Well, 2000 years say there isn’t one. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers us eternal life and abundant love…for free. We don’t have to pay a thing; that’s been taken care of. We don’t have to earn it; that’s not God’s economy. There’s no “buy one, get one free”; we simply get one free. No bait and switch, no gimmicks, no fine print. Free, period. And it comes with an eternal lifetime guarantee.

This is what A.J. has been given tonight. Short of showing up—following the light—he didn’t have to do a thing. And because of this, the truly free nature of baptism is plainly evident to everyone; even those of us with somewhat more developed life skills than A.J. would have no edge in receiving this gift. Because here’s the thing about free: it means we don’t have to pay. Not in hard-earned cash. Not in good works or being clever or thinking holy thoughts. Not in guilt or grief, in charity or charm. Baptism is first of all about what God does for us, not what we can do for God.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a cost to being a disciple of Christ. We will face challenges as we struggle to be faithful, and we’ll feel the burden when we’re not. We’ll carry the pain that comes with loving others, and sometimes the frustration of trying to figure out what God is calling us to do. But all this comes after the gift, as our heartfelt response to God’s gift, not as a price we have to pay up front.

So A.J’s been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, absolutely free. What can he do with his baptism? Not slice and dice, carve or curl…but we gathered close around and did pray for the Spirit to deliver him from the way of sin and death, to open his heart to God’s grace and truth, to fill him and keep him and teach him and send him, and a long, long time from now to bring him to the fullness of life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

But wait!...there’s more! A.J. receives a free church family, complete with doting grandparents, crazy uncles, and siblings with whom to grow up on this amazing journey. He has the light of Christ to lead him and the anointing of the Holy Spirit to empower him; again: no charge. He gets free food for life. He has an invitation to the way of the cross and the alleluias of the resurrection. His opportunities for sin are pretty limited at this point, but they’ll increase as the years go by, and he’s already offered forgiveness, as much and as often as he needs it, for free. All of those are darn good tools to have in your drawer!

God’s gift adds zest to our journey, twists our paths in new ways, helps us find the core of our being, and gives us strength as we cut through the hardest situations. It’s only available direct from the manufacturer, with an eternal lifetime guarantee. All this, A.J., and more, is yours—and ours—absolutely for free. Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia!

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