April 12th, 2020
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
“Do not be afraid.” So hard to hear. But also, so tempting to apply to our lives. “Do not be afraid.” But maybe do not be afraid are words Jesus meant for the women who had seen him dead and now see him alive. The living dead—anyone would be scared to see that. So maybe they are not for us, exactly. And it’s interesting to see that Jesus has different words for the women at the tomb and the disciples. For the women at the tomb he has intimate words, and gives them a message, just as the angels had a message: to tell his followers to find him in Galilee. But his appearance to the women was a surprise. The angel did not tell them that they would see him on the way back to the disciples. They just said to go quickly with the message they had. So the women run headlong into Jesus, not expecting him, not looking for him. And he tells them the same thing as the angels: Do not be afraid. Tell the others I will meet them in Galilee. And with that, finally, they go.
Do not be afraid. We hear the words twice in the reading: first from the angels, who have to say it because they are terrible to behold and frightening to mortals. And then from Jesus, the living dead man, the risen Lord. Both are reason enough for terror and fear. But I believe those are words for us, too. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Go, and you will find Jesus.
There are holes in this reading. Matthew doesn’t tell us how Jesus was raised. He doesn’t provide us with a tomb’s eye view of events. No one was there when they raised Jesus from the tomb, not even the angel. He rose, he left, he came to the women on the road. He came as a surprise, and he came to say: Do not be afraid. I promise that you will see me again. Go. There’s no backstory to this, no explanation of how the process worked. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Easter works like a promise, almost like a marriage: it’s promise that doesn’t necessarily have instructions. But it’s fulfilled again and again over time.
When we’re afraid, it can help to have explanations. It can help to hear things gone over again. When you have a panic attack, for instance, it’s helpful to review the evidence and hone in on the relevant experience. The angel tells the women that Jesus told them he would be raised. It was a promise that you couldn’t believe, but it was a promise you can remember. Their fear, therefore, is the fear of a promise being fulfilled. It is the fear of something too good to be true. Matthew says the women ran in terror and in great joy—have you ever been scared of something that you knew was wonderful? I suppose, for some people, marriage has that feeling. Or perhaps getting out of prison after a long time in. Or finally leaving a well-paying, soul-destroying job for something that will make you happy.
I believe the resurrection is terrible—terrible because we cannot explain it, but can only remember that it was promised to Jesus and promised to us. How does it occur? By the Word of God. Which is the same thing as saying that it is inexplicable. But the promises are clear, and God has fulfilled them for us.
Do not be afraid. Go. I will meet you. This is the whole of the message, repeated twice. I think of the chaplains at the hospitals now, who pray with the nurses and doctors before their shifts. Everywhere around this city, and these states, men and women of every faith and none come together before they work to reach out to whatever is beyond them, so they can go in. I believe they meet Christ in their work. Every day men and women go to work in grocery stores, shielded at best by a mask and some plexiglass. Every customer comes and spends 3-5 minutes breathing around them and moves on. Somewhere, Christ is with them. Now we are twelve days into the month of April, and many of our city’s people don’t have the money for rent, or know where they’ll be getting food. They go to schools and distribution centers for three meals a day. Some people wait there to serve them. Christ is with them.
Do not be afraid. Go. I will meet you. I wondered if these words were just for the women, but my heart also believes they are for me. They are the only words that can give me strength and courage. Do not be afraid of whatever awaits—whatever awaits is a meeting with with Christ. You will meet Christ on your way—he has already prepared the place for you to see him. You may not know where it is, and it may be the last place you expect. But nevertheless you will encounter him. Go and meet him.
You also may feel terror and joy. You may feel afraid of your daily life—afraid to go outside, afraid to talk with a neighbor. But remember that social distancing is a form of love, and that by staying back you are saving lives. But remember also that this virus will pass someday, perhaps in a month, perhaps much longer than that, and we will be offered a chance to reenter life. Perhaps the surprise Jesus has in store for us is the surprise of the resurrection after death—everything can change. If this virus has revealed anything, is the weakness of our society, its fissures and its fault lines. It shows how the poor and the people who have endured discrimination and marginalization, forced under the shadow of polluting plants and curbed from entering the more prosperous sections of society, bear the largest burden of this virus. It also shows that a society that does not protect the most vulnerable is weaker and more vulnerable than a society that cares for its poor. And it shows us how all the things we felt were sure and secure turn to be much more fragile than we imagined.
When God created Adam and Eve, God commissioned them to tend and care for the Earth. God met them in the garden and walked with them there. All good things require other good things to flourish. Trees require sunlight and water; the forests require good climate and the restraint of human beings. All of us require love and connection, help and honest conversation. The good things we have won, rule of law, democracy, the recognition of universal human rights, rights for individuals, all require tender care. It requires us to act. And our faith needs the word Jesus, to tell us to go and seek him out.
So do not be afraid. Take courage. Christ having died, will never die again. He has a message and a promise for us today: go and seek him. He will be there for you.