Be Afraid

“I wonder if all of the best things in our lives involve a bit of fear. Fear, because it’s just so good and we want to hold onto it, and celebrate it, and honor it, and do justice to it. The resurrection is just like that: a bundle of joy and fear.”

Sermon Preached: Saturday, April 8, 2023 at Trinity on the Green

Easter Vigil, Year A: Romans 6:3-11 | Psalm 114 | Matthew 28:1-10

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

If you want to make my 10 month old daughter laugh, all you have to do is scare her. I’m not talking about a gentle “boo!” I’m talking about a full on, didn’t see it coming, jump-worthy scare. We learned this fact about her personality when she was sick with her first ever ear infection. She was grumpy and inconsolable until, at one of her grandparents’ homes, a brave (if somewhat misguided) shih tzu came up to her and started yipping. Selma, who had been crying just a few minutes before, started giggling in response and then could not stop laughing. We realized later on, after watching videos of this laughing baby over and over again, that the thing that was so funny to her was the shock of it all – the fact that she could not predict when the dog would bark next. With each bark you can see her body jump, and then her laughter breaks like a rainbow after storm clouds. It is a glorious thing to watch.

I have no idea where Selma gets her love of being scared – it is certainly not from me. My threshold for being scared is about at the level of Doctor Who, or Scooby Doo. I know there are people who love watching scary movies, and going to haunted houses around Halloween – but for me, being scared is just not a pleasant experience.

On this night when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I am reminded that people’s first reaction to the resurrection is not joy. It is fear. In each of the resurrection accounts in the four gospels, there is some component of fear: fear that people have taken away the body of Jesus (in the Gospel of John); fear at the sudden appearance of two glowing angels (in the Gospel of Luke); and alarm at the encounter of a young man in the tomb, who was not Jesus (in the Gospel of Mark). 

But the most terrifying account of all comes from the story that we read this evening, in the Gospel of Matthew. In this version of the story there is a violent earthquake; an angel whose appearance is like lightning  actively descends to roll away the stone covering the tomb; and the guards are so afraid, they are petrified like dead men. The angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” The angel gives them instructions to go and tell others what they have seen. And the scripture continues: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” 

In spite of the angel’s advice – “Do not be afraid” – the two Mary’s are still very much afraid. But they add another to this fear as well: joy. They leave the tomb quickly, with fear and great joy. And as they are leaving, the source of their fear and the source of their joy appears before them – Jesus, in the flesh. It’s clear that even Jesus’ presence does not remove their fear, because one of the first things Jesus does is reiterate those words of the angel, “Do not be afraid.” Then Jesus repeats the instructions of the angel, to go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see him.

Fear and joy. These are the emotions that the disciples feel, in the face of the resurrection. And these are the emotions that we are invited to feel, too, as we commemorate Jesus’ resurrection on this holy night. When it comes to Easter – our traditions and our liturgies – I find that Christians are much better at commemorating the joy than commemorating the fear. We commemorate the joy with Easter acclamations, with triumphant music, with brass and bells, with chocolate and Easter egg hunts. But we don’t necessarily commemorate the fear – and, can you blame us? Fear is not exactly a pleasant experience. And yet, looking at our scriptures, I wonder if fear is even more integral to the story of Easter than joy. Fear – because this resurrection story seems too good to be true. Fear – because how can we trust in Jesus unless we see him with our own eyes, and put our hands in his wounds? Fear – because if the resurrection is real, it changes everything.

Perhaps our liturgies de-emphasize fear for another reason: because the scripture consistently tells us: do not be afraid. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. I hear these words more as a comfort, and not a commandment. Jesus does not chastise Mary Magdalene and the other Mary for being afraid. Instead, he seems to anticipate their fear – and he greets it with acceptance and reassurance. It’s okay to be afraid. Do not be afraid, Jesus says, to comfort them. And still, it’s okay to be afraid.

Fear and great joy. These are the emotions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary embody as they leave the tomb quickly. Fear and great joy. For some reason, we forget that these go together. This evening I invite you to connect with both of these emotions as we celebrate the resurrection: fear and joy. 

I don’t want you to manufacture fear where there is no fear – but instead, explore whether there is a part of your body where fear lives already. Is there fear: because the people you love might not understand your convictions, or believe in the way that you do? Is there fear: because you know you have messed up in the past, and may mess up again? Is there fear: because the good news of Jesus Christ inspires us to live differently, and there is so much work to be done? Hear the words of Jesus as a comfort: Do not be afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, but know also that Jesus is here. Jesus is with you.

And then, there is that second emotion: joy. Where in your body do you feel joy in this moment? Joy in your chest, from the air that fills your lungs with joyful singing. Joy in your heart, as you witness the resurrection in the coming of spring and in possibilities for new beginnings in your life. Joy in your feet, as you anticipate following Jesus’ way of peace, love, and justice when you walk outside of these doors.

Fear and great joy, together – that is what Easter is all about.

If you are still doubtful that fear and joy can live together, in the same experience, let me offer an example: my own experience of becoming a parent. I have never felt more fear in my life: fear of not being good enough, fear of not being in control, fear of losing something I love so much – than when I became a parent. But I have also never felt more joy. Joy, when I see my daughter’s eyes light up in the morning. Joy, when she laughs at shih tzu’s. Joy, when I bring her to church and share her brilliance with the community that has loved and supported our family. Fear and joy – that pretty much sums up parenthood. Fear and great joy.

I wonder if all of the best things in our lives involve a bit of fear. Fear, because it’s just so good and we want to hold onto it, and celebrate it, and honor it, and do justice to it. The resurrection is just like that: a bundle of joy and fear.

My hope for all of us this Easter season is this: whenever we feel fear, may joy be close to follow. Like a baby who is startled and laughs, may the things that surprise or alarm us be followed by wonder and hope. There is so much to be afraid of, in the world today. But when it comes to the resurrection, there is both fear and joy – fear and great joy. Remember that joy is the greater one of the two! I believe that the joy of the resurrection is enough to sustain us through fearful times. We have this incredible gift: fear and joy, together. Embrace it; share it; let it grow in your life and in the world around you. This is the gift of the resurrection. Amen.

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