Matthew 28:1–10 • After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
It was Benjamin Franklin who famously quipped that the only two things that were certain in life were “Death and Taxes.” And taxes were due last week. It is a strange quirk of human experience that death is at once the great certainty and also that great cause of uncertainty.
See, with rare exception, we do not know the hour or manner of our deaths. And this creates anxiety for us. A great unknowing.
Now, I realize that I am speaking to a congregation of people whose neural development thus far by and large prevents them from seriously contemplating their own mortality. It’s why young people take ridiculous risks and drive too fast and text while driving and all other kinds of mortality-defying behaviors well into their twenties. It may also be a kindness; I shudder to think of what our emotional development would be like as children if on top of having to navigate the complex social structures of elementary, middle, and high school if we had to add to it the existential angst of dealing with our own mortality. Asking a girl to the prom is hard enough without having to factor into it the dread of the certainty of the grave.
But it is a certainty that does cast a shadow over the human experience: we will all die. Valar morghulis.
And the Great Uncertainty thus created is a source of a great amount of fear. Some of that fear is hardwired into us: we hear a loud noise or see sudden movement and our adrenaline spikes, ready to carry us to a place of safety, away from the peril that has presented itself to us. Our survival mechanisms are built on fear of imminent death. Evolutionarily speaking, they wouldn’t be much use to us if they weren’t, if instead they prompted us to thoughtful reflection: “Now, what are the chances that there actually is a saber-tooth tiger over there on those weeds? I wonder if I should gather more data before jumping to any—”
No, our instinct when confronted by something that could be life threatening is for the fear response to get us out of there. It is a part of who we are. And the insecurity we feel about our mortality and the fear that comes with it pervades all aspects of our lives.
Fear is a great motivator: fear for our lives, fear for our safety, fear for our status, fear for our loved ones, fear of loss… Fear dominates our news media, it dominates our politics, our advertising. And it wouldn’t if it didn’t’ work. But the reality of our death creates a fear response that is seemingly ever present. In fact, this Primal Fear of death is at the root of all our fears. We fear material insecurity because we will not be able to obtain the resources to survive. We fear social alienation because we know our survival is dependent on acceptance by the larger group. We fear loss of status because status assures us access to resources and to mates needed to perpetuate our bloodlines. We fear unpredictability and our inability to control our own fate.
The brokenness of death casts a long shadow of fear into our world.
II. THE TEXT
And we see that fear even in the Gospel lesson for today. The women come to the tomb and an angel comes down from heaven and rolls the stone away from the entrance of the tomb through a great earthquake. The guards posted at the tomb are terrified. Even the women are frightened such that the angel has to say, “Don’t be afraid” before telling them that Christ has been raised. They leave with “great fear and excitement” to tell the other apostles, when they encounter Jesus, who tells them again, “Don’t be afraid.”
Our encounters with death are frightening and fear has a huge hold on us. Even when confronted with the reversal of death, as the women are in the story here, the first response is of fear. I daresay that if any of us were to encounter a loved one alive again after death, our first reaction would not be joy—it’d be fear.
And sadly, this encounter in the garden is not the last time that fear would be associated with religion. In fact, there has been a long tradition of exploiting our primal fear of death in religion.
We fear material insecurity, and the cynical ply us with promises of God’s material blessing… if we send some cash their way first.
We fear social alienation and isolation, and we are promised acceptance and welcome into a community and told what the acceptable boundaries are to maintain membership in that community.
We fear what lies on the other side of death and we are promised everything will be alright if we just believe this creed, accept this truth, do these deeds…
We fear the unpredictability of the world and we are sold certainty and with it a measure of control.
But the reality of death and our anxiety remains. Even among the faithful, there is still the need for constant reassurance in the face of our anxiety and uncertainty.
III. THERE IS ONLY ONE THING WE SAY TO DEATH
In the world of Game of Thrones, which we have been exploring throughout Lent, death is very much a certainty. As we explored last week, it’s even one of their most common sayings: Valar morghulis—all men must die.
At one point, the threat of death has become all too real for young Arya Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark. Her father has been attacked and hurt, his captain of arms killed, and the threat of further violence hangs over the family. She arrives for her regular lessons with her “dancing master” Syrio Forel. In the free city of Braavos where Syrio is from “dancing master” means a teacher of sword fighting, something young Arya is learning with great eagerness. But this day she is not eager; she is anxious about her father’s safety and grieving her friend’s death. Syrio asks her if she prays to the gods for her father and she responds, “To the Old Gods and the New.” Syrio responds by saying, “There is only one God and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to death: not today.”
It is defiant advice and fills young Arya with courage and she takes up her wooden sword to continue her practicing. This teaching will later save Arya’s life when in a time of danger Syrio will ask her, “What do we say to the god of death?” And she will say, “Not today” and head for safety to fight another day.
It’s the perfect mantra for a swordsman and it’s a badass line. And to be honest, one among many badass lines in the series. But is there anything we can learn from it?
IV. NOT TODAY
Death and brokenness have held sway over the world for a long time. We have known illness, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We have known the death of relationship and our alienation from one another. We have known the death of communities, the fracturing of a common unity of fellowship. We have known the death of cultures and nations and entire ways of life. We have known the deaths of innocents, the deaths of martyrs. The deaths of cities and civilizations. The deaths of ecosystems and species. Deaths caused by cruelty and deaths caused by indifference. Deaths caused by injustice and deaths caused by inequity. Deaths caused by greed and deaths caused by want. Deaths caused by disease and deaths caused by old age. Deaths caused by famine and deaths caused by excess. Deaths caused by malevolence and deaths caused by happenstance. And all too often the death of hope.
We could be forgiven for agreeing with Syrio’s assessment that there is only one god and his name is Death. But there is nothing wrong with agreeing with his follow-up sentiment: there is only one thing we say to death—not today.
No, today we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the victory over death that is known in Jesus. Today we celebrate life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, and love out of fear.
The ancients were just as aware of the all encompassing reality of death as we are; perhaps even more so. And they understood that death was a key part of the brokenness of the world: the injustice, the suffering, the oppression, the despair. And they understood that for God to set the world aright, all of these things would have to be conquered and over turned, even death itself. This was generally understood as something the messiah would accomplish.
I say that because all too often in contemporary Christianity, Jesus’ resurrection has been seen as a one-off event. A surprising demonstration of Jesus’ power and proof of his divinity. But dare I say it, it is so much more than that.
Jesus’ resurrection is vindication of our hopes. Our hopes that death will not hold sway forever, that the brokenness of the world will not rule forever, that even death itself can be defeated. The Resurrection of Jesus is not a parlor trick, it is not just Jesus establishing his credentials in a really showy way. It is God’s demonstration to us that in Jesus God has defeated even death itself. And that we, too, will know resurrection.
And with death defeated, so too is the fear that accompanies it. And with the fear gone, so many of the evils of the world fall away. All the very best things in the world come from love and all the worst come from fear. Hatred, violence, seeking control of others, oppression, greed, manipulation, injustice. All of these things have their roots in fear, and that fear in death. As the author of Hebrews writes:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14–15 CEB)
“He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.” Christ’s resurrection frees us all from the bondage of fear and all the evil that fear brings.
To be “set free” is to be delivered, to be rescued, in short: to be saved. This is what salvation looks like in the here and now. With the Resurrection of Christ, we are not only promised that even in our deaths we shall know resurrection, but we can know resurrection in life. Released from our fear we are reborn anew. Salvation is so often talked about in terms of where we will wind up after death, that we can miss this incredibly powerful way that salvation is known in the here and now: we are saved because we are rescued from our fear, and freed from that fear, we are freed.
We are freed to love, to live, to trust. We are freed to stand up to injustice, to stand up to oppression, to stand up for the marginalized and the downtrodden, to expand the boundaries of inclusiveness to all people. To stand in solidarity with those who are in need. Freed to be the kind of people who reclaim the image of God in which we were created.
In short, freed to act as if we were no longer afraid of all the brokenness of the world. To look fear in the eye and to say: not today. To look injustice in the eye and say: not today. To look bigotry and hate in the eye and say: not today.
There is only one God. And the name of this God is Love. And this God of Love has acted through Christ and in our lives in such a way that there is only one thing we say to death: not today.