Do Not Be Afraid ~ Homily for Easter 2020 ~ Based on Matthew 28: 1-10
Each of the four gospel writers have a narrative about the resurrection, and we tend to alternate the reading of them each Easter. The gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the chroniclers of the story of Jesus’ life, and each puts the death and resurrection of Jesus at the end of their accounting of their gospels. But the resurrection story really isn’t the end is it? It’s really the beginning of a much greater story—the story of Christianity! For without the resurrection, Jesus would have been just another up-start prophet crucified by the Romans for civil disobedience! It is the resurrection that definitively provides the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God. Despite all the forces of evil in the world, God is indestructible, the forces of love and goodness prevail; Jesus is alive! And even in death there is new life in Christ, with Christ and through Christ! That is the Good News that is given in all four gospels, despite the fact that they are all written slightly differently.
And I do get asked from time to time why the four gospel stories of the resurrection are different from each other; for example, there more or less people present, more or fewer angels, different people in each story. Mark’s gospel is the first one of the four to be written, and in his accounting of the resurrection, Jesus isn’t even seen at the grave, but shows himself afterwards. Now, all the gospels of course were written after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and are based on accounts of those who were there when Jesus lived, or had heard of the stories of Jesus from others who were with him. As we all know, if a group of people witness the same event, each one of them recounts it to others in a different way, because they all witness it from their own personal perspective. And people are people—stories can change in the retelling–some storytellers embellish slightly more, or will focus on a specific aspect of the event, because they felt it important for the point they are making, while another will discount it as immaterial, and maybe not even tell it. So, irrespective of which of the resurrection accounts we read, there are key similarities to all of them. The stone has been rolled away, the tomb is unexpectedly empty, Jesus’ body is missing—and no-one is just quite sure why that is, or how that all happened. The people who are there are frightened, and reassured by an angel. And each story has one or more angels that reveal the answer. Angels are God’s messengers, and make themselves known to people when God wants people to be aware of very special divine occurrences—like the angels that announced Jesus’ birth. Mary of Magdalene is the primary witness in all 4 gospels, and the revelation of Jesus’ resurrection is first made to women and the names of the women are given. And it is they who are instructed to bring the good news to Jesus’ other followers. And this is truly significant. In Jesus’ “coming out” to the women disciples first, as it were, Jesus is making an extraordinary statement of the value of women in his life, which is very significant for the patriarchal society of the time! Some scholars I have read over the years say that this actually adds to the credibility of the reality of the resurrection having occurred, as if the resurrection itself wasn’t extraordinary enough.
The resurrection story I read today from Matthew’s gospel is written with a truly dramatic flair. It’s Sunday morning and Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—we’re not quite sure who this Mary is; they’re going to the tomb where Jesus was buried– much like we would go to the cemetery to visit a loved one. There is an earthquake—possibly an aftershock? Because just 2 days before, on the day Jesus was crucified there was a pretty significant earthquake. For ancient peoples, earthquakes were thought of a sign of the presence of God. And suddenly, an angel appears like lightening, rolls the stone away, and the guards who have been posted at the tomb to ensure that Jesus’ body isn’t taken actually pass out in fear. The Jewish authorities had asked Pilate to post guards at the tomb, because there was that rumour going around that he was expected to rise from the dead. Remember how Jesus brought Lazarus back to life? And the stir that caused? And the number of people who hailed him as King just the week before, on the day we now call Palm Sunday? And the stir that caused? The last thing the Romans or the temple leaders needed was Jesus’ body stolen and his disciples saying he was raised from the dead. This Jesus as the Messiah being raised in three days business had to be quashed. So, Pilate agreed to post guards, and the stone was even sealed in place.
So, the angel rolls the stone away from the mouth of the tomb, then calmly sits down on the stone — a very non-threatening presence, and the first thing the angel says to the women: “Do not be afraid”—words of reassurance, because the angel knows this is a frightening situation for them. And then acknowledges their needs: I know you’re here to see the grave, to grieve Jesus’ death, but come and see, look insider he’s not here, he really has been raised.
The women look at each other, afraid, astonished, astounded, amazed! How do you respond to all of this – from grief to fear to unbelievable amazing joy in mere seconds? The one we loved and saw died, is really alive? Then the angelic messenger continues with the message: ‘Now, quickly, go tell the disciples that Jesus is raised from the dead. He is on the way to Galilee and you will see him there.’ What an experience for them! Earthquakes, angels coming like lightening, Roman guards fainting dead away –an empty tomb, and Jesus really isn’t dead? And they would see him again! Could this really be? Verse 8: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” With fear and great joy, they don’t walk to Galilee, but run. Imagine, two fully grown women running down the road! What a combination of emotions for the Mary’s; feeling both ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time–fear and great joy. There is a sense of urgency about their mission—people need to know what’s happened, this is amazing news! But a bit scary just the same; our beloved one who was dead for three days is raised to live again. What awesome power our Lord has, and the angels told us to tell the others!
Verse 9: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said ‘Greetings!’ ” Greetings, it’s an unusual word to our 21st century ears. It is a direct English translation from the Greek word of greeting, and a standard word of greeting of the time. But the Greek word means more than just ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi there’; it implies a greeting with rejoicing. Jesus is rejoiced, he is delighted to meet the women too! And the two Mary’s fall at Jesus’ feet! And Jesus understands how they’re feeling, because the first thing he says to them is: “Don’t be afraid.”
It was along the way to Galilee that Jesus found the women, they were en-route; they hadn’t even had the chance to complete the mission the angel had given them and Jesus just shows up, out of the blue! Isn’t that just the way, sometimes? When we’re in situations that we’re not sure why God has put us into, or busy single-mindedly pursuing a mission, or so overwhelmed with emotions that we can’t even think straight or unsure if we can even handle the job or the task at hand, that’s when unexpectedly Jesus can find us — wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. And he greets us, and says “It’s ok, don’t be afraid, I am with you.” This is just what we need to hear in this time of uncertainty, fear and loneliness as we are busily social isolating, trying to avoid people and this virus. My prayer is that the only illness you will get out of this pandemic is cabin fever! No matter how this coronovirus is hitting you and your loved ones, know that Jesus’ presence is in the midst of it as well. Jesus is with you, and knows and understands how you are feeling. Jesus understands your fear for your families and other loved ones, your fear contracting this virus. I truly believe God’s presence is with those who are ill and with those mourning the loss of loved ones. Just watching the TV news makes your heart break for all the pain. Jesus’ love comes through the hands and in the many ways so many are responding.
Easter, the resurrection of our Lord was the message of hope, for the disciples of Jesus time, AND for our time. The evil forces that pursued Jesus literally to death did not provide the last word. Jesus could not be eradicated. The love and goodness of Almighty God does prevail, still today, against even the deepest of evils.
Christians are an Easter people. We are a people of hope, because we know that the light will always win over the darkness. Yes there will be times of suffering and pain, but we need not be afraid, because Christ lives, and is with us, in all of our fearful and challenging times.
We are an Easter people, a resurrection people. This is our foundation, our faith, our hope and our trust, that through thick and thin, through fear and pain, through every evil, Jesus is always with us.
The tomb is empty, come and see! Do not be afraid. Christ is risen, the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope.
 Richard S. Dietrich in Feasting on the Word, Exegetical Perspective for Matthew 28. 1-10, Year A Vol. 2, p. 351 (WJK Press: Louisville, Kentucky 2010)