Don’t be afraid

Easter 16-4-2017 A – Mt 28 1-10 Acts 10 34-43

Don’t be afraid. That’s what the angel said; and a little later, Jesus told the two Marys; the same thing – don’t be afraid. What might they have been afraid of?

They’ve just seen their beloved teacher killed; a kind and gentle human being arrested, tried and executed all in a matter of hours. This morning they want to visit his tomb. They set out in the pre-dawn darkness; two defenceless women. And when they get to the tomb, they’d expect to be menaced by soldiers who’ve been on guard through the night – soldiers from the same cohort who carried out Jesus’ execution. And even worse, the grave they’ll visit is just near the place where it happened. The place, the time, and the unpleasant welcome they can expect; Don’t be afraid? I’d be petrified in their shoes.

And if all that’s not enough, just as they arrive, there’s a sudden earthquake. Some almighty messenger from God appears. He looks like a bolt of lightning dressed in white and he rolls away the stone from across the mouth of the tomb. The guards are so terrified they seem to drop in a dead faint. And then the messenger says to the two Marys, Don’t be afraid. I don’t know where they’d find courage not to fear? Let’s look into their hearts for a moment.

Everything that had given meaning to the lives of Mary Magdalene, to the other Mary and all the rest of Jesus’ friends had evaporated two days earlier. Jesus had been their inspiration for a new way of understanding life. He’d given them a new future filled with purpose and hope. Everything about being with him was important. They saw the sick healed, the poor were shown God’s love and respect, the hungry were fed, and outcasts were brought back into society. The world was becoming a better place, and they were at the heart of all this wonderful change. God was on the throne when you were with Jesus.

But then suddenly, there was a tomb, and an empty world outside it which would inevitably return to horrible old business as usual. So when the angel says Don’t be afraid, he’s right on the emotional mark. It would be wonderful if they could be freed from fear. But how; why? The angel tells them the only possible thing that could conquer their fear: I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He’s not here; for he has been raised as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

When he’s shown them, he sends them off to tell all the others. But as they rush off to do so, we read that it’s with a mixture of fear and great joy. We can only hope their fear doesn’t conquer their joy before they find the others. Certainly, they’ve seen the guarded tomb opened before their eyes, and we can assume they looked inside as the first witnesses to the fact that there was no body of Jesus there any longer. But they needed something more before they could hope again unreservedly – I certainly would.

And suddenly, there he is. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Rejoice!’ And did they ever! They flung themselves at his feet and grabbed them and worshipped him. … And then he said it; Don’t be afraid, probably the last time they’d ever need to hear it. What could they possibly fear now!?

What do we fear? Much the same things really. A special relationship ended by a sudden death guts our life of purpose. Many of us have known such grief – such despair? You can’t hope any more the way you used to. And where you can’t hope, you may fear what will come. C.S. Lewis began his book, A grief observed with words about this. He wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.” So for the two Marys, along with all the other reasons they might have been afraid, there was their grief, which also feels like fear. It’s a wonder they could move.

But the message of Easter is that none of this has power over us any longer. Don’t be afraid is written twice in today’s Gospel. It’s there for you and me to hear – it’s not just there for the two Marys. It’s for you and me; we need to know that the Lord of Life is speaking directly to us.

It’s not that we won’t have grief in our lives; of course not. Grief is healthy; it’s God’s gift sent to gently heal us. But our grief should not trap us in something that feels like fear. Jesus rose again; the Marys could grab hold of his living feet. Jesus, the risen one – as we read in Acts – could eat and drink again with his friends. Jesus who was crucified rose again; he destroyed the power death might have held over us. Jesus restored hope and joy and purpose to his friends back then, and he’s done so ever since. Hope, joy, purpose – the world needs them so badly still.

Just one more observation which shouldn’t be forgotten today; the first work Jesus asks of the two Marys is forgiveness. He asks them to let the other disciples know he wants to see them again. Peter and Judas are the only ones we heard of in the Passion stories, and they didn’t come off too well, did they. And it sounds as if the others, after they deserted Jesus (Mt 26.56) they may have all decided to head back home to Galilee. But did you notice that Jesus called them his ‘brothers’ today? They were transformed too. When fear is laid aside, generosity and reconciliation are unleashed in world-changing ways.

If we’re in any doubt about the centrality of Christ’s passion for reconciliation, the person God sent Peter to preach to in this morning’s reading from Acts was a Roman centurion – a representative of the army which crucified Jesus.

So today’s Easter message – don’t be afraid; just do as he asks. He knows what he’s doing. He has conquered death! He is risen! Alleluia! Amen