Easter Sunday sermon: Freed from Fear

Rev. Stacy Swain

Jeremiah 31:1-6                              

Matthew 28:1-10

            We live in a culture of fear. Our world is full of threat.   I saw a bumper sticker the other day, a rewrite of one that had come out a few years ago, only now it said “if you are not afraid, you are not paying attention.”   Pull the mantle of fear round tight, its worse than you think out there–  was its grim message.

            So much fear.   It is said, we fear the unknown and we face so many  unknowns these days.   We face the unknown what to do with  global climate change.  The unknown of how to combat the elusive but deadly rise of terrorism.  The unknown of our place within a changing global economic system.  The unknown of our personal security and how tarnished those golden years actually may turn out to be.  Our culture is thick with fear.

           And it is also said, that among creatures, only humans are aware of their own mortality.  So on top of everything else, we too face the great unknown of death. No wonder we are afraid!  

            The  people of Biblical times also knew what it was to be frightened.   There were many unknowns and the air was filled with fear during those days that Jesus walked those dusty roads of Galilee.  Roman rule was harsh and no matter where the people looked all they saw were dead ends. 

            That is why, Jesus captivated them so.  He spoke not of death but of life; of hope in the midst of hardship; of love actually being more powerful than violence.    But all of that Good News was killed on Friday.   Hope met a cross death — love was crucified on the hill of Golgatha.  And  the people turned away from yet another dead end, pulling the mantle of fear ever tighter round them, whispering as they went “if you are not afraid, you are not paying attention….”.  Dead ends and fear

            Until that miraculous morning so long ago.  Until this miraculous morning, today.  In the early morning dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to see the tomb.  We don’t really know why they go there.  Perhaps somehow being close to the broken body of Jesus, was better than not being near him at all.

            As they draw close to the tomb “there is suddenly a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”  Nothing like this had ever happened before and the women stand and stare.   The guards, on the other hand, they collapse into fear. The text tells us  “for fear, the guards shook and became like dead men.” Fear shuts them down dead.

             And so a fraction of a second, we totter with the women on this threshold of fear.  All that is to be, hangs on what comes next.  To borrow a phrase from Thomas Cahill,  in this moment “lies the hinge of history.” And what comes  next is the word BUT.    The passage continues not with AND, and the women were terrified, and they ran away.  And the reign of fear continued.   Instead , with the word BUT a new trajectory of human living swings open.  “For fear, the guards shook and became like dead men, But the angel said to the women, “do not be afraid.  I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.”  Fear is interrupted.  The course of living changed.  And with the angel’s words  the women unwrap the mantle of fear that has been clinging close to them since Friday’s fearsome hour and they step into the light of hope and love that dawns.

             Jesus, the one whose lifeless body they sought, now living in resurrection’s light, comes to them saying   “Do not be afraid.”    He tell them “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  No more dead ends, there is living to be done on the far side of the empty tomb, on the far side of fear.    

             I discovered recently a poem by Maya Angelou that could have been written by Mary Magdalene in this moment, as she stood with the other Mary in the radiance for that first Easter morning.  The poem is entitled “Touched by an Angel.”  Listen will you?   

By Maya Angelou

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity.
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

           You know we may never fully understand what exactly happened during the time between that first Good Friday and the dawn of Easter morning.  So much about how Jesus saves us remains a mystery.  But what we do know is that those who followed Jesus while he lived, continued to encounter his presence even after he had been killed. And not only did they encounter his presence but they themselves were empowered by it.    They felt in their very flesh and blood, something new and powerful rising in them, transforming them and giving them new life.  Death could  not hold Jesus and through the power of his presence they knew that all the death dealing fear filled ways of the world no longer had a hold on them.  And they felt it, they lived it.   They were no longer afraid.  Love struck away the chains of fear from their souls.  Love set them free.” 

             We will continue to face many unknowns in our lives, but the Good News which is ours again this day, is that — We too need not be afraid.  As one with the body of Christ, we too, in some mysterious and grace filled way. are caught up into the power and presence of the risen Christ that lives in and through us.  And with God’s presence in our lives, we need not fear whatever may come.   For as the words from the prophet Jeremiah tell us, “God has loved us with an everlasting love; and has continued God’s faithfulness to us.  God will build us and we will be built.”

              For building is exactly what comes next in the Gospel.  These followers of Jesus set off building new lives right in the midst of the Roman occupation, right in the midst of it hardship, transforming dead ends into new beginnings.  Freed from fear, they go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them about everything Jesus has commanded.  Creating communities of fear freed people, trusting in the presence of Jesus that spans through the ages and is catching us up even now in this great trajectory of Gospel living.

             Today, this Easter morning we step again into this mystery of life beyond death, of hope beyond fear, of the power of love fully present – fully alive to us all.   We celebrate not only the risen Christ but also the new life that rises in us this.  So when we go from this place, let us follow the example of those first disciples.  Let us set out building new ways of being in the world that free others from dead ends and enable others to unwrap the mantle of fear.    We live in the Gospels hope.  Ours is a world of possibility.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus Christ is Risen.   Rise, give praise and live.   Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!   Amen.