After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
We have been with the characters in the story of Holy Week and Easter on a roller coaster of emotions. We had the joy and excitement of Palm Sunday, the sadness and questioning of the final dinner Jesus had with his friends on Thursday, the shock of his arrest, the anger and violence and despair of Good Friday, the silence of Saturday. And now Easter morning. The women, both named Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary, who is the mother of James and Joseph, come to the tomb. They had gone through the heartbreak of watching the body of Jesus being laid there on Friday. And in this early morning there is surprise, an upsetting, frightening surprise – in the story we read from Matthew’s Gospel, it says that there is an earthquake, and an angel rolls away the stone that seals the tomb, and sits on it. The guards are so scared that they shake with fear, and are paralyzed, as if they are dead.
Who are these guards? At our Good Friday service we stopped reading the story at the end of Friday’s events, but Matthew continues that on Saturday the religious authorities went to the Roman governor and said, “We just remembered, this Jesus said he would rise after three days. You had better seal his grave, or his friends may come and steal his corpse so they can tell people, he’s been raised from the dead.” And the governor gave them guards to post at the tomb.
And the angel says to the women, “Don’t be afraid.” Matthew wrote in Greek, and his words have the sense of “Stop being afraid.” The King James Bible translates them as “Fear not.” We wouldn’t say it that way these days. You don’t hear anyone saying, “Fear not.” When our niece was little – probably about two years old - if we told her that she should do something or stop doing something, she would say, “I not.” Fear not sounds like something she would have said.
Stop being afraid, the angel says. You’re looking for Jesus, who was put to death. He isn’t here – he has been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where his body was. Now hurry and tell his followers that he’s been raised and is going on ahead of you to Galilee, where you came from.
What a message. You can imagine that the roller coaster of emotions takes another turn for the two women with this news. The story says that they run from the tomb with great fear and excitement. They’re still scared. It’s frightening enough to find the grave where you saw your friend buried empty. If I went to St. Lawrence Valley Cemetery and found a hole in the ground where I know someone had been buried, I would feel panicked about what had happened. The women have not just seen an empty tomb, but have been through a startling encounter with some kind of supernatural messenger. The angel’s clothes are described as being white as snow, which would frighten anyone in eastern Ontario today. We’ve had enough of snow!
Mary and Mary are terrified, and they’re amazed – they have been given news that no one else knows. What if it’s true? It must be, look what just happened. They lose no time racing away. Just think how their hearts must be racing, their minds trying to process what they have seen and heard and felt, their lungs barely able to breathe, as they run.
And in the story they meet Jesus. Jesus, their friend. Jesus, whom they had seen dying a horrible death on a cross. Jesus, whom they had watched being placed, dead, in the grave. Jesus, now alive, on the path, saying hello.
What do they do? What would we do? If you have seen the TV show Resurrection, a boy who died 30 years ago comes back, and his parents react, we could say, with fear and wonder – they are obviously freaked out at first, they don’t believe it, they step back, their eyes open wide, their mouths hang open, and then the mother rushes forward and hugs him, to make contact with him again. That’s what Mary and Mary do. They fall down and grab his feet. Matthew doesn’t tell us what they say – maybe they can’t get any words out, maybe they can only speak incoherently, maybe they just say the same thing over and over. What would we say? We’re only told what Jesus says, the same thing the angel says, the same thing the choir sang for us a few minutes ago: “Don’t be afraid.” And then, “Go and tell my followers that I’m going to Galilee. They will see me there.”
What an experience for the two Marys. What a roller coaster, from horror to grief to happiness. They live out the words in Psalm 30, “you turned my wailing into dancing, you stripped off my funeral clothes and dressed me with joy.”
But did we forget the guards, who also saw the angel, and the grave opened? They may have been so scared that it’s as if they were dead, but they snap out of it. We stopped reading at verse 10 – here’s how the story goes on at verse 11:
Now, as the women were on their way, some of the guards came into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. They met with the elders and decided to give a large sum of money to the soldiers. They told them, ‘Say that Jesus’ disciples came at night and stole his body while you were sleeping. And if the governor hears about this, we will take care of it with him so you will have nothing to worry about.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were told. And this report has spread throughout all Judea to this very day.
Matthew 28:11-15, Common English Bible
So the authorities try to cover it up and buy people off – I’m glad this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. You never hear about cover-ups and buying people’s silence in today’s news.
Now, the guards and the women both saw everything that happened that morning. They have all gone through this experience that is far outside anything they have ever lived through, far beyond anything they can understand.
The women and the guards are both faced with what do about this frightening, incomprehensible, amazing event. The women make their choice. They’re afraid at the power they have seen, but they’re overjoyed at being told that Jesus is risen, and they run to tell the news. The guards are afraid, too, at what’s happened, and what will happen to them for letting the body disappear on their watch. They go to tell – but they only tell the authorities, who hush it up, as empires always want to do with the truth when it threatens the status quo.
These are our choices too. Suppress the news of Easter. Or proclaim that Jesus is risen.
At that time women were not even able to be witnesses in court, they were considered to be so unreliable. And yet God chose the women to be the first witnesses to the resurrection. And God chooses us, not to keep silent, but to be witnesses of the power of the resurrection in our lives and in our world, to be Easter people, to live every day as if it is Easter day, and it is, for every day is lived in the light of Easter.
Fear not. Don’t be afraid. Stop being afraid. Stop being afraid about what happened on Easter morning; stop being afraid of the powers that be that want to keep Jesus and his message of love and justice in the grave; and stop being afraid about what is going to happen to us when we die. Because Jesus has been raised, the Scriptures tell us, we will all be raised. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church, Christ has been raised from the dead as the first crop of the harvest of those who have died, and so all who belong to him will be raised. “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose,” Paul tells the Thessalonians, “so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus.”
Fear not. Don’t be afraid. Stop being afraid. The angel says, “he isn’t here; he has been raised from the dead, just as he said.” For Jesus has been raised: he is not in the tomb, he is not in a world 20 centuries in the past, he is not preserved in stained glass and paintings - the risen Christ is here right now, present in this community, present in us through his Spirit, choosing us, calling us to be people of the resurrection, people who live our lives in joy and service and blessing. Where does the angel say that the risen Jesus will go? To Galilee. Galilee is the symbol of the poor, the marginalized, the despised. As Easter people we will find the risen Jesus in the Galilees of this world, wherever empires keep people silent, poor, homeless, ill, hungry, imprisoned, oppressed.
Fear not. Don’t be afraid. Stop being afraid. Stop being afraid of empires that can never keep the resurrection hushed up, stop being afraid of violence that can never kill love, stop being afraid of death that can never have the last word – stop being afraid of God, for God’s power rolls away the stone from the tomb, not to let out an angry Jesus bent on vengeance, but a Jesus who meets us and gently tells us, “Don’t be afraid,” a Jesus who lives so we can live too.
Don’t be afraid! Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!