Do Not Be Afraid.

I realize this is an odd way to begin an Easter sermon, but what are you afraid of? Confined spaces? Lightning? Long tall bridges without high safety barriers? Personally, I don’t do well with heights or snakes. The heights thing is real. The snake thing is more like a “preference.” And that preference makes mowing a slight challenge at our home. The front yard is pure suburbia complete with a lovely manicured lawn. The “back forty,” which is what I call the back ¼ acre, is surrounded by woods. There is a pile of brush. I try to mow it only four or five times a season because I am sure there are snakes there. Actually, I saw one once. Every time I am about to mow back there I warn my wife about my plans. I tell her that if the mower stops and she hears me screaming like a small child she should come help me. You see, she grew up in Africa where there are cobras, both black AND green mambas, and boom slangs…all of which are deadly. I reckon that kind of experience puts her in a good place to deal with the garter snakes at our house.

In ten short verses of Matthew 28.1-10, the word “fear” is used twice and the phrase “do not be afraid” appears twice, as well. Obviously, today’s passage is disturbing…or should be disturbing to the reader. And that may baffle us. It is Easter. We are supposed to be happy and excited…in a good way, right? Yes. Yes, indeed. Sometimes, however, even good excitement makes us tremble.

Matthew 28.1-10

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was 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. For fear of him 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, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

On that first Sunday morning, I suspect it was “back to business” as usual for Jesus’ followers. Admittedly, it wasn’t technically “usual.” After all, they had just lost a very dear friend. And their hopes and dreams were crushed. And I assume they all were unbelievably depressed about what had just happened. Moreover, they all had to face a few nasty realities. First, they weren’t as brave as they thought…after all they all had abandoned Jesus in his time of need. Secondly, Rome didn’t roll over and die just because a rural prophet, as impressive as he was, said the kingdom of heaven was near. In fact, the emperor still had all the power. All that talk of the “kingdom of heaven being at hand”, was just that: talk. And so, the two women named Mary went to Jesus’ tomb to look at it. Perhaps, they went hoping-against-hope it was all a bad dream. Perhaps, they went simply to continue quietly mourning their loss. Perhaps, they wanted one last look before returning to their mundane and difficult lives in Galilee.

They may have thought they were going to quietly and properly mourn Jesus’ passing, but that isn’t what awaited them. As Paul Sokolofsky pointed out on our church sermon discussion page: “Raising from the dead, lightning, moving boulders, fear, joy, people running…this is just craziness!!” I would point out that he forgot the earthquake. But yes, it was craziness. It was anything but “business as usual.” I wonder why they didn’t expect something out of the ordinary. Jesus, after all, had mentioned that the kingdom of heaven was near. He had promised them a new world was about to break into their sad reality. He had mentioned that God was about to redeem them and creation. Jesus had promised that the world they knew was going to be turned upside down. He specifically said, “the first will be last and the last will be first” (19.30). And he suggested that the ways of the powerful won’t last (20.20-28). There was a new world coming.

And it began on that Sunday morning. I love the way Matthew makes this very point. In the midst of all of this chaos, the people who should pass out, don’t. And the people who shouldn’t pass out, do. The women, weakened from grief and restless and sleepless nights since Jesus’ death, should be on the ground. The Roman soldiers, strong and burly and perhaps battle-hardened, should have been there defending the tomb. But as it turns out, the Romans are on the ground totally unconscious and Jesus’ female followers are awake to witness his resurrection. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, indeed. The new world, the kingdom of heaven, had arrived. They didn’t have to wait very long for that prediction to come true. Easter is the day the world turned upside down, and it began that very first Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion.

I don’t know about you, but if everything I knew was falling apart, even if those things were terrible, I would be afraid. Not knowing what you can count on makes you a little apprehensive. The women at the tomb knew what they could count on. Romans executed people. Those people were buried. End of story. And here they were in front of an empty tomb, surrounded by Roman legionnaires who were scared-to-death and passed out. I would be afraid, too. What kind of world were they living in?

Obviously, it is one they were not ready for. And that is more than a little unsettling. In verse 8, Matthew tells us they were afraid. But we are also told they were twice told to not be afraid. First in verse 5 the angel tells them, “Do not be afraid” And then he adds, “…indeed, he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” In fact, the women saw Jesus earlier than that. In verse 10, The risen Jesus himself, tells them, “…do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The world they were NOW living in was one in which God had just “undone” everything they had known. The Romans had sealed a tomb. God unsealed it. The Romans had executed Jesus. God had raised him from the dead. Everyone one and all of creation was subject to sin and death. God had just set us and all of Creation free.

Is it even possible that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived that first Easter morning? We look around ourselves today, and we ask that question. And it is a fair question. We watch the evening news, and it isn’t hopeful. We look at the relationships all around us, and many are either strained or broken. We have some days when we just have no clue as to how life can be so fouled up. And we are tempted to say, nice story, but I am not sure.

We forget that for roughly 300 years, the early church, our spiritual ancestors, believed that because of the resurrection of Jesus they had been set free from the power of sin and death and even the oppressive power of Rome. And because of that first Easter Sunday they had the audacity to live like it was true, despite the world around them telling them otherwise. And not only that, but the first Christians continually reminded their friends and neighbors, and themselves, that Jesus promised to return in the future. They lived their lives in a way that lined up with the kingdom of heaven which began with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and would come fully with his return. And eventually, the world around them stopped and took notice because their lives were convincingly different. We, however, have forgotten that we live in the “in between times.” We have forgotten that the “business as usual” world is passing away. And even more importantly, we often forget that we are God’s agent to facilitate that “passing away.” We forget that we are witnesses to what God has done in the past and will do in the future. We forget.

Or maybe we are simply afraid. Afraid of the tension between the old and the new world. Afraid of what we might lose when the “business as usual world” passes away. Afraid of who knows what? And our fears help us forget the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid…he is going ahead of you.” And we even forget Jesus’ own words, “Do not be afraid.”

Rituals or repeated actions help us to remember and overcome our fears. They provide us with a mooring in a life of upheaval and turmoil. Of course, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave us an action which is designed to help us remember who he is and was, who we are, and the fact that we live “in between.” From the very beginning of the Church, Christians celebrate this ritual as an act of thankfulness, hope, and remembrance. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 11.26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” When we take communion we look back to his death and resurrection as well as forward to his return. We remember that God began the new world, the kingdom of heaven, in Christ and we look forward toward the day it comes in its fullness.

When my wife and I lived in England in the 80s we worshiped with a wonderful Anglican congregation. Every Sunday when we observed the Lord’s Supper we said three sentences, as a part of the Anglican liturgy:

“Christ has died.”
“Christ is risen.”
“Christ will come again.”

Every Sunday these sentences were said prior to participating in communion. Every Sunday.
Thirty-five years later I still remember those three sentences. They are good words to say or think when taking communion. Even more importantly they strike me as fundamental to our faith. They are good words to remember, period. Moreover, they are good words with which to frame our lives. And they are good words to use when we find ourselves afraid.

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I Wish it was Different. Thoughts on Matthew 21.1-11

jesus-on-trialWe are one week away from Easter. In reality, Holy Week begins today with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem. On the surface, it is a wonderful story which we read in Matthew 21.1-11. People’s longing, centuries of longing, are about to be fulfilled. They hoped for a messiah king, and it looks like it will finally happen with Jesus. This story is full of hope and joy. At the same time, it is a deeply sad story. Not everyone is pleased that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. Moreover, those who sing his praises today, won’t be singing his praises come the end of the week. In fact, by the end of this story they are already waffling.

A classic way to pray using the Bible is to read a short passage and think about which character you identify with. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many positive role models apart from the disciples who initially obey Jesus’ directions to “liberate” that donkey. But if I am honest with myself, far too often I look a lot like both the crowd and the residents of Jerusalem. And that isn’t a good thing. But it is honest. I wish it was different. But it isn’t.

There are a few oddities in this story which tempt us to distraction. Isn’t is strange that Jesus tells his disciples to enter a village and take a donkey and her colt…and if challenged they are only to tell the owner that “the Lord needs them.” Also, there is that odd expression, “he sat on them” in verse 7. However, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by trivial items. Despite these oddities there is the positive factor that the disciples are faithful and obedient, even to the point of some very sketchy behavior. And Matthew makes the point that this action is a fulfillment of scripture. In particular, verse 5 is a mix of Isaiah 52 and Zechariah 9, which speak of Israel’s hope that a king would come to rescue them. And that kingship motif dominates the storyline.

As Jesus and his disciples make their way into Jerusalem we are told they are accompanied by a “very large crowd.” What the crowd does makes it is clear they thought Jesus was a king arriving in the capital city. Some people in the crowd seemingly knew their Bible. In 2 Kings 9 Jehu’s followers spread their cloaks on his path when they heard he was to become king. Other people knew Israel’s history. Two hundred years before Christ, a man named Judas Maccabaeus defeated a pagan army and when he entered Jerusalem people cut palm branches and covered the road with them. Once in the holy city Maccabaeus established a royal dynasty lasting one hundred years. Clearly, by these two actions, the people are gladly and happily proclaiming Jesus is their leader and king. Additionally, they are singing his praises using a passage from Psalm 118, which proclaimed their belief that Jesus was the Son of David…coming to claim his rightful role as the kingly heir to Israel’s throne. Finally, after centuries it was all coming together for the Jews. People couldn’t be happier.

Well. Not all the people were happy. In fact, the residents of Jerusalem were a little disturbed by all this kingship talk. The NRSV says “the whole city was in turmoil.” The word used for “turmoil” is σειω…we know it from the English word seismograph. Jerusalem and its residents were shaken as if an earthquake had hit them. Panic was in the air. They didn’t need another “royal pretender” coming to town…because the Romans took note of things like that. And since it was Passover there were more Romans in the city than usual. In fact, there may have been two or three legions there. They were there because Jerusalem always got a little crazy at Passover, and Rome wanted to keep a lid on the activities that boiled during the week as pilgrims from all over the empire arrived. Because of their collective nervousness and fear of the Romans, the residents confronted the crowd: who is this man? I doubt they asked because they wanted to follow him. I suspect they wanted all this excitement to end. And end now!

What I find rather shocking is the crowd’s response. I would expect their excitement to lead to a bold exclamation and praise of King Jesus. But when confronted, they seemingly begin to back down: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Just a prophet. From Nazareth, that small backwater town in Galilee, the place no one respects. No talk of kingship. Just a prophet. You won’t have any trouble from us. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s gospel know that this is just the beginning of the shift of how the people, even his closest friends, turned their backs on Jesus. Most of the stories between this one and the death of Jesus in chapter 27 are incidents of the Jewish leaders resisting and confronting Jesus. They plot his death. One disciple betrays him. Another denies him. The rest desert him. And the crowd which is loudly cheering him on in the first part of this story? We are told in chapter 27:15ff, that the leaders convinced them Jesus was to be crucified. And they shouted for his crucifixion…not once, but twice.

I would like to think I wouldn’t be like them. I’d like to think I wouldn’t back down at the first confrontation…switching from saying he was a king to saying he is a prophet. But….
I’d like to think I wouldn’t fear the powers-that-be more than rejoicing at finally having a real leader in my presence. But….
And I certainly would like to think I would never be swayed by the leaders and call for his crucifixion. But….

But, I know that isn’t true. I wish it was different. If I was there, I would waffle. If I was there, I would falter. If I was there, I would fail. And I know that is the case, because I waffle, falter and fail now, and no one really challenges me about what I think regarding Jesus.

The painting at the top of this entry is entitled “Ecce Homo” or “Behold the Man.” It was painted by Antonio Cisceri in 1871. Cisceri was an okay painter, but he was fantastic at knowing himself. You see,  he painted himself into the picture of Pilate before the angry crowd calling for Jesus’ death. He is the fellow casually leaning over Pilate’s chair. He stands there merely observing, not intervening. He stands by as Jesus is condemned to die.

As we enter into this holy week my one hope, our one hope, is that Jesus was utterly and totally resolved to do for us and all of Creation what we couldn’t do for ourselves.