Our Lord Jesus called us to follow his path of suffering for the sake of the world, and that frightens us even more than death sometimes: when we meet him, risen, he calms our fears by showing us where that path ultimately goes, and how he goes with us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Resurrection of Our Lord, year A; texts: Matthew 28:1-10 (with reference to John 13 and Psalm 27:1)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Do you know what I have done to you?” On Thursday we heard Jesus say this to his disciples. Do you know what I have done to you? He had just washed their feet, obviously. But he had a deeper question: did they understand this? So he went on, “I have set you an example. You call me Teacher and Lord, and I am, but I have just served you. This is the example. This is now what you are called to do. As I have loved you, so you should love one another.”
When the women came to the tomb, first the angel, and later Jesus, said, “Do not be afraid.” But only minutes after those words on Thursday, Jesus also had to say, “Do not be afraid.”
Do you understand why? The women were afraid at the tomb; why? Because of the rolled away stone, the angel from heaven? Probably. The guards were afraid, so much so that they were paralyzed on the ground, as if they were dead.
But I think there is a deeper fear at play for disciples of our Lord Jesus to which we need our Lord to speak. The women came to the tomb to pay respects to their dead Master, and may or may not have remembered he promised he would rise from the dead. But what they did know was this: he had intentionally taken the path that led to his death. He was no victim, he chose this way. Whatever happened afterward. And they knew that he had also clearly, openly called them, commanded them even, that if they were to follow him, this was their path as well.
Now do you see, sisters and brothers, why we, who are also disciples of this crucified Lord, might be afraid? Why we might deeply need to hear our Lord’s comforting voice on the road of our lives?
We return to Thursday and Friday and Saturday, to the Great Three Days (which actually conclude tonight at sundown), so that we can fully understand this day, this morning. And what comes next.
This path of Jesus, this chosen way he takes, the example he sets before us, is central to all the imagery of the Three Days. Did you ever notice that all our images of the faithful path we see in these days involve loss?
Jesus on his knees, washing the feet of his disciples and saying, “do this.” Lose your dignity and pride, get on your knees and serve each other.
Jesus giving bread and wine and tying it to his body and blood, to his death. So every time we celebrate the meal, as Paul told us Thursday, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Every Eucharist speaks of his sacrifice, is shaped by this image.
Jesus in the garden that night, doing the Father’s will. Setting aside what he wants, his way, and willingly choosing his Father’s way.
Friday’s cross is a massive image of loss, but remember the truth of the Gospels: this was a chosen path; this is in fact the very place where Jesus begins to rule in truth, as King of the world. His rule will be found in giving up of power and dominance, so Jesus gives up all use of power, forbidding the angel armies and Peter to intervene. His rule will be found in losing oneself for the sake of others, of entering suffering and death to redeem all, so Jesus is, on the humiliating cross of Rome, declared King by his enemies.
And last night, when we turned to stories of deliverance, we saw the same images again and again.
The Israelites have to trust the Lord and go into the sea, risk their death, before they get to the other side. They have to go into wilderness to find Promised Land.
Jonah sacrifices himself to save the ship, tells his fellow sailors to throw him in, because the storm has come due to his disobedience. The swallowing of Jonah by the great sea monster – a horrible image – is actually God’s deliverance of Jonah from drowning.
And the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, go into the flames saying, “We don’t know if God will save us or not, but we won’t bow down to your statue. So do what you will.”
Christian people often say they are not afraid of death, they are more afraid of dying. There’s more truth in that that we know. We mean the process of death, the last hours, days, months, when we say that, of course. Christians trust in the resurrection of the dead. But many fear lingering, painful deaths, fear being a burden to loved ones, fear suffering that can’t be alleviated.
But we’ve made sacrificial love, the love Jesus has, the love to which he called all his disciples, such a high standard – to give one’s life – that we have effectively removed it from our daily lives. And that’s because that’s the dying we really fear.
Because if we truly understood Jesus’ example, it would mean that we would live in our closest relationships losing ourselves for the sake of the other. Dying, even. Dying to getting our own way. Dying to “being ourselves” and acting however we feel like acting. Dying to being centered on ourselves that we might focus on others.
And in our broken world, sometimes it seems as if the only ones who are dying to self are those who are forced into it by abuse and attack by those closest to them, or forced into it by a system that perpetuates poverty and want in a world of abundance. This is not the servant life Christ imagines. He calls us all to a world where all give of themselves to others and so all are whole and served and loved. But that kind of giving is a dying to self for the sake of others.
That kind of dying we fear. Because suddenly we’re not talking about a hypothetical situation where we might be asked to give our lives and we hope we’d find the courage to do what Jesus said.
There’s nothing hypothetical about daily life in this world. And that’s where the dying, the serving, the sacrificial life is lived. Yes, Jesus died on a cross, the ultimate end of the path he chose. But before then, he was on his knees, washing filthy feet. And somehow he thought they were the same kind of sacrifice.
Our Lord tells us we are needed to save the world, to offer ourselves to end hunger, oppression, suffering. We know this, it’s our call.
But if we cannot learn to die in our daily lives, how will we ever handle the big tasks? How can we lose what we need to lose to transform our city so that others might have life, if we’re not even willing to start in our own homes, our own relationships? How can we lose what we need to lose to end poverty and hunger for people we’ve never met around the world if we’re afraid of losing to those whom we love the most?
So make no mistake, we need our Lord’s words today, “Do not be afraid.”
We need to set aside our fears that we might lose in this world.
That is, start finding ways to help each other find courage to become different people in our homes, at work, at church. Each of us has choices every day where we could be on our knees to others with our lives, and as we walk this path together we can help encourage each other. And we can repeat Jesus’ words to each other, “Don’t be afraid.” So that the Spirit begins to change us into people who truly look like Jesus in this world.
We need to set aside our fears of suffering, too.
We’ve bought into the world’s notion that all suffering is bad and to be avoided. So we even avoid people in grief and pain because of our fear of suffering, or tell them by words or actions that we don’t want to hear about it. When in fact our Lord has said that when we enter into that suffering and pain of others with them, though it costs, it is the way we live, and they live. So facing our fear of suffering, learning that there are far worse things in this world, so that we can stand with others in their pain, will need our reminding each other of Jesus’ words, too.
But mostly, we simply need to hear our Lord and trust.
Because we’re not going to be able to get rid of these fears by straining. Only by trusting. As a child trusts a parent, simply because the parent says, “Don’t be afraid.”
That’s where we help each other, as we listen, and walk with each other, when each of us fears this servant life and what it might mean for us. When we speak Jesus’ comfort into that situation, we stand in his name. And gradually, together we learn to trust that we need not be afraid anymore.
And all this flows from this great joy of today: when the risen Jesus tells us “do not be afraid,” he frees us from paralysis.
Isn’t it remarkable that the armed, armored, trained soldiers are terrified into paralysis and the weak, ordinary women are standing, and able to go and tell? They are like dead men, the soldiers. The women are alive.
They’re still afraid, Matthew says. But they leave the tomb to do the angel’s bidding “with fear and great joy.” And great joy.
That’s what we are here to know today, why we’ve come, why this day is the day that matters. Why this is the true day that the LORD has made and in which we rejoice and are glad.
Because this is what Jesus’ empty tomb means: our path may lead to suffering, to loss, to little daily deaths every day. But we belong to a Lord who enters death to defeat it. And who rises from that death to new life.
If Jesus had not risen, the call to follow, to serve, to lose, would still stand for his disciples. But in rising, he tells us that this path that involves dying is ultimately a path of life. Certainly life after we die.
But life when we die daily, too: resurrection life filled the early Church and ever since, and they lived without fear, changed their community life, their personal life, changed the world.
And resurrection life fills our lives as well, gives us the courage to live as servant disciples, in sacrificial love, fills our lives with meaning and joy. Which balances the fear we sometimes feel, just as it has for disciples ever since those first women.
This is the gift of “do not be afraid”: we are freed to live without fear, and to follow our Lord’s example and path.
And perhaps we might begin by recognizing we are learning this path together, and it is a path, so we won’t be fully where we are going to be. Sometimes our paralysis and fear can come from thinking we have to have it all together all at once.
But we certainly can start with what we might call baby steps. Start in our homes and lives, at work, here in this place. We can start learning what it is to walk the path of dying there, where we spend most of our lives, knowing that we are filled with the life of the risen Lord always.
Then, as we learn this, we can also begin to learn what that means in this city, in our neighborhoods, in our nation and world. We are called to bear in our bodies the love of God for this world, love as Jesus has. There’s no limit to where we can be useful.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks us.
And we answer today, “yes, though we’re kind of afraid of what this might mean. But we see you are alive and ruling through this losing, this serving, this giving, this loving.” We hear our Lord say, “Do not be afraid,” and that gives us the courage we need to go out and be like our Lord ourselves. And yes, we go out a little afraid, still. We will need to look for our Lord on our roads so he can continue to meet us and continue to say, “Do not be afraid.” We go out a little in fear, like those women.
But we also, like those women, go out in great joy. Because our Lord is risen; the Triune God has entered the death and suffering and evil and pain of this world and of our lives and changed it into life and wholeness and good and joy, and that is a gift we know now, even as we long for its fullness when we make our final journey through death.
Do not be afraid, my friends, for we belong to the Lord of Life. It is a path he has walked already to which we are now called. And since the risen Lord is our light and our salvation, what shall we fear?
In the name of Jesus. Amen