Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 12, 2009–Easter Sunday
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Are you afraid? Are you terrified? No, not of me . I don’t usually inspire fear or terror. Are you afraid of Easter?
It seems like an odd question. After all, how could we be afraid of a holiday whose color scheme is all pastels and whose most visible symbol is a bunny rabbit? Or a holiday where there are copious amounts of chocolate to be consumed? Other than fear for our daily calorie counts, what is there to be frightened of on Easter?
II. THE TEXT
And yet, what is so compelling is the story that we read in Mark’s gospel tonight. The women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome went early Sunday morning to the tomb to anoint the body. There they find the stone has already been rolled back and instead of finding the body of Jesus there, they see a young man dressed in a white robe who tells them that Jesus has been raised as he had said, and has gone before them to Galilee, where the disciples will see him. And then we read that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid .”
I think it interesting just how much fear plays a role in this narrative. And it’s not just in Mark’s gospel either. Fear is mentioned in Matthew’s gospel as well at the empty tomb. In Luke, when the disciples encounter the risen Jesus, they, too, are afraid. And in John’s gospel, we read of the disciples being holed up in the Upper Room, afraid. Because it’s not something we expect to be a big part of the Easter story. Certainly not to the degree it seems to be in Mark’s gospel.
And it is not something that we encounter in our liturgy or any other observance of Easter (again I point out the pastels and the bunny rabbit). We greet each other with the words “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!” not “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
So what is fear doing as a part of this narrative?
III. EXPECTATION OF FEAR
On some level, there seems to be an expectation of fear. At least by those who bring the good news. We see this in the nativity story in Luke, angels appear to the shepherds and the first thing the angels say is “Do not be afraid.” Now, I suppose it could be that angels are terrifying creatures. In the Old Testament they seraphim are described as six-winged fire serpents; the cherubim as beings with four faces (hardly the chubby babies with wings we’re used to). That would be terrifying, I suppose.
But the angels described in this story are “young men” in white robes. That’s not quite as terrifying. And yet, the angels still seem to anticipate fear on behalf of those who receive the message. What is it then, that is so terrifying? Is it simply someone coming back to life? Is that terrifying?
In a recent episode of the TV show Lost –a show rife with philosophical and religious imagery–one character believes that the death of another character is necessary to achieve what he wants–and so he murders him. Later, he discovers the latter character alive and well. Post-coffin alive. While on some level he had believed it would happen, the first character admits that he wasn’t really expecting it. He says,
I had no idea what would happen. I’ve seen this island do miraculous things. I’ve seen it heal the sick, but never once has it done anything like this. Dead is Dead. You don’t get to come back from that. Not even here.
And then adds, “The fact that [the second character] is alive scares the hell out of me.”
Now, it should be pointed out, that there is nothing at all frightening about the resurrected person–he is quite peaceful, and even agreeable with his murderer. So, it’s not him that the one character is frightened of. It is the idea of him that scares him.
And the same thing that frightens him is the same thing that frightens the women at the tomb.
IV. THE NEW REALITY
“Dead is dead. You don’t get to come back from that.” The acknowledgement that that is no longer the case is frightening.
And not frightening for the obvious reason–that someone you weren’t expecting to see again, ever, should have returned. But frightening because of the implications: everything has changed.
What frightens the women at the tomb is the amazement and stunning realization that everything they had known was different. They had expected to find Jesus’ body in the tomb. They had expected to anoint his body for burial according to longstanding custom. They did not expect to find him missing and raised from the dead. Dead is dead. You don’t get to come back from that. The world is suddenly very different.
Resurrection is a world changing event. It is not a resuscitation–it is not the kind of thing that happens in emergency rooms around the country. Resurrection is life from death. It is a reversal of death.
If death itself has been reversed—death, the surest thing in our human lives—if that has been reversed, then what else is different? What else has changed? The answer is: everything.
And that is terrifying.
We are often fearful of change. One of the students involved in this fellowship told me she didn’t like it when we moved the furniture around in the office downstairs. I don’t like it when you all graduate and leave. Now imagine that your very understanding of the world was turned upside-down. That everything you had believed to be the case, was suddenly inverted. Dead is no longer dead. Dead is alive.
That would be a terrifying proposition.
V. FREEDOM FROM FEAR
But in a very real way, that is our most hopeful proposition.
Because the biggest problem with the world as we know it, the world we are comfortable with, is how much of it is shaped by fear. A fear that molds our actions, a fear that shapes our values. A fear that gives rise to hate. A fear that breaks down community. A fear that enslaves us. And so much of that fear is rooted in our fear of death.
We are mortal. We do not live forever. And unlike our animal brothers and sisters, we are aware of this fact. We are aware that there will be a time when we will die. And that scares us. It scares us into seeking to control our lives and one another. It scares us into defining groups of ‘us and them’–so that we can provide for our safety. It scares us into all manner of rigid thinking so that we may have some certainty in the midst of an uncertain and fleeting existence.
Something like the Resurrection from the Dead terrifies us because it destroys the sense of certainty that we had about the world. We though we knew how this all works. “Dead is dead. You don’t get to come back from that.”
Well, apparently, yes you do.
That is what Jesus’ resurrection is about. Jesus’ resurrection is vindication of our hope that God does not abandon us to death and decay. God does not abandon us to the caprices of a fickle fate, nor does God abandon us to injustice, suffering, and brokenness. No, the injustice of the cross, the suffering of the cross, the brokenness of the cross, the death of the cross are all vanquished by the power of the Resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event. St. Paul says that Jesus is the “first fruits” of those who have died. That is, we too, will share in resurrection. Resurrection is not limited to Christ alone, but belongs also to us, to all creation. The Resurrection is vindication of our hopes for the restoration of all Creation.
All our brokenness, all our suffering, all our injustices (both suffered and perpetrated), all our sorrow, all our grief–all our death–is swallowed up in the power of Easter. It is said that the shadow of the cross is large, but that is only because of the brightness of the light of Easter behind it.
That is at once a terrifying and amazing thing. Because while it changes forever how we see the world, it frees us from so much more. It frees us from all the fear that had kept us captive. Frees us from the anxiety about our own mortality. Frees us from the fear that drives us apart from one another. And frees us to love.
Old social structures have no sway over us any more. We are not required to buy into the bigotries and segregations of the old world. We do not have to accept the world’s definition of insider and outsider, the world’s divisions by class, race, age, sex, ability, nationality, sexuality, creed. We are freed to love one another. Not just called to do so, but freed to do so.
We are not required to buy into the culture of accumulation of material goods without end. A culture that tells us that what we are is what we own. We are freed to live lives of simplicity. Lives of balance. Lives that testify to a greater richness than a richness of stuff.
We are not required to buy into the broader definition of power, where strength and might determine what is right. We are freed to live lives of humility and self-sacrifice. Lives built not on getting other people to do what you want, but doing things freely for others out of love.
And finally, we are not bound to accept the culture of fear that dominates our world. The fear that you see every day on the evening news. The fear that drives all our advertising. The fear that drives our elections and the fear that is turning our communities into armed camps. We are freed to love.
The women at the tomb are stricken with terror and amazement. They flee from the tomb and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. But we know that their story does not end with fear. Had they kept their story to themselves, we would not be here.
It is a reminder that often our Christian faith, the radical nature of the Gospel, will challenge us. We will be afraid, when we consider how much the world is changed and how it cannot be the same for us again. That will create anxiety in us.
But it will also free us from that same anxiety. We will not forever be struck with terror and amazement. We will be emboldened by the power of the Gospel to set out into the world to proclaim the Good News of God.
Christ is Risen! We are not beholden to cultures of fear, but can create communities of love.
Christ is Risen! We are not forsaken to injustice and oppression, but can testify to a God of justice and righteousness.
Christ is Risen! We are not left to suffering, but that “mourning will be no more” and God will indeed “wipe away every tear.”
Christ is Risen! We are not abandoned to death and fate, but are given a share in Resurrection, to live in the eternal presence of God.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!