28After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
“Do not be afraid.”
Whether it is told to shepherds upon Jesus’s birth, or to Joseph as he finds out that his fiancée is pregnant with another’s child but that he ought to marry her anyway, or to the women who arrive at the tomb, it’s among the most ridiculous lines in all of Christian scripture. Do not be afraid. The angel might as well tell them to sprout wings and fly.
I mean, picture this scene: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go early Sunday morning to visit Jesus’s tomb, and as soon as they arrive, there’s a HUGE earthquake, and an actual honest-to-goodness bona-fide angel of the Lord descends from Heaven, rolls back the giant stone that has been sitting in front of the tomb since Jesus’s burial, sits on the stone, and has the appearance of lightening, whatever that means, with clothes as white as snow. And when this happens, the guards at Jesus’s tomb start to shake and then faint from fear.
But oh, this isn’t enough. Because the circus continues without giving the women time to adjust, and the angel says to them, Do not be afraid, for though Jesus was crucified, he is not here, for he has been raised from the dead.
It sounds so blessedly obvious to those of us who benefit from having heard this story for two thousand years. But what it must have been like! The earthquake, the lightening, the stone, the fear, the emptiness, the absence of Jesus.
It must have felt like the very opposite of “do not be afraid.” It must have felt as dark as the inside of that tomb.
It’s funny. I don’t think we talk enough in the church about being afraid, but it is the case that being afraid is one of the most powerful forces I know of. We’re all afraid of being afraid, all fearful of what lies around the corner, of what could happen if we miss just one paycheck, if we make one misstep, if we lose sight of the goal for one minute. We are afraid of the dark.
I have been devouring a new book by the writer and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. The title is Learning to Walk in the Dark and her contention is that we live in such fear of the dark, in such fear of the kind of dark emptiness that filled the tomb, that we miss God’s presence within it. Darkness, she writes, is “shorthand for anything that scares me—that I want no part of—either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love—if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.”
We live constantly afraid, and yet the things we fear are no match for God. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about how she learned this lesson, while spending summers during her seminary career working at Dante’s Down the Hatch near underground Atlanta. Dante loved the idea of a seminary-trained cocktail waitress, and I sort of agree with him on this point, so she spent a number of years there, working the late shift. “What surprised me,” she says, “was how much energy coursed through that place in the middle of the night, as if all the ordinary sleeping people had relinquished their portions so that there was more left for the rest of us.”
I like this idea of reclaiming the dark, because it is a wonderful Easter message. The things that lurk in the night are not all bad, and the things that are bad are no match for the God who says to us, “Do not be afraid.” Resurrection does not eliminate bad things; it just means they don’t win in the end. It means that the worst thing is not the last thing.
Resurrection also doesn’t mean we’ll never be fearful, because the fear of God is not the same thing as being afraid. The women who ran from the tomb, who we hold up as heroes for being the first people to greet Jesus after the Resurrection, well, Matthew says they ran to find the disciples with great fear and great joy. It does not say that they ran away afraid and with joy, because being afraid is inconsistent with being joyful. It says they ran with fear and joy.
This is fear of God, which is completely different, for it is less about being afraid and more about acknowledging God’s power, that though death is a strong word, though heartache and pain and destruction and abuse are all strong words, though your past may be a strong, difficult word, none of these words are stronger than God. The fear of God is about recognizing that while a life lived following Jesus will not eliminate heartache, will not eliminate death, death is not the final word! This is what the Resurrection means. Death may be real, but I am reminded of the quote I have framed behind my desk from the theologian Frederick Buechner that says that the gift of the Resurrection is this: “what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
This is why the angel tells the women “Do not be afraid.” If death has been defeated, what is there to be afraid of? And so they run, with fear and joy, which is just perfect because joy is the proper response to the Resurrection. It is the opposite of being afraid. You can’t be joyful when you are afraid. You might tell a joke and get a snicker, or you might crack a smile to loosen the tension, but I’ve never met anybody who was truly happy who spent their life running away from the thing that made them afraid.
It’s why governments are so good at intimidating people: if you are afraid, you do not have joy, and you are easier to control. It’s why the agents of division seek to pit us against one another, and let’s be clear that the church is not immune from this kind of thing. We put labels on people just as much as anybody else does, as if political beliefs or race or socioeconomic status or sexual orientation or gender were the only important thing about people, as if nothing else matters.
You know, Church, I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but when we do that, we’ve sided with death, for to turn someone into a label is to deny their full humanity, is to functionally kill them so that we may dismiss the changes in the church and society that makes us so afraid. If only there were something stronger than death in which we could trust, if only there were something bigger than our fears, bigger than those societal changes that make us so afraid . . . If only . . .
And so we arrive at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection means that the agents of death and division are no match for the power of God. It means that dying is no longer the last thing. It means that even death can’t stop the love of God from reaching us, and you get why the angel could say, with a straight face, Do not be afraid. And you get why the women were so joyful. The strongest things on earth, death and division, are no match for God.
Joy is the proper response, and lest that sound childish, lest that sound like it’s not enough of a response to such an incredible thing, let me assure you that joy is powerful. It is liberating. Joy means that we refuse to run scared; instead, we will do God’s work even when everybody tells us that the darkness has already won, because we know that it has indeed already lost. It means that though the darkness has unknown dangers, we will not let them rule us. It’s why two women felt like they could run up the street while all the men cowered inside. Joy is liberating. It has power. It is why we see such spectacle in the green revolution in Iran, or in Pride parades; it is why so many protest songs have such happiness bound up within them. It is why some of the heartiest laughing I’ve ever done has been during the funeral of a life lived well.
And it’s the proper response to something so fantastic, so remarkable, that it seems to just break the world open, just split the powers that weigh us down, that keep us afraid, just split them right in two so that the kingdom of God can break forth, so that God’s light can shine through. It’s the proper response to this story, so seemingly outlandish, with its angels of lightening and earthquakes and rolling of stones and a dead man who shows up to his own funeral because he has an announcement to make. The only response is joy.
It’s what gave the disciples hope even as the government was killing them, one by one.
It’s what gave the early Christians hope as they fought to establish a church.
It’s what has given the church hope year after year, century after century, as it has sought to look after the least and the lost, in lean times and times of plenty, in challenging times and easy times, in changing times and in . . . . changing times.
And it is what gives us hope, now, in this place, in each of our lives, for Jesus did not just come back from the dead just to prove something. He rose from the dead in order to free us from being afraid, to defeat the fear the holds us hostage, to free us for joy, so that we may run with fear and joy into the future and share the good news of Jesus Christ with a world convinced that darkness has already won.
This is the message of Easter: that in spite of everything, in spite of the earthquakes and the lightening, and all the death that fills our days, we can go forward without being afraid. Jesus has been raised from the dead, and death, which sometimes seems to rule the world, has been defeated. So do not be afraid. Go forward with great joy, for there is no treasure so priceless, no artifact so rare, no medicine so needed here on earth.