We know too much about Easter. We know so much about it that it’s hard to imagine what it really felt like when the sun began to rise on that first Easter morning. Everyone in the Easter story is overwhelmed with great fear. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb filled with fear about what has happened over the last few days, about what they may find when they go looking for Jesus, and about what the future holds for them, and yet they remain faithful and go towards the tomb. The guards are terrified as they experience an earthquake and see an angel of the Lord; they are so terrified that they become like dead men. The disciples too have let their fear get the best of them; their fear of Roman authorities led them to deny and desert Jesus and now they are in hiding. Once they learn of Jesus’ resurrection they are also surely fearful of what it means that they abandoned Jesus at his darkest hour. Pilate’s own fear of an insurrection is what led to these disastrous days in the first place. The crowds who cried, “Crucify him!” and “Release Barabbas instead!” were afraid of what kind of upheaval Jesus might bring. Everyone in this story is faced with great fear. Even now, on this Easter morning, while surrounded by the beauty of this day, it’s hard to notice that while Easter is a day of great joy, it is also a day of fear.
The gospel of Matthew ends as it began, with an angel of the Lord proclaiming to those who are trying to be faithful, “Do not be afraid.” Just as the angel told Joseph to not be afraid, to take Mary as his wife because the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit, the angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to not be afraid. The angel reveals to the Marys that the angel knows what they are looking for and knows that they are afraid. The angel invites them to come and see the place where he had been for he is not here, for he has been raised! The angel commands them to go quickly and to share with the disciples the good news and the instruction to meet him in Galilee. They are filled with joy that Jesus has risen from the dead, but their fear still lingers. They wonder, “What kind of turmoil will this resurrection bring? What will the Romans do now? What does it mean that we women who are seen as untrustworthy by the authorities will be the bearers of this news?” Their fear lingers, but it does not paralyze them. It does not keep them from being obedient. As they go to tell the disciples, they meet Jesus himself on the road, and he repeats the words of the angel, “Do not be afraid.”
Big moments of great joy are often accompanied by some level of fear. We know this to be true in so many ways in our lives. The birth of a new baby is a joy–filled occasion of welcoming a new life into the world, but it also comes with fear. The journey of laboring, a holy sacred moment, is also a scary one, a moment when many things can go wrong, a moment when we pray for the baby and its mother with great trepidation. Once the baby arrives we fear we may discover something about the baby that we didn’t know before; we worry about the baby’s health, whether he or she is getting enough to eat, whether he or she will get sick. And when those babies become children and teenagers, they continue to fill our lives with joy but we also continue to fear for their safety, knowing we can’t ultimately protect them. Getting married is also a joy-filled and sacred occasion accompanied by lots of celebrating. But getting married comes with fear as well. Can the couple grow together through all the changes that will come in their lives? Will they betray one another? Will they be able to overcome the hurts that they will inevitably cause one another? Sending a child to college is an exciting time, but our excitement often gets hampered by our worries. Is this college the right choice? How will the decisions my child makes during this time of their lives affect them in the future? Will they remember the lessons we’ve taught them? Retirement is often a time of happiness and relief and excitement about a change of pace and activity. But retirement too comes with fear. Have we saved enough money to take care of ourselves and pay for nursing care should we need it? Will we get bored after awhile and not be able to find purpose and meaning without having a job to attend to? Now that we have more time to be around our family than ever before, how will it change our relationships? At the root of all these fears are deeper fears, our ultimate fears – the fear of loss and the fear of death.
When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” we know it’s a tall order. But Jesus changes the game. Jesus changes our vision. Jesus changes our priorities. Jesus enters the darkness and brings us to the light of Easter morning, illuminating how we should live our lives and making it possible for us not to be paralyzed by our fear. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “Jesus has made it possible to live unafraid. The disciples are often afraid of the elites and the crowds, but Jesus has given them all they need not to be afraid. He has done so by drawing them, and us, into a life so compellingly true that we have no time to be afraid.”[i] When we are committed to living out the kingdom of God, we have priorities larger than our fears. It doesn’t mean that our fears go away; it means that in spite of them, we make decisions to do what God has called us to do, to be faithful disciples, to be obedient like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary on that first Easter morning. There is much to be afraid of in this life, and when we take on the mission of living out the peaceable kingdom of God, we make ourselves vulnerable. But as disciples of Jesus, we are called to have a different relationship with fear.
In 1220 St. Francis of Assisi was living in the town of Gubbio in Italy. A fierce wolf appeared in the countryside and began devouring livestock and eventually started attacking the people. One day he killed a shepherd and then the shepherd’s brother and father when they went out looking for him. After this tragic event, a town meeting was called and the people declared that the wolf was a terror and that something must be done about it. The mayor decided it was time to get rid of the wolf. St. Francis pleaded with them, telling them not to kill the wolf, that he would go and meet with him. But they would not listen; the mayor sent a knight to kill the wolf that very afternoon. The knight never returned. Then the mayor sent an army of trained warriors, but the wolf destroyed them. Then the mayor decides he will end the wolf with the mightiest war machine the world has ever known. But even that couldn’t destroy the wolf. Fear filled the hearts and minds of everyone in the town of Gubbio, and they were more panicked than ever before. The mayor consulted with his advisers, and together they decided that they should finally listen to St. Francis and let him meet with the wolf. The next morning St. Francis went out into the woods to find the wolf; he called out to him, “Come Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.” The wolf, who was about to pounce on him, stopped in his tracks and came peaceably towards St. Francis. He asked the wolf why he was attacking so many people. The wolf said that all he wanted to do was eat when he was hungry. He had been left behind by his pack because he had been injured and couldn’t keep up. It was hard to fend for himself, particularly when so many people came to attack him. He too had been afraid. St. Francis walked with the wolf back into town, and when the people saw them together, their anxiety led them to be even more fearful than they had been before. But St. Francis told the people that the wolf was very sorry for his actions, and he implored them to forgive the wolf and to feed the wolf. He told them that they were to make a pact: they would not harm the wolf, and the wolf would not harm them. The relatives of those killed were understandably the hardest to convince, but the whole town agreed to the pact. They were all filled with joy that the shadow of fear had been lifted from their town.
The only way to have a different relationship with fear is to live in the light of the resurrection. The resurrection overcomes our fear of death by not allowing death to have the last word and gives us a new mission: to be Jesus’s disciples who are filled with joy. Hauerwas says, “The soldiers were scared to death by the angel, but that did not incline them to believe in Jesus or the resurrection. They remain under the power of the chief priests and elders and seem more than willing to do their bidding. The truth is that Jesus is a truth that requires discipleship, for it is only by being transformed by what he has taught us and by what he has done that we can come to know…that the world has been redeemed. To see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.”[ii] The guards were unable to move past their fear and let the resurrection change them; their greatest fear was still the empire because they had no relationship with Jesus. The disciples that deserted and denied Jesus eventually moved past their fear and accepted the reconciliation that Jesus offered them when he called them his brothers. Though there was plenty more reason to fear when Jesus gave them the daunting mission to go and make disciples of all the nations, they did not live frozen in fear; they stepped out in obedience though they surely sometimes felt afraid. They were able to act in spite of their fear because they had a relationship with Jesus. Theologian Anna Case Winters says, “Something took hold of this sorrowing band of deniers and deserters and welded them together, more certain and committed than ever. They went forward in an unprecedented missionary movement. The disciples respond to the crisis of Jesus’ death and the death of their hopes in him with strengthened faith and missionary zeal.”[iii] The joy of a life of a discipleship had more sway over their lives than any of their fears, including their fear of death.
As disciples of Jesus who’ve entered the waters of baptism, we’ve promised to die to ourselves, to not let the fears of the world hold more sway over our lives than God. We’ve promised to let go of security and protection in order to be faithful followers of Jesus. We’ve promised to put ourselves last and the priorities of God’s kingdom of peace first. And if we choose to not be paralyzed by our fear but to live in the light of the resurrection, we can be assured that people will try to suppress us because they will be afraid of what we are doing. As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to share the good news with the disciples, the guards went into the city and shared what had happened with the chief priests. The chief priests and the elders bribed the guards with a large sum of money so that they would change their story and tell everyone that one of Jesus’s disciples had stolen his body while they were asleep. They told the guards that if the governor caught wind of it, they would bribe him too. This story of resurrection is a story that the empire must suppress because it’s incompatible with their story that’s driven by fear. The story of empire is a story that is only compelling when people are willing to live in fear. So if you reject that fear, you can rest assure that those in power will seek to suppress you. People who rule by fear don’t know what to do with people whose priorities and commitments are bigger than their fears.
Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet who knows the pain of being suppressed because of her stance against the violent and oppressive dictators in her home country, wrote these words:
I am no longer afraid of death
I know well
Its dark and cold corridors
Leading to life.
I am afraid rather of that life
Which does not come out of death,
Which cramps our hands
And slows our march.
I am afraid of my fear
And even more of the fear of others,
Who do not know where they are going,
Who continue clinging
To what they think is life
Which we know to be death!
I live each day to kill death;
I die each day to give birth to life,
And in this death of death,
I die a thousand times
And am reborn another thousand
Through that love
From my People
Which nourishes hope![iv]
Because of Jesus’s resurrection, we don’t have to fear death anymore because death has been overcome by the power of new life. Our fears may linger, but they don’t define who we are or what we do. Like the women at the tomb, like St. Francis, like Julia Esquivel, we can move past our fear and live out our faith because we are caught up in God’s vision of hope and of new life made possible in the resurrection.
Maybe we don’t know enough about Easter. Maybe we’ve moved too quickly to joy without naming the fear. Maybe we’ve forgotten that those very first disciples were filled with great fear because the movement that was being birthed among them was in opposition to the powers of the day. Maybe we’ve forgotten about what the resurrection has to say about how we are to live our lives. Maybe we are like the guards who, though faced with the amazing, earthshaking power of the resurrection, continued to live in fear as pawns of the empire. Maybe we’re stuck in something that looks like life but is really death. As baptized people, we cannot cling to life that brings death; we cannot hold safety more closely than we hold God; we cannot allow those who fear empire to cramp our hands or slow our march. We must journey on with both fear and great joy. Our discipleship compels us forward. We have commitments and priorities that are larger than our fears. We do not have to be paralyzed by our fears, for Christ is not here. He has been raised. The whole world has been shaken by the kingdom of God. This world has been turned upside down. Hallelujah! The kingdom of this world is becoming the kingdom of our Lord! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!