Don’t Be Afraid (April 12, 2020
Don’t Be Afraid
Easter is so very different this year.
For a while, at the beginning of this pandemic, I had thought that we would celebrate Easter on our first Sunday back together. There’s still a part of me that wonders about the possibility of doing that. Our first service back will surely be a joyful gathering.
But for the most part, I’ve changed my mind.
Because Easter comes, no matter the circumstances of our lives. God’s new life is born in every condition of our lives. Easter comes. Christ is risen. Alleluia.
We celebrate the empty tomb in empty buildings this year. But even though the building is closed, the church remains open. The church lives in the world as signs and symbols of the good news that God loves us with an undying passion, and that God’s last word is always a word of life. Today we proclaim our profound trust and undying hope that God’s life fills us.
There won’t be any trumpet fanfares. There won’t be collections of Easter lilies. There won’t be triumphant hymns or celebratory “Alleluias” this year. Our church buildings will not be festooned with decorations.
And we are way beyond our comfort zones this year. We miss the familiar rituals. We miss gathering with our church family. We are feeling a keen sense of loss.
But Christ is risen. Life is made whole by God’s powerful love. Love wins.
I have been struck by the notion that Easter 2020 is so very much like that first Easter. In a post on Facebook, Casey Kerins wrote, “Maybe, for once, we celebrate Easter differently. Maybe, we celebrate the resurrection just as the disciples did: alone, in the silence, hoping the faith outweighs the fear.”
As we read the stories of that first Easter in the gospels, the good news of resurrection comes in the midst of fear and tears, of confusion and anxiety and doubt.
There are differences in the way each gospel tells the story.
Mark tells us about the women who came to the tomb to prepare the body of their friend for burial. They came to say goodbye. They came with the necessary spices, but they found an empty tomb. A young man in a white robe greeted them and said, “Don’t be afraid. He is not here. He has been raised. Now go, tell his disciples …”
But they don’t tell anyone. Mark ends this way, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
They were afraid. They were confused. They didn’t know what was happening. It’s so eerily similar to our situation in this pandemic.
Mark’s point in ending his gospel this way is to tell us that the good news of God’s life is made real as we live it out in all the generations since the women went to the tomb. Even in the midst of fear and anxiety and confusion, we are called to live in love, to live in hope, to cling to God’s grace and become grace–full.
Luke tells the same story about the women—except Luke says that the women did return to tell the others, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Then Luke tells that wonderful story of Cleopas and his companion (probably his wife) returning home to Emmaus. On the way they talk about their pain and their disappointment. A stranger joins them on the road, and he helps them learn to see anew, so that when they break the bread, their eyes are opened.
In Matthew’s gospel, the women also come to the tomb. They meet the angel in the empty tomb, who also says, “Don’t be afraid…”. As they run to tell the others, Jesus greets them on the way: they fall down and Jesus repeats the greeting, ‘Don’t be afraid.”
And John tells the touching story of Mary stumbling around the garden near the tomb in the darkness, weeping because she thinks the body has been taken away.
That first Easter was a time of fear and confusion and anxiety. In all four stories, the common thread is “Do not be afraid.”
As we read further in the stories, we discover that Easter morning is only the beginning. There is a growing awareness in those early disciples. There is a growing confidence in them that God is at work in the world. There is a growing assurance that Easter is the beginning of the new life which God births in the world. A new era has begun, and in the end, love and justice, shalom and joy will have the final word.
That comes to me this year as profoundly good news. Our celebrations are muted this year, but don’t be afraid. God is still speaking a word of life into the world. God is still inspiring the people of God to live in the power of love. God is still cradling us with grace and holding us in compassion.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that death is not the last word. In the midst of this pandemic, with all its pain and anxiety, “don’t be afraid.” Easter means that God ultimately is victorious over the power of death, which gives me the hope I need to continue living faithfully.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that for those who feel isolated and lonely, “don’t be afraid.” Easter means we are all together in the risen Body of Christ, even if we are physically unable to be together.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that for those who feel despair in the midst of pain or anguish, “don’t be afraid.” Take heart. Easter means that we are not alone. God is with us, and God speaks a word of life.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that during this pandemic, “don’t be afraid.” Easter means that God is unleashing a pandemic of love in the world as people reach out to be with and serve one another.
The good news of the gospel for me this year is that the fear of those early followers of Jesus was changed into bold faith and trust. They experienced God’s love within themselves so that they were able to go out into the world with that good news which the world so desperately needs to hear, both then and now.
In a nutshell, the good news of Easter for me this year more poignantly than ever before is that God has taken one of the worst things in the world (the Roman cross) and remade it into one of the best (the Tree of Life). And if God is able to recreate the worst, then God is also able to remake the whole creation.
It is a great, divine mystery, but the rising sun of God’s love dispels all the shadows of pain and death.
And so, even in the midst of this muted celebration, I will still sing “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” It may be a broken hallelujah, but it is an alleluia based in the trust that God’s word of life is true and holds us within its embrace.
Yes, Easter is different this year. But even now, angels accompany us in the darkness and whisper to us, “Don’t be afraid.” Faith remains possible. Understanding will come. The voice of the risen Jesus calls us by name, and the God who destroyed death is ever able to turn our tears into joy. All is not lost.
Like Mary, we still can announce the good news, “I have seen the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
April 12, 2020 (Easter Sunday)
John 20: 1–18
Jeremiah 31: 1–6
Colossians 3: 1–4