Don’t Be Afraid

Don’t Be Afraid

As many of you may know, we, in the United Church, are free to use a variety of resources when preparing liturgical prayers.

One of my personal favourite resources however, especially for high holy days such as we are celebrating today, is a resource entitled “Celebrate God’s Presence”.

One of the prayers suggested as an invitation to communion commonly used at Easter feels most apt this morning as we celebrate the story of the resurrection.   Here’s how it goes:

“Don’t be afraid. What was once sealed is now open; once bound, now free; once breathless, now breathing; once silenced, now laughing; once broken now whole; once dead, now living.”

To me, these words offer us a tidy summation of what it is that we celebrate at Easter.

At Easter, we celebrate being invited into the place of God’s promise that Jesus lives; that Jesus is a figure of the present and not the past; that God has said ‘yes’ to Jesus; and has said ‘no’ to the powers and the principalities that had Jesus tortured on the cross like a common criminal.

To put in a nutshell, at Easter, we, as Christians, celebrate God’s invitation to see that death and dying will not the last word and that God’s dream of Shalom as lived through Jesus is not over and done with but rather, is only just beginning.

And so it is, we find ourselves gathered together for Easter Sunday here this morning, aware that we bring all that we are and all we have been about as seekers and followers in the Way of Jesus. We bring all that we have and all that we know about the resurrection enriched through its telling in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

That said, some of you here might notice the sparseness of the gospel account Paul just read for us.

Here in Mark’s gospel, we find no mention of angels, no actual sighting of Jesus himself, and no commissioning of the disciples.

Here in Mark’s gospel, the story of the empty tomb lead to new life in Jesus seems particularly abrupt and mysteriously inconclusive.

If you find that sparseness unsettling, then you are more than welcome to read one or both of the short or the longer ‘endings’ to Mark’s gospel that biblical scholars think were added on after the fact.

Or you might want to re-visit the accounts of how the empty tomb leads to new life in Jesus as described in Matthew, Luke, and John at your own leisure.

For me, however, I want to stay with the sparseness, the mystery of an inconclusive ending, and the deafening silence of not knowing what comes next as we heard the tale read for us from the gospel according to Mark.

I want to choose to view all of this as a gift, an invitation, if you will, for us gathered here this day.

The invitation in all its fullness is this: God invites us to step across the threshold that bridges the past to the future.

But to do justice to the text, let’s go back there to get a fuller sense of how the story unfolds…

Early on the first day after the sabbath, a trio of women went to the tomb where Jesus had been laid to prepare his body for its proper burial.

Here in the early hours of the morning, we join with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they trudge along in the direction of the garden to the tomb.

Their shoulders ache from the heaviness of the cloth slings they carry; cloth slings holding precious burial spices purchased after sunset late last evening.

Bolstering one another, the trio of friends move along the path to the tomb as quickly as their tired bodies will allow.

Putting one weary and dew drenched foot in front of the other, they whisper their worries aloud.

Thinking themselves alone in their task, they murmured: “Who will roll the stone away for us?”

You see, these are women who know their own physical limits and the limits of their roles as ones commissioned to prepare their beloved Jesus’ body for its proper burial.

And so it is, they arrive at the site of the tomb with some expectations.

Imagine their surprise on arrival!

Someone had already rolled the stone away!

What was their first thought, I wonder?

Did they think, “Whew, Worry #1 out of the way?”

Or did, they, like many of us, quickly replace one worry with another?

Perhaps their hearts skipped a beat on finding the entrance to the tomb gaping open.

Maybe their stomachs twisted in knots at the thought of Jesus’ body being stolen away.

Somewhere between realizing Jesus’ body can’t be prepared for burial, they encounter a mysterious young man.

He seems a confident young man to me, one who seems to know, not only who they are seeking, but also what they must do.

“Oh, you!” he says, “You must be the ones looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus, the one who was crucified.”

“He’s not here.” he tells them.

And before the women can even respond to this strange news, he tells them,

“Jesus was raised today and has gone back home ahead of you.

Home to Galilee as he predicted would happen.”

He’s gone full circle you see, back to the scene where it all began.

Reading the alarm on their faces, he assures them this way: “See?” he says pointing to where Jesus’ body had been laid in the tomb, “See, he’s not here!”

And in my experience of praying the text, the strange young man adds these final words: “Oh, and by the way, Jesus wants you to go and tell the others, he’ll meet you back there. Go now and tell them this good news. And don’t forget to include Peter”.

I wonder how the women hear this news. Do they feel leery or reassured?

Are they dumbfounded or disappointed?   Are they sick at heart or relieved?

Perhaps they feel puzzled and resentful at this young man who seems, not only to know what they can’t quite fathom, but also, what they need to hear.

I imagine the trio of women huddled together and whispering to themselves and each other: “Who is this one, this linen clad young man who can answer our questions even before they emerge on our lips?”

A distant relative of Joseph of Arimathea? A recent convert?

A new and different kind of witness to Jesus?

Terrified and amazed, hovering somewhere between feeling traumatized and ecstatic at this turn of events, the women run, hide, and reportedly tell no one what they have just experienced, at least in that present moment.

Just so, we too, are invited into the mystery and silence of the moment that the gospel of Mark invites.

Just so, we, too, are invited to stand where these first witnesses to the empty tomb stood.

Just so, we, too, like people of every generation, are called by God into an uncertain future.

This is a most uncomfortable place for any and all of us; this sitting with silence, mystery, and uncertainty.

We, by contrast, are only too willing to sign on for the clattering noise of busyness, certainty, and proof of a living, loving, attainable God.

You know the God I mean? The one with whom we can argue and bargain.

The one we are so quick to want to wrestle to the ground.

Not so, says the author of the gospel according to Mark.

The elusive God found in Jesus calls us always beyond our comfort zones, our fears, our doubts, and our incessant worries.

Just so, we too, like the women in Mark’s gospel, are called by God into partnership for the building up of God’s kingdom with God-the place where compassion and peace will not be defeated by death and dying, nor by privilege and power.

Just so, our shoulders also feel the burden of our disappointments, our fatigue, and the challenge of learning to trust in God’s promise that Jesus does pave the way in a new direction.

In the coming weeks of the Easter season we are invited to bring all of that and more to our stories from scripture that speak to the confirmation that the risen Christ lives still.

In the coming weeks, we too might enter into new ways of daring to hope in a world filled daily with stress and uncertainty.

In the meanwhile, we’re invited to cross the threshold from the past to the future; into the place of God’s promise now unfolding in our very midst.

The good news for today is this: “What was once sealed is now opened; once bound; now free; once breathless, now breathing; once silenced, now laughing; once broken now whole; once dead, now living.”

Hallelujah and may it be so! Amen.

Rev. Liz Bowyer reserves all rights © 2018.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.

N.B. Some aspects of this sermon take their impetus from personal reflection and comments attributed to the following resources:

  • Celebrate God’s Presence, A Publication of the United Church of Canada, 2003
  • The Last Week, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, Harper SanFransciso, 2006
  • “Beyond Fear and Silence”, 2012, Day, a sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad
  • “Daring to Hope in the Stress of Uncertainty”, 2015 Day, a sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner.