Do Not Be Afraid -- An Easter Meditation (Matthew 28)

Women at the Tomb, Chartres Cathedral 

28 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. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

                Easter has finally arrived. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Easter is not only among the holiest of days in the Christian calendar, but it is among the most joyous of days. We would begin by singing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. We would sing several other great hymns of the faith. The choir would share an anthem and at the end of the service, Pat would play the Hallelujah Chorus, pulling out all the stops. Of course, I would have preached an Easter sermon, something I’ve done every Easter since 1998, with one exception (I was without a church on Easter 2004). Since Central Woodward will be sharing a service prepared by our denomination, featuring our General Minister, the Rev. Terri Hord Owens, I won’t be preaching this year. Although I might not be preaching or preparing a sermon this year, I did have a text in mind. That text is Matthew 28:1-10. I had a title for the sermon: “Do Not Be Afraid.” What follows is not a sermon, per se, but it is a meditation on the text for the day, with the angelic declaration “do not be afraid” as its centerpiece.

                Accord to Matthew’s account, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (the mother of James and Joseph) had been there when Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in the tomb. They watched as the stone was put in place. So, they knew where he was buried. Then the next day, according to Matthew the priests and Pilate agreed to place a guard at the tomb, just in case the disciples might try to steal the body and proclaim him raised from the dead (Matt 27:55-66). Now it’s the morning of the first day of the week. The sabbath had passed and the two Mary’s go to the tomb. Just as they reached the tomb an earthquake struck, because, as Matthew reports, an angel whose “appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was white as snow,” had descended from heaven and rolled away the stone and sat on it. The guards fainted from the shock of this event.

                Here’s where the sermon title comes into play. The angel said to the women, who seem not to have fainted, “Do not be afraid.” These are common words spoken by angels to unsuspecting persons. We don’t expect angelic visitations, especially not like this. Because we modern Christians tend to live in disenchanted worlds, we don’t expect divine visitations of any form. And yet, even in our secularized state, we seem to long for something more than what our senses provide us. We need a bit of awe in our lives. We need to be told, “do not be afraid.”

                Brett and I were talking recently about the relationship of religion and science—he’s taking a class on the subject and has his own take on the topic. I will admit that I want it both ways. That is, I want to embrace science in its fullness, but I also want to give room for a spiritual realm that lies beyond the limits of science. Whether that is workable is a matter of debate (as Brett would tell you), but Easter invites us to give room for the imagination. It invites us to consider the possibility that there is something beyond what science can comprehend. I’m not talking about God in the gaps or intelligent design, I’m just suggesting that God is more than simply a force or a cultural construct. With that in mind, we can consider the message of the resurrection and possibly understand it as something tangible and enduring.

                Getting back to Matthew’s account of Easter, the angel tells the two women that while they had come looking for Jesus’ body, his body was no longer present. The body they had seen laid in the tomb just a couple days earlier had been transformed. The angel pointed them to where his body had once laid. Then the angel said: “He is here; for he has been raised, as he said.” With this came a request: “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.” Off they went, so they could be witnesses of the resurrection. They went on this job with a mixture of fear and joy. But before they could do this, Jesus met them on the way, giving them further instructions to inform the disciples to head to Galilee for a reunion. I should note here that Luke and John suggest that Jesus met them in Jerusalem, while Mark ends with the angelic visitation. We have some choices here, but for the moment we’ll go with Matthew’s account.

                You will note that in this account, the women take hold of Jesus and worshipped (reverenced) him (proskyneō). Then they followed their instructions, and Jesus met with the rest of the community in Galilee, commissioning them to share the good news of the resurrection. We continue to carry on that commission as we celebrate the resurrection, proclaiming the message that in Christ death has met its match. Therefore, “do not be afraid!” That is true even in this moment of great concern. Be careful, be safe, but don’t be afraid.

                Now let the heavens be joyful! Let the earth its song begin!
                                The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
                Let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
                                For Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end.
                                                                —John of Damascus (Chalice Hymnal, 228 v. 3).

Picture attribution: Women at the Tomb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved April 11, 2020]. Original source:


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