Matthew 28:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)
28 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 2 Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. 3 Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. 4 The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7 Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
8 With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
With great fear and excitement, the women hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples. Every preacher knows what that fear and excitement feels like. They are the feelings with which we approach the crafting of the Easter message. There’s a lot hanging on the Easter message. Everybody knows that churches will be filled to the rafters on Easter and this sermon might be our only chance to guilt some of those visiting family members and such into regular attendance! OK, maybe guilt isn’t exactly the right word. And certainly, in these days of YouTube and podcasts and live streaming, the message gets out to whomever wants to hear it even when it isn’t Easter. But the fact remains that congregations have filled the pews on Easter hoping to hear something amazing, and preachers have approached the pulpit with fear and trembling, hoping to measure up to their expectations.
“Do not be afraid!” The angel said it to the women - although not to the guards on the tomb, placed there by the high priest so that the disciples couldn’t come and steal the body of their rabbi to make the prophecy come true. They even tried to get Pilate involved. Matthew tells us that “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone” (Matthew 27:62-66)
What they didn’t understand was that Jesus wasn’t like all the other self-proclaimed messiahs that had been plaguing them for decades. Jesus was the real thing. His disciples didn’t have to steal his body. God had already claimed it. By the time their guard got there to assure that the tomb was sealed against intruders it was already too late. They did their duty, those guards, standing there to assure no humans came to steal the body. But when the angel came - clearly not a human with his face as brights as lightning and his snow white clothing - they were so terrified and fainted dead away! The women, however, did not. To them the angel said what messengers of the Lord have always said, “Do not be afraid.” And then, when they were on their way to do as the angel directed, they met Jesus. And they fell to their knees and took hold of his feet and worshipping him.
I wonder what he looked like. No really. The angel was bright and awesome and terrifying! On the mountaintop, when he met with Elijah and Moses, Jesus was also bright and awesome and terrifying. But here, as the women were running from the tomb back to where ever the disciples were hiding, Jesus appeared to them as himself? An ordinary, human appearing Jesus? Clearly they recognized him right away. They didn't have any problems touching him, his feet at least. But he, too, said “Do not be afraid.”
Clearly they were not afraid of him. So what was he telling them not to be afraid about, I wonder? All we can do, really, is guess. The devotional we have been reading this Lenten season suggests that the women may have been fearful about what would happen to them in the future, that they may not be able to go back home again after having left families and homes to follow him. Perhaps, although Mary of Magdalene, for one, probably hadn’t been home in a long time before that. She was the woman from whom he cast out a demon, after all. She may very well have been wandering, homeless, for a long time, talking to herself, like some of the homeless women we have all seen. The “other Mary” mentioned in this Gospel was most likely Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, so she wasn’t worried about losing her home over devotion to Jesus. But certainly they, like all the other disciples, would have feared the Temple authorities, those who had Jesus put to death.
So Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.” Then he repeated what the angel had told them, that he would see them in Galilee. He was telling them, in essence, that they should go home. Leave the place where he died, and where they might still be in danger from the Temple authorities, and go home. Go back to where it all began.
Jesus told them to go back to the beginning. Easter is always a new beginning. Two nights ago, we came to this place to commemorate the death of Jesus. We came here to listen to scripture readings and music that told the story of his passion and death. We took nails, nails many of us had been carrying with us since Ash Wednesday, that we had been praying over, that we had been figuratively filling with all the sins and character defects we wished to give up, and we hammered those nails into the cross, leaving them behind there, so that come this morning, this Easter morning, we could begin afresh. We left those nails to represent all of our faults, so that we could go back to the beginning, back to that day when we were baptized and made a vow to turn our wills and our lives over to God, becoming new in Christ.
Do not be afraid. It’s not easy to give up all those faults. We’re actually quite fond of some of them. How many of us take some pride in being stubborn, for example? I mean, it’s fairly easy to look at the Seven Deadly Sins and say, “Oh, yeah, those are bad. I don’t want any of those!” I mean, no one wants to be slothful, or gluttonous, or envious, or filled with lust, or greedy, or wrathful, or prideful, after all. Well, gluttony is bad, but then there’s chocolate. And it’s Easter. Who can avoid eating a bit too much chocolate on Easter? Who would want to? And a bit of lust is a good thing between married folks, right? And we have a right to be proud of some things, don’t we? And am I being slothful if I do pretty much nothing on my day off instead of, say, cleaning the house? Or is that self care? And there are definitely cases of righteously justifiable anger. Surely that’s not a sin. Perhaps it’s only really a sin if it goes beyond a certain degree. Maybe we’re operating with the wrong definition of some of those things.
See - not easy. And that’s just the Seven Deadlies! There are all of those other faults and sinful behaviors and trespasses against other people. We may easily find ourselves thinking, “Oh heavens, I will never be good enough! I will never be able to really give up all those things.”
My sisters and brothers, do not be afraid. For the Good News is this - you are forgiven. You are forgiven as many times as it takes. It’s not a once and done proposition with God. Jesus died at the hands of sinful humans, whose sins of fear and pride left them no alternative when their power was threatened, yet even at the moment of his death, Jesus asked God to forgiven them, even those who turned him over to the Romans, even those individuals who beat and tortured and killed him, even those in the crowd who were complicit in his death. Even Judas, who did only as he had to in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled. If all of those are forgiven, then surely we are as well. Jesus told us over and over again, in his parables and his sermons, that ours is a loving and forgiving God. Over and over again, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness to those most in need of an understanding of God’s grace. Sometimes he would speak those words and add to them an admonition to go and sin no more. But mostly he simply spoke words of assurance, that through the grace and love of God, we are forgiven.
Easter is a day of new beginnings. It is day upon which we can take comfort in knowing that God loves us, just as we are. A day upon which the light of God’s love is most evident. A day upon which we can walk forward into the light, celebrating our new life in Christ.
And the even better Good News? It is that we celebrate Easter every single Sunday. Every single Lord’s Day throughout the year is a reminder and a remembering of the resurrection, of the opportunity for new life that God gives to each of us each and every day, of God’s gracious love and forgiveness. My brothers and sisters, let us go forth into the world, unafraid, sharing God’s grace and love with everyone we meet. Let us go out shining with the light of God’s love, celebrating the resurrection of the Christ, and our new lives.