a sermon for Easter Sunday on Matthew 28:1-10
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 24, 2011
Mary and Mary Magdalene were afraid, and for good reason. Their friend and teacher Jesus had been executed less than 48 hours before they decided to venture out to his tomb at the first possible moment to continue their grieving at this sudden and strange turn of events. When they got to the tomb, their fears became all the more real. An earthquake came as an angel rolled away the stone at the tomb, and even when they learned from the angel that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they still couldn’t help but be at least a little afraid.
Over the course of the ten verses in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew today, the words “fear” or “afraid” show up four separate times, first to describe the mood of the moment but then as an angel and later Jesus instruct them not to be afraid. Now resurrection doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would inspire fear – if anything, it seems like their response ought to have been great joy, for their friend and teacher Jesus was no longer dead but had risen to new life! But there was still something fearful going on here – as wonderful as it may have been to have him resurrected, Jesus was not where he belonged, where they expected to find him, in the tomb. Anytime there is a dead body missing from where it is supposed to be, fear and uncertainty are almost certain to follow, but this situation was made all the more fearful because Jesus had been executed by the political and religious authorities. This fear, though, was about more than a body not being where it belonged – the women were afraid of what the consequences of these things might be, concerned maybe that they could be accused of stealing the body, fearful of the ridicule the other disciples might have for them as they brought this strange news back from the tomb, and uncertain of what this latest turn in Jesus’ story might mean for them as they continued sorting out what his words and his life meant for them.
Amidst all this fear, Matthew reports that there was another emotion at hand as the women left the tomb: yes, they were filled with fear, but also great joy. This joy is something we’re probably more comfortable with – while it makes sense that the women would be afraid of Jesus’ resurrection, it also makes sense that the women would be glad to learn that Jesus is alive again, and so we emulate this feeling of great joy in our words and songs today, shouting and singing “Alleluia!” over and over again out of amazement at the incredible thing that God has done in raising Jesus from the dead. Our psalm for today lifts up this great joy once again, proclaiming “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” and stating confidently, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” This kind of joy is certainly right for this day – to sing praise to our God who triumphs over even the powers of death, to embody our joy for God’s incredible work of raising Jesus from the dead. Yet somehow the women at the tomb weren’t fully there at joy yet – they walked away with fear too.
Is there any reason for us to fear this Easter? Is there any reason why we should be afraid of the dead things God might be restoring to new life in our individual lives, in our community, or in our church? Should we be trembling because the tomb is empty and new life is springing forth? Do we need to be afraid of what others might say to us and about us and even against us if the message of the resurrection is true? The reality is that the message of resurrection we have at Easter is deeply powerful, and it can and should inspire a bit of fear in us. Easter overturns all the assumptions of the world and says that death does not have the final word for Jesus – and by extension, for us. Easter threatens the power structures of the world, of the church, and of our lives by saying that death is not just a bad thing because it can be redeemed and things made new. The resurrection shows us that God is on the side of life and love, that God is not out to get us or punish us or destroy us, but instead God embodies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a new order that sets things on the path toward being whole and complete. And Easter shows us that there is always hope for something new – not just an empty hope for something to change one day in the courts of heaven but hope that God can and will act, here and now, to transform our world and make it as God intends.
And so it is in the face of these fears that the angel and Jesus speak to us as they did to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” Yes, we are rightfully afraid because the good news of Easter complicates things for us and others. The safe assumptions we’ve made along the way look a little less comfortable today. In the light of the empty tomb, we see that we may face uncertain times, difficult days, and even persecution as we wait for new life to come, because the tomb had to be full before it could be empty. The radical transformation of death we see today may even leave us wanting to cower in the corner in fear or walk away in despair rather than to face the difficulty of these days.
But in the face of our fear and our uncertainty and our lack of understanding, Jesus and the angel speak to us again: “Do not fear.” They don’t tell us that we are bad people for not understanding or believing the resurrection quite yet, but they do show us a confident measure of God’s presence so that we can be assured that God is with us in and through the one who died and was raised and so journeys with us through all uncertainty.
So in the face of this incredible reality and hope of the resurrection, we can and should have fear and joy just as Mary and Mary Magdalene did – fear enough to realize that things must be different because of the incredible mystery and gift of this Easter day but joy enough to see that God has more in store for us than what we can understand and experience right here and right now.
May this fear and this joy open us to the good news of the resurrection this Easter and always as we go with Mary and the disciples out into the world with our eyes and our ears and our hearts open to the presence of our risen and living Lord Jesus.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.