April 16, 2017 Easter Sunday Maple Grove UMC
Here are some words from today’s Gospel reading that you might not expect to be part of the Easter story: Don’t be afraid. I mean, if ever there was a time when you shouldn’t have to tell people not to be afraid, you’d think Easter morning would be that time. But here’s the angel telling them, “Don’t be afraid.” And five verses later, the risen Jesus himself appears to them, and he has to say it again: “Don’t be afraid.”
What does it mean that even an angel of good news, that even the risen Christ himself, have to tell people not to be afraid? Surely it says something about the depth, the persistence of fear in our lives. Over the past several weeks at Maple Grove, we’ve been studying and pondering how to overcome fear with faith. We heard Jesus tell us not to worry, to let each day’s trouble be enough for that day. We heard the Bible insist that hospitality, not fear, guide our treatment of strangers and foreigners. Perfect love, 1 John says, cast out fear—the goal is to be so filled with love that there’s just no room left in our hearts for fear. And when afraid, we can always hang on to God, who’s got the whole world in his hands. Yes, we have been learning, but so deep and persistent is our fear, that even in the presence of the risen Christ, the message has to be “Don’t be afraid!”
I had a seminary professor who gave one entire lecture on things not to say to troubled souls. I don’t remember them all, but one was, “Never say, ‘I know just how you feel.’” No you don’t, he said. You can be sympathetic, but don’t pretend your experience is the same as someone else’s. Another was, “Don’t say, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’” That may or may not be true, but it sure doesn’t help someone who feels overwhelmed. And, he said, never ask someone, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Because, he said, sometimes it does.
What’s the worst that could happen? What if someone had asked that of the women who followed Jesus, a week before Easter? I doubt they could even have imagined anything as bad as what actually happened. Within days Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, brutally mocked, crucified and sealed in a tomb. And for their part, the disciples would desert and deny him. That’s the worst that could happen, and then some.
Yet in spite of all of that, here’s the good news of the Easter story: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life!
On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Now, this doesn’t mean that life goes back to just the way it was before the worst happened. That’s not how it was for the disciples and the women who followed Jesus. They had amazing new life, but not the same old life.
On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. It also doesn’t mean that this new life will be without stress or trouble. In an article about the gospel for survivors of abuse and trauma, Shelly Rambo teaches that even after the resurrection, life can remain difficult.1 This also was true for the disciples and these women. They would themselves face persecution and disbelief, the churches they founded would go through tension and division. Life was new, but often difficult. Maybe that's why, in verse 8, Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly, he says, with "fear and great joy." Not either fear or great joy, but somehow both at the same time.
On the one hand, too many redemption stories are all joy and no fear. "My life was rotten," goes this kind of testimony, "full of sin and sorrow. Then I found Jesus, and ever since all my troubles are gone!" Pardon me if that just doesn't ring true. Don't get me wrong. I have new life in Christ—thank God, I do. I've also still got my share of troubles. How about you? Resurrection isn’t an end to troubles; it’s new life in the midst of troubles.
On the other hand, too many people's stories are all fear and no joy. Yeah, life may always be difficult. But if Christ is risen—and he is!--then fear and negativity don’t have to control our behavior. A new power has been unleashed in our lives—the power of love, the power of forgiveness, and trust in the goodness of God. After all, on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.
Here's another piece of the story: Jesus didn't just tell the women not to be afraid, he also gave them something to do. He said, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee—I’ll meet them there." Having something to do makes us feel less afraid, like we're part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And the mission hasn't really changed since that first Easter. The mission Jesus gave the women, the mission Jesus gives the church today, is to go and tell, to bear witness that on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.
But in some ways, I think those women had it easier than we do. All they had to say was, "Jesus is risen!" and everyone said, Really? He's alive again—that's amazing! It was new news to them. Try saying "Jesus is risen" to someone today--they'll probably yawn and mumble, "Uhh, yeah, I've heard that." It's not that people haven't heard it before; you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's never heard that Jesus rose from the dead. It's that they've never really heard it, haven't seen how it matters to them. They haven't made the connection between Jesus being risen from the dead and not having to live such fearful lives.
And what is that connection? What might we go and tell people that would change their lives, the way what the women had to say changed the disciples' lives?
Well, we could go and tell people Easter means that God has power over death. Not that we won't die—we all die, even Jesus died. But God still has power over death. Back in 2008 I had three funerals during Holy Week, one of them for a 27 year-old man who was murdered and one for a baby that lived just two hours. The following week I had the funeral of a 40 year-old wife and mother of two, one of my best friends in all the world. Since I've been pastor of Maple Grove, I have officiated at 76 more funerals. Death is, in many cases, the worst that can happen. If I did not believe in my heart that God has power over death, I couldn't do all those funerals. I'd give up. Maybe you, too, know someone who is surrounded by sorrow and death, weighed down by a grief that will not shake. Well, maybe you could tell them our news. It won't give them their same old life back, of course, and it won't mean a new life without trouble. But it is quite a piece of good news—that in raising Jesus from the dead, God has power over death. On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Fear not!
Or how about this: go tell people Easter means their story is never over. The women came that morning expecting only to tend to Jesus' body. They thought that with his death, his story, and their story with him, were over, that theirs had been a noble effort, but evil had won again. But their story was not over. In fact, he told them to go to Galilee to start a whole new chapter. Do you know anyone who thinks their story is over? When a spouse or child dies, it feels like your story is over. When you lose your job or don't get into the school you dreamed of, it feels like your story is over. When you have to move to a nursing home, or when friends turn again you, or things just change too much, it feels like your story is over. But Easter means that the story is never over. No, it won’t be the same old story you used to have. It may not be an easy story. But it isn't over. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, who knows what God can do for you? On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. So fear not!
One more: go and tell people that Jesus wants to meet up with his brothers. Did you hear that word, 'brothers,' in the story? The angel tells the women, "Go and tell his disciples." But Jesus says, "Go and tell my brothers . . ." Why is that important? Remember what just happened with the disciples. Despite Jesus pleading with them to stay awake in Gethsemane, they all fell asleep. Out of fear, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. And they all turned away and deserted him at the cross. Yet when he comes back, Jesus doesn't say, "Go and tell those dirty rats . . ." He doesn't say, "Go and tell those former friends of mine." He doesn't even say, "Go and tell my disciples . . ." He says, "Go and tell my brothers." As one writer has put it, Jesus didn't come back to judge anyone. He returned to gather his family.2
Do you know anyone who may feel guilty or like they’ve failed in some way? Do you know anyone who has trouble holding their head up or looking you in the eye? Do you know anyone in desperate need of some family of one kind or another? Well, go and tell them that in the Easter community, no one is turned away and all are more than welcome. Because the risen Jesus comes back to gather his family. On the other side of the worst that can happen—loneliness, failure, shame--God gives no life. So fear not!
Never ask anyone, my professor warned, "What's the worst that can happen?" Because sometimes, he said, it does. That's why I want so much for you to take this Easter message with you today: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives no life. So fear not!
1 Shelly Rambo, “Spirit and Trauma,” Interpretation, 69/1 (January 2015), 7-19.
2 Frederick Niedner, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 11, 2008), 21.