Fear Not!

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“Fear not!” The angels always say. “Be not afraid!” says Jesus. And you know, what? It’s always too late! Fear has taken hold of whomever the recipient is every time those words are spoken. Imagine if it were you. An angel shows up out of nowhere all bright and shining and scary as hell. There’s a reason they always say “Fear not!” It’s because they’re always absolutely terrifying. And the Risen Christ is probably more so. Those words, “Be not afraid” in the Easter story were meant to combat the overwhelming fear the women were already feeling. I don’t think we’re particularly comfortable with this notion of fear-inspiring messengers from God or a Risen Christ who is so far out of our experience as to be terrifying. We don’t much like to think of Easter and fear in the same sentence.

Yet, how can we not? No matter which Gospel’s account we read, fear abounds. Imagine being there with those women on that first Easter morning. I think it would be absolutely terrifying. Matthew’s description dares anyone to remain unafraid.

The women arrive at the tomb just in time for an earthquake as an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away, and then sits down on it. The guards were shaken nearly to death. The women stood frozen in terror. The angel has the audacity to say, “Do not be afraid.” Sure. That’s possible. Of course, the angel assures the women that Jesus has been raised from death and invites the women to take a look at the empty tomb. How they manage to move from where they stood outside in order to look inside, I’ll never know.

The women hear what the angel has to say and run off in “joy and fear” to tell the disciples that death could not hold Jesus and that he is going to meet them all in Galilee. Before they get to the other disciples, though, Jesus intercepts them. They fall down before him and worship him, probably more filled with fear than joy in this moment, though scripture says nothing about this. And Jesus chooses this moment for his, “Do not be afraid.” How could they hear a word he said over the rapid beating of their hearts?

I think, perhaps, we have tamed the terror right out of this story. We don’t like to be afraid and we really don’t want to be afraid of God. As a result, we covered up the fear with adorable bunnies and tasty treats. We want to believe that Easter is about pretty new outfits and Cadbury eggs. We might even go so far as to say that these things bring joy. We want to forget the startling amazement of an empty tomb and just what that might mean for us. And we aren’t at all sure that there was joy at the thought of Jesus being alive again. We allow ourselves to get hung up on debating the mystery of the day rather than living out its meaning.

Most of us would rather not think about the fact that we gather for worship some 2000 years later because that tomb was empty. Church doesn’t exist as church because of what Jesus taught; that would have faded into history if something extraordinary hadn’t happened. Jesus as teacher or philosopher wouldn’t have changed the world. The fact that the tomb was empty on that first Easter morning was the extraordinary event that constantly invites us to live into the sacred mystery that is God. Resurrection is the invitation for us all to move from death to life. And we ought to do it with a heavy dose of joy and not a little bit of terror.

The Good News Jesus preached is that the realm of God is here and now. We are called to reach for it and bring it into being. We are to be the embodiment of Christ the world needs right now. This is our responsibility and we have not fulfilled it well because we are afraid of the wrong things. How do we respond to the violence and hatred of this same world? We embody Love, Love so powerful that not even death could contain it. This is joy! This is terror! This who we are called to be. Anything less means that we are still chasing echoes in an empty tomb.

Admittedly, embodying Love is not easy. It’s hard to hold on to the risen Christ when violence and hatred run freely through our streets. It’s hard to grasp the meaning of “Fear not!” when gunshots and exploding bombs echo through our cities and towns. When refugees are turned away and plans for building walls continue, where is the evidence that Jesus’ tomb was really empty? When war is more easily justified than peace, what joy is there in the news that Christ has risen? When hating our neighbors is normative, what power does Love really have?

It comes down to you and me. Will we remain in the tomb seeking evidence of Jesus’ body, debating what actually happened, afraid of what lies beyond the gloomy darkness? Or, will we breathe in the joy of the Resurrection and join hands in an effort to fight off fear, and assume the responsibility we have been given, and live in the Realm of God? The Resurrection is only as powerful as the church’s capacity to embody Christ here and now.

Fear not. Christ is risen!

RCL – Year A – Easter Sunday – April 16, 2017
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

Photo: CC0 image by Matthijs van der Ham

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