Thursday, April 13, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid: Reflections on Matthew 28.1-10 (RCL Easter Vigil A, 15 April 2017)

Do Not Be Afraid
Reflections on Matthew 28.1-10

RCL Easter Vigil A
15 April 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

                  28.1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  Come, see the place where he lay.  7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’  This is my message for you.”  8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!”  And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

                  [11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.  12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”  15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.]

            In the growing light of the Jerusalem morning two women took a risk.  They left their place of safety and went to the tomb of their recently-executed teacher.  Unaccompanied women always ran a risk in these days:  social disapproval, mugging, assault.  But on this morning in the politically-charged atmosphere of Jerusalem during the Passover feast, the two Mary’s were taking an ever greater risk.

            Courage, after all, is not the absence of fear by the choice to act despite one’s fears.  These two women had summoned up the courage to visit Jesus’ tomb, the tomb of an executed political prisoner whose resting-place was guarded by Roman soldiers, men who were not known for their gentle treatment of the people of occupied territories.

            Tonight we have heard the evangelist Matthew’s account of what happened:  the earthquake, stupefied guards who are later bribed to tell a story of grave-robbers, an angel, the risen Jesus.

            In this account of that first Easter I am struck by words that are spoken twice, first by the angel, then by the risen Jesus:  “Do not be afraid.”  “Do not be afraid.”

            One thing is certain.  These two women had every reason to be afraid.  Despite their courage in braving the streets to visit the tomb, they have risked abuse at the hands of the guards.  They have met an angelic messenger, an unsettling experience for anyone.  They have seen a man they saw crucified and buried, something no one then or now is accustomed to witnessing.

            And what we do know is that they found renewed courage and went forth to tell a story that changed the history of humanity:  ‘Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!’  Nothing can ever be the same.  Guards can be bribed to tell a story of body snatchers.  People can dismiss the news of the resurrection of a dead Galilean rabbi as a story told by hysterical women and working-class Palestinian illiterates.  Still others will point to the dangers of religious belief for public order and counsel more rational philosophical systems.

            But you and I are here.  Despite all the other possible ways of spending a Saturday evening, we are here.  We continue to tell this story.  But we are not immune to the virus of fear.

            As Anglicans living in the security of twenty-first century Canada, our fears are not as concrete or physical as were the fears of the two Mary’s at the tomb.  We do not have to pass by armed guards or risk identification as followers of a religious subversive.  We do not have to fear arrest or torture or imprisonment or suicide bombers entering our places of worship for daring to proclaim that ‘Jesus is Lord.’

            No.  What we risk is a corporate yawn and a sneered, ‘So what?  What difference does your Easter faith make to the world?  After two thousand years, poverty and homelessness continue.  After two thousand years, we still find ingenious ways to injure and kill one another.  After two thousand years, tyrants hold sway over millions if not billions of people.’

            This is true, but these words are said to intimidate us into silence.  Why?  Because there are always empires that claim authority over the bodies, minds, hearts and souls of human beings.  Some empires are political, while others are economic or philosophical or ideological.  No empire will tolerate a rival.  And the proclamation that ‘Christ had died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.’ frightens empires to the core of their being.

            Whether with velvety toned indifference or the iron fist of oppression, the empire will strike back.  Municipalities will ask us to justify our property tax exemptions.  Christian holy days become civil holidays.  Politicians make veiled threats about audits.  Books about being ‘spiritual but not religious’ top the bestseller lists and their authors are feted on talk shows.

            Every Christian congregation embodies the two Mary’s at the tomb on Easter morning.  We have fears and we recognize the real challenges of being ‘spiritual and religious’.  But tonight we hear the angel say to us, ‘Do not be afraid for Christ is risen.’  Tonight we hear Jesus say, ‘Do not be afraid for I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’  In bread and wine, in silence and song, in prayer and action, we renew our courage and give voice to the earthquake that shakes all earthly empires to their roots:  Alleluia!  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

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