Do Not Be Afraid

April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
Matthew 28.1-10

Easter Sunday is a strange day. On the fact of it, it is a glorious day of celebration. There are beautiful decorations, the music is wondrous, our spirits are lifted up. Here in Kentucky we are far enough south, and climate change is moving our growing zones northward, to make seeing the evidence of spring all around us a usual part of our experience on Easter. At Central we have a delicious breakfast feast and we welcome family, friends and neighbors. So many signs around us point toward a magnificent day.

At the same time, the story whose message we celebrate, is set in a graveyard. The story in Matthew’s gospel takes place in a cemetery.

The location of our story is a place of death. Of endings. Of sadness. Of emptiness. Of hopes dashed against the rocks.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did not get up that morning and say, “Let’s go see what’s happened at the tomb. It’s such a glorious day to be alive.”

I imagine the two Marys went to the tomb that morning simply to be there—in the manner of the Jewish tradition of shiva—the seven days after a person’s death during which time friends and family sit together, acknowledging their grief, remembering the life of the one who has died—being present with the memories and the loss and with one another.

I suspect that’s what the two Marys were doing that morning when they decided to go back to the tomb. They wanted time together to remember their teacher, their friend. The One in whom they thought their lives—the lives of their people and the world—might really be different.

It’s really hard for us to hear this story and put ourselves in their place—because we have heard the ending—and we know what’s coming next.

But for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sitting there in the cemetery, it is over. Death has had the last word. There is nothing more.

* * *

And is this not also where many of us sit—even on Easter morning?

– A friend wrote this week to ask for prayer for two teenage friends driving home from spring break—they were in a car wreck and the father, who was driving, was killed.

– Other friends and friends of friends have been diagnosed with cancer.

– Two friends who have experienced multiple miscarriages now grieve two stillborn babies.

– Friends whose mothers, whose fathers, whose spouses have died.

– We have seen the faces of Syrian children who have been gassed.

– We have heard about the murder of 45 Coptic Christians in Egypt in church on Palm Sunday.

– We have read the news of the US bombing in Syria and Afghanistan.

– We are experiencing the legacy of white supremacy that continues to dehumanize all of us.

And, we, too, wonder if the last word doesn’t indeed belong to death.

* * *

Back at the 1st century tomb, the ground began to tremble and shake. If you’ve ever been in an earthquake, it is quite a frightening experience. There is no place to go to get away from it. All you can do is wait for it to be over—and pray you are still able to stand up when it’s through.

Then an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone that was blocking the entrance to the tomb.

In the Bible, when an angel arrives, people tremble and shake. They wonder what terrifying event will happen next. And the first words out of the mouths of angels are: “Do not be afraid.”

From our vantage point, if we were Mary Magdalene or the other Mary, knowing what we know now, we might yell, “Yippee!! He’s done it! I knew it! I knew it!” and give high-fives all around.

But for the two Marys, this is a very disorientating experience. That Jesus should be raised from the dead was not what they were expecting at all.

The angel sends them back to Galilee and they leave the cemetery quickly, running to tell the disciples, filled with fear and great joy.

Fear and great joy.

Isn’t that also how many of us live? Maybe it’s the reality of human existence to live with both fear and great joy.

The news of the resurrection doesn’t mean everything is solved; that all suffering is eliminated. We live on this side of the resurrection, but we also know that death still deals us a hand we don’t want. We know that people we love still leave us. Addictions still wrestle us to the ground. Cancer still mutates our once healthy cells. We lose our jobs. We can’t pay our bills. Depression follows us around like a stray dog. We are falsely accused. We suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions.

We know the world is not yet completely transformed by the resurrecting power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

And what is this resurrection? Sometimes we confuse it with being a belief in “life after death.” We mix it up with the idea of the immortality of the soul which is a theory about human nature that says there is something within us that cannot die. But resurrection is not about human nature. Resurrection affirms something about the nature of God—who acts even for those who are dead. Jesus did not raise himself. God did it. “He has been raised” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Christian hope is in the resurrection, not in immortality. It is hope in God not in ourselves.

The first line of the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “In life and in death we belong to God.” The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What exactly does that mean about what happens to us after we die? We don’t know for sure. There are lots of ideas that come from the Bible and from Christian tradition and cultural speculation. No matter what the details turn out to be, what we can trust is that even in death we are not separated from God—and we don’t have to be afraid.

* * *

As the two Marys leave the cemetery caught up in fear and great joy, Jesus met them and he too, says, “Do not be afraid.” The root meaning of that Greek word that we translate as “met” means more than they just ran into each other on the road. It means Jesus “joins and accompanies them.”[1] He is with them in that place of fear and great joy and he promises that he will be with them and the other disciples in Galilee—when they all return to their homes and their work and the ordinariness of their lives.

If resurrection is a trustworthy promise about death, it is also a trustworthy promise about life: that nothing in life and nothing in death can separate us from the love of God. Resurrection then is also a promise that we are not alone. We are joined and accompanied by the risen Christ in the places of fear, in the places of great joy and also in the ordinary places of our lives.

The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of death but it has changed the reality of death. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of suffering but it has changed the reality of suffering. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of injustice but it has changed the reality of injustice.

Death and suffering and injustice are not the last word. As we often sing in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

[God’s] goodness is stronger than evil;
[God’s] love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.[2]

Do not be afraid.

*  * * * *

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 102.

[2] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger Than Evil,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #750.


Ready or Not! – Matthew 28.16-20

June 15, 2015 – Trinity Sunday

Introduction: Matthew 28 takes place on the day of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have gone to the tomb and are met by an angel who tells them Jesus has been raised from the death. Then the angel instructs them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee and Jesus will meet them there.
    READ Matthew 28.16-20

    Because it’s Trinity Sunday, you get a preaching bonus today. This sermon will be two sermons in one. I tried to make it three-in-one to fit the trinitarian theme but I couldn’t do it. So you get two-in-one. And, here’s the extra bonus: two sermons in one but not twice the length.
    On this Trinity Sunday, I have a confession. I like to preach about the Trinity. It’s a homiletical challenge to me to preach about a doctrine that various ones of you over the years have told me means very little to you. “It’s not even in the Bible” you say. Which is true. You can’t find the word “trinity” or “three-in-one” or “one-in-three” anywhere in the Bible. The closest we get are passages such as Matthew 28 where the three persons of the Trinity are referenced in the classical trinitarian formulation which the church has used for two thousand years.
    For all of you who think the Trinity is just some made up theological doctrine that doesn’t really matter, here’s the best news of all. Shirley Guthrie, who taught theology at Columbia Seminary, said this, “Christians do not ‘believe in’ the doctrine of the Trinity (or any other doctrine). We believe in” (and I would say we trust in) “a living God. But the God we believe in is the God this doctrine confesses, the one living and true God”1 who is known in different ways. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Mother, Daughter, Holy of Holies. As Source of Being, Word in flesh, brooding Spirit.2 As overflowing font, living water, flowing river.3 As Lover, Beloved and the Love that binds them together.4
    One of the things I appreciate about the theology of a triune God is that it is a corrective to monism. Monism, in case your last philosophy class was a number of years ago, is the idea that a variety of things can be explained in a single reality. Monism says “one thing is true” and, by extension, all the other things are wrong. A theology that says God is known in a variety of ways keeps our theology dynamic and vital instead of fixed and determined. It helps us stay humble rather than presuming we know the one thing that is right and everyone else who knows something else is wrong.    
    Several weeks ago in the “Singing Our Faith” class we looked at a number of the Trinity hymns from our new hymnal. The hymnal begins with eleven hymns celebrating the Triune God. As we sang through several of them I loved that we didn’t have to pick THE ONE that was the definitive expression of the Trinity. Instead of having to get everything lined up systemically and precisely, we could let all the Trinity hymns be part of the great whole of how we understand the Triune God.
    Which is one great thing about singing our faith–there are a multitude of ways to give voice to what we believe–just look at the 853 hymns in Glory to God or the 605 hymns in our former hymnal. We sing all kinds of songs and hymns that express our faith. How boring (and small) would it be if we boiled it down to three hymns that expressed everything we ever needed to express theologically and sang them every Sunday?
    So my original plan–several weeks ago–for this sermon was to look at the three hymns we sing today–“Holy, Holy, Holy,”5 “God, the Sculptor of the Mountains,”6 and “Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud”7–and to explore what we learn about the Triune God.

    Then I arrived at my lectionary study group on Tuesday and we started talking about the Matthew 28 passage. Not so much the trinitarian formula but the sentence that comes just before Jesus commissions the disciples. Verse 17: “When [the disciples] saw [Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted.” That’s what the NRSV says. But in Greek, says New Testament scholar Mark Allen Powell, a more literal translation is “And seeing him, they worshiped and they doubted.” Powell said he asked another biblical scholar about this verse and why translators chose to go with “they worshiped him but some doubted.” The biblical scholar said, “ The verse wouldn’t make sense otherwise. No one can worship and doubt at the same time.” To which Powell, who is also a Lutheran pastor, replied, “You should come visit the Lutheran church. We do it all the time.”8 And it’s not just the Lutherans, you know. We Presbyterians also are skilled at worshiping and doubting at the very same time.
    Doubt in Matthew 28 is not so much “disbelieving” as it is “wavering between two (or more) strong possibilities.”9 A great example of this combination of worshiping and doubting is found in Matthew 14 where the disciple Peter is in a boat in a storm. Jesus calls Peter to come to him and Peter steps out of the boat into the water and walks toward Jesus. Then he looks down, sees the water, realizes there is a storm going on, gets freaked out and starts to sink. But Jesus reaches out and saves him. When they all get back to the boat, Peter and all the disciples worship Jesus.
    Can you feel that wavering between possibilities? Jesus calling to Peter. Peter trusting Jesus. And then the storm and the water and the wind. And Peter doesn’t know which to hang on to.
    Have you ever felt that way before?
    So here, in Matthew 28 are the disciples who know that Jesus was crucified and yet they see him now alive again. They worshiped and doubted; wavering back and forth between what their experience was telling them and what their cognition was telling them; what they hoped for and what they could hardly believe.
    So here’s what I love: those wavering disciples do not get sent back to remedial Sunday school. Jesus doesn’t throw up his hands and say, “Oh, man, you guys! I thought I could count on you. Now I’m going to have to start all over with a new batch of disciples.”
    On the heels of worshiping and doubting, Jesus commissions those wavering disciples to baptize and teach, to take the good news of the Gospel into all corners of the world, to carry on the very ministry of Jesus.
    Don’t you love that? I would have sent everyone back to Sunday school. But not Jesus. He probably knows that if he waited for them not to doubt at all, to know all the answers to the questions, they’d all be dead before it happened. So he sends them out–and promises he will be with them always.
    As I’ve thought about new beginnings in my life and as you’ve begun to share your new beginnings, I think how often a new beginning comes about in our life but we may not be ready for it or even welcome it. Some new beginnings are wonderful and some new beginnings are circumstances we were not looking for and would rather not have to encounter. But we usually don’t get a lot of choice about that. An illness, a diagnosis, a break in relationship, a rejection letter, a layoff, an accident, we have to grow up sooner than we thought, so many things are completely out of our control.
    And there we are, on the threshold of something new that we have no idea about, didn’t ask to receive, don’t feel prepared for.
    I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt. They were ready for Jesus to stay around and have it be like the good old days but Jesus has something else in mind for them. Something that will change their lives and change the world if they are open to it. Not because they are perfect at it or know all the answers or don’t have any questions or doubts, but because Jesus has given them something new to be about and because Jesus is with them.
    Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a particular area. I started taking piano lessons when I was in second grade. If I had continued my lessons and practiced an hour a day every day for 27 years I might be great at the piano.
    As it turned out, I did not practice an hour every day and I only took lessons for eight years. But what if I said I would not play the piano for anyone else to hear until I was a great piano player? What if I had waited to be accomplished and perfect before I played with or for anyone else? I would have missed out on so many opportunities to learn and grow as a musician.
    As we consider our new beginnings, I wonder if that is how it will be for us. God may have something new for us to be and do in this time and place–if we’re open to it. It may not be what we feel prepared for. We may have unanswered questions. We may feel inadequate or unsure. And it may be precisely what God is inviting us to be about–not because we’re experts but because we are God’s people who can learn and grow and give and serve, and because God promises to be with us. It is not our doing but what God is doing through us, uncertain and wavering as we are. But also worshiping and trusting God who promises to be with us always.

* * *
1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, rev. ed., (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 71.
2 Ruth Duck, “Womb of Life and Source of Being” hymn text, (c) 1992, GIA Publications.
3 “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” PC(USA) 2006, lines 405, 406. http://www.pcusa.org_media_uploads_theologyandworship_pdfs_trinityfinal.pdf accessed 15 June 2014.
4 Ibid., lines 417, 418.
5 Text by Reginald Heber, 1827.
6 Text by John Thornburg, (c) 1993 John Thornburg.
7 Text by Thomas H. Troger, (c) 1986 Oxford University Press.
8, accessed 13 June 2014.
9 Ibid.