Easter Sunday Message, April 12, 2020 – The Rev. Janel Rice, Calvary Moravian Church
Our Bible study had a laugh last week when we talked – virtually – about the number of places “Do Not Fear’ appears in the Bible. One quick Google search turned up 365, which the commentator neatly put it, one for each day of the year. But we also discussed how whenever “Do not Fear” appears, there should be an asterisk, or a wink, because it is usually in places when one might think – How can you do anything but fear? “Do not fear” God says to Joshua following the death of Moses, even though the land they are entering has lots of people who don’t want them there. “Do not fear, you are going to have a child from God,” the angel tells the expectant Mary? And then here we are at the scene from Matthew 28 for this Sunday.
Do not fear, says the angel that meets Mary Madgelene and the other Mary, after rolling away the stone from the tomb. Do not fear? Really? There was an earthquake, an angel of the Lord, stone rolled away, and now no body of Jesus. Do not fear??!
Now it might be important to remember that there are other characters besides these two Marys in the gospel of Matthew’s account of the story. Verse 4 tells us of the guards who are at the tomb. They are there because this empty tomb is precisely the thing that the Roman government didn’t want to happen. They knew about prophecies of a risen Jesus, and the last thing they wanted was someone to steal the body and give any sign of hope to his followers.
So there are the guards and there is the two Marys. Both are afraid.
Vs. 4 – the guards are afraid, “For fear of him the guards shook….”
Vs. 8 – The Marys leave the tomb with fear . . .
Let’s pause a moment and think about what the good news of Jesus is really about. Is it about worshipping Jesus, praising him and reading about the events of his life and death as an observer? Is it a show that we watch and consume, from a safe distance?
Or is the gospel of Jesus, the good news. – the entire reason he came, instead about inviting us to change the way we are living? Is the gospel of Jesus about inviting us to participate in God’s kingdom, even in a glimpse? Is the gospel, the good news that we are invited as collaborators and participants in this evolving story of God with us (Immanuel)?
Our Holy Week readings certainly have pushed us into this gospel story; if you recall the number of times that Jesus teaches about the call for us to love the neighbor, to serve as he has served others, and invited us to participate in taking the bread, drinking the cup and living his love? We are invited into this evolving story.
And so maybe, just maybe, the gospel of Jesus – despite all those pronouncements of “Do not Fear,” is not really asking us to give up fear completely. Maybe the gospel is asking us to do something with that fear. Even with fear, can we leave the tomb, join the movement, open our eyes to the coming of the kingdom, participate – not as an observer – but as a disciple of Jesus?
And so back to those two different groups; the guards and the Marys. Both are afraid.
But each group reacts quite differently with that fear.
vs. 4 “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” – Guards
vs. 8 “So they (Mary M. And other Mary) left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples.”
It is what it is. What are we going to do with it, the Marys asked themselves? We are still afraid but we are also incredibly joyful and we are deciding to put this joy first and take us out, to tell the good news, to live our lives, even in fearful times – even in very different times.
If the Marys and if the disciples could have scripted Jesus’s resurrection, what would they have truly wanted? What would we truly want from Jesus’s return?
They – and we – would probably want a leader, our teacher and friend back to ways things used to be. But over the next few weeks in reading the stories after the resurrection, we’ll hear about the few appearances of Jesus to the disciples and it isn’t business as usual. He isn’t continuing his ministry; healings, teachings, traveling throughout Galilee, and so forth. Instead he’ll be asking them to participate; love my sheep, make disciples, share good news, etc.
The resurrected Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God is exactly what Jesus says about the movement of the Spirit – it will come to abide with us, but we do not control it nor script it.
The Rev. Laurel Mathewson writes in the Christian Century, “I tend to want the kingdom of God to be developed in tidy, linear fashion. Why isn’t the risen one showing up for the implicit work that I assigned?” (Christian Century, April 8, 2020)
How many of us have said, over the last three weeks of physical distancing, of isolation and of very different patterns in our lives – I just want things to go back to normal?
How many of us are grieving now, even on Easter Sunday, grieving separation from family and friends, physical touch of another, act of worship in beloved sanctuary?
How many of us are fearful – unknown ramifications of time and an end date for isolation, fearful of COVID-19 and those who are suffering from it, fearful for loss of employment and financial stability, fearful for the hard work of those in essential services and the effects on them, fearful for brother and sister in recovery programs and separations, fearful for. . . . and the list goes on and on?
And we say – can’t things just go back to normal?
Brothers and sisters, on April 13 – Easter Monday – social distancing won’t end and things won’t go back to normal. Nor should they until the health official and experts say they should. But what the resurrected Jesus gives us isn’t a way to get things to go back to normal. Instead it shows us how to live into a fearful time – but still to live with joy? There are two things we can do with a fearful time:
We can live with the reaction of the guards – fear transforming us into dead people.
Or we can live with the reaction of the Marys – Fear – (yes certainly – this is a scary situation) but finding a way to also let joy in – and follow the lead of Joy – the Spirit.
Let’s end with two other historical scenarios when pandemics threatened the population:
1) In 1349, when the plague of Europe was at its worst, the Christians of Europe reacted to the disease with fear. Rounding up the city’s Jewish people, the authorities of Alsace (Germany) accused them of poisoning the Christians’ wells and killed over 1,000 Jews immediately.
2) In the time of another plague in the 3rd century, Christians became known in the Roman Empire as the ones who would perform acts of compassion for those who were sick. Bishop Cyprian wrote that this plague “searches out the righteousness of each one and examines the minds of the human race [to see which ones tend the sick and love their fellow kindred]. These are trainings for us, not deaths . . . they prepare us for the crown.”
In the 3rd Century, this reaction is one of fear and joy, a reaction where fear did not lead to hatred or isolation, but to a positive reaction of love. (Christian Century, pg. 11, April 8, 2020).
I would be a fool to say that we do not live in a time of fear. But I also know that we are not created to be people paralyzed, made into “deadlike people” by fear.
We are people of the resurrection. Can we follows the Marys today?
Go out – or stay inside – in fear and joy?!
Can we take the fear, but fearfully look for the joy, the ray of sunshine, the gratitude for today, the ability to call, text, zoom, facebook, write a note, say a prayer, offer a physical distance smile, show mercy, forgive, love, donate, be grateful for a grocery store clerk/health care worker/other essential person, ask what another needs, etc. etc.?
Can we live as people of the resurrection – not the old normal – but with fear and JOY? Amen.