DO not be afraid.
Not the way you expect Easter to begin: do not be afraid.
After all, the hard part is over, the trial, the cross, the tomb, the harrowing of hell. What is there left to fear?
Yet twice in ten short verses the phrase appears: Do not be afraid.
Each evangelist tells the story a little differently; this year it’s Matthew’s turn.
In the Matthew account, after Jesus was placed in the tomb, a guard was set against the possibility of interference by his disciples. Worried that they might stage a resurrection, those who had manufactured the death sentence against him took steps to ensure that he remained dead and buried. So the women of Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, those faithful souls who attend the tomb in every account of it, they arrive empty-handed. They do not bring spices to anoint him. They do not wonder who will roll away the stone, because they know that’s not going to happen, with two guards keeping watch. They go to see the tomb because they simply want, need to be close to him, close to Jesus. They miss him. It’s as simple as that.
We have heard what happens next: the earthquake, the angels, the guards playing dead, quite sensibly under the circumstances. The women are told, “Do not be afraid.”
The guards are allowed to stay afraid, possibly because they have fainted and can’t hear the angels’ instructions not to be. In the part of the gospel we don’t read this morning, they return to their bosses, terrified that they have fallen down, literally, on the job. They concoct a story to say that exactly what they had feared was what had happened: Jesus’ body had been stolen, a resurrection faked.
Is that what we are afraid of, that we have been duped? That it wasn’t real, isn’t real, that our faith is based on a lie, a trick? None of the accounts in the Bible attempts to describe the moment of Resurrection. Some later gospel accounts do, some of the ones that are not in our Bible, but they are full of special effects and CGI; you can see the strings, and catch a whiff of smoke in the mirrors. Better, as Matthew does, to respect the mystery.
The women knew that the Resurrection was real not because of the earthquake and the angel, but because Jesus came to them. They sought him out, but it was he who found them. They knew him. He knew them, and he told them, “Do not be afraid.”
Why would they be afraid? They had longed for him, they had missed him so badly that they had gone to the tomb simply to be close to him, as close as they could manage when he was on the wrong side of the gravestone.
Were they afraid that Jesus would be angry? The women had done their best, but they had given up hope. They were looking for the living among the dead, expecting him to be there in his graveclothes. Or was his message for the men: Peter, who had denied him? The ones who ran away? Judas, who betrayed him with a kiss? Were they afraid that their sins would demand an accounting now that the Master had returned? They fell down at his feet.
But Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” and he called his disciples brethren, family, still beloved. “Tell them to go home, to Galilee. Tell them I will be with them when they get home.”
Jesus reassures the women that he has come back not for judgment but for relationship, not for an accounting but for an embrace.
The message of the empty tomb is that there is nothing to be afraid of. Jesus has taken on everything that torments us, and he has defeated it, and he has returned to meet us. We seek him out, and he finds us, in our homes, in our own lives, as our brother, as our friend, as our God to remind us, always, “Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
Whatever it is that we fear, Jesus has defeated it. Not only death, but the pain of dying; it was not for nothing that he suffered; it was for us. Not only death, but the grave, the far side of dying; he descended to the dead, and rose again. Not only death, but life. Jesus knew all about betrayal, about hunger and homelessness. He knew about oppression, war and rumours of war, wondering what the world is coming to. He was experienced in false imprisonment, bereavement, grief and family strife. Whatever it is that we fear, Jesus has lived through it, died for it, defeated it.
And now on Easter morning he greets us, “Do not be afraid. Tell my brothers and sisters they will see me in Galilee, I will go home with them.”
Put off your mourning clothes and celebrate, in the midst of the empire, in the daily battles of life, even in the pain that dogs you and the weariness that defeats you – Jesus has defeated even those things, and invites us to celebrate with him. I can only imagine the party they put on as soon as they got home to Galilee, the welcome home banners they drew up, the fatted calf they roasted, those footsore and faithful, dazed and doubtful disciples.
With them we put off the mourning clothes of Lent and bedeck the church and feast on fattening chocolate eggs, we bewildered and bedazzled disciples. But Jesus did more than make a guest celebrity appearance at a party.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you,” says the Lord through the prophets.
Love that is everlasting; love that survives death. Faithfulness that reaches beyond the grave. How much more clearly can God say it than to live it in the person of Jesus, risen and returned to his friends, to his family, to bless their homes.
Jesus died and descended to destroy death. Jesus rose and lives with us to defeat our fear and strengthen not only our Easter but our everyday faith that in God through Christ we are forgiven, restored to our true selves, beloved.
Do not be afraid. It might not be the Easter message we were expecting; but it is Jesus’ first word to his beloved Marys on this Easter morning, and it is his word to us.
The Incarnation – the life of God in Jesus – the Cross and the Tomb, all say that God is absolutely and intimately involved with us. The Resurrection replies, And God is still God, and will always act beyond our imagination, doing impossibly unexpected new things in fearful and wonderful new ways.
“Go, tell my brothers and sisters I am coming to meet them.”
Tell them, do not be afraid: Jesus is alive!