Rev. Ali Tranvik
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
“Do not be afraid,” God tells the Israelites living in exile (Isa 41:10). “Do not be afraid,” the psalmists write in the face of persecution (Ps 56:11, 118:6). “Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel tells Mary when she learns that she will give birth to the son of God (Lk 2:10). “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his terrified disciples as he walks on water (Jn 6:50). “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his disciples again after foretells of betrayal and denial (Jn 14:1). “Do not be afraid,” the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, begins (Rev 1:17).
I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve heard that some version of this phrase appears in the Bible over 100 times. The examples I just mentioned are only a few. Being afraid for ourselves, for our loved ones, our communities, our world, in other words, is as ancient as scripture itself.
But I have to admit, this phrase has always kind of annoyed me. In the face of fear, I’m not going to get any comfort or courage out of a command—as if the only reason I’m afraid is just because someone hasn’t yet told me not to be!?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never stopped being afraid just because someone has said that (Bolz-Weber). I am afraid—more so these days than usual. I’m afraid that I, or my parents, or my grandparents are going to get sick. I’m afraid of what social distancing will do to my mental health. I’m afraid for the friends who have lost the jobs they had, or for the ones who lost the future jobs they had hoped to have. I’m afraid for my neighbors who are already hungry, and the ways this virus will only make that worse. I’m afraid for my black and brown sisters and brothers, whom this virus is killing at significantly higher rates than white folks. I’m afraid for the havoc the virus will wreak on the global south, where the legacy of colonialism has left countries and communities lacking the resources needed to fight it. I’m afraid for immigrants and refugees, for those who aren’t eligible for benefits that will help them through this. I’m afraid for folks living in jails and prisons, who are often denied basic information and medical care, and for whom this virus will likely be devastating.
But alas, “do not be afraid” are the first words of the resurrection story in Matthew. The two Marys had gone to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Their grief was still raw. They were overwhelmed with sadness. They were afraid for a future without Jesus. To add to their already-shaken state, the text tells us that when the Marys arrived, the ground beneath them began to shake, that a glowing angel popped out of the sky, and that the guards were so freaked out that they fell over like “dead men.” The whole scene is utterly fear-inducing. The women have every reason in the world to be afraid,but the angel, who has quite the nerve, says, “Do not be afraid.” Women often have things unnecessarily explained to them—I’m not sure if “angel-splaining” is a thing, but if it is, these women seemed to be on the receiving end of it.
Even though the angel goes on to tell the women the Good News that Jesus is risen, they don’t seem too convinced by the phrase “do not be afraid” either. Matthew says that after hearing the news, the women, “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Fear and joy.
I think we often assume that fear and joy are mutually exclusive. Or, that if we’re fearful, we lack faith. But these women show us that there is plenty of room for both fear and joy this Easter. We can be afraid for the future and rejoice in a God who’s already present in it. We can fear how long it will be until Duke Lutherans can meet again in person, and praise God for the joyful (albeit weird) wonders of video conferencing. We can fear the death this virus is causing (and the ways it’s exacerbating the already entrenched structural sources of death), and find joy because death is not the end.
So today, dear Duke Lutherans, if you, like me, are afraid, these women show us that we don’t need to try to muster up the strength to “get over it,” or “move on.” They show us that if we’re afraid, we’re in good company. Fear and joy. We can have both. And that’s such a relief, because I’m not sure I could take either one their own right now. Fear without joy would be way too all-encompassing and terrifying. But joy without fear in these circumstances would feel cheap, not believable.
I think there’s a tendency to make Easter into just that: a day for joy alone. To make it into a day exclusively for happy Hallelujahs and trumpets and bunnies and egg-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Those Peanut Butter cups are delicious so no hard feelings to Reese’s, but the Easter story we get in scripture is not a sweet and rosy one. This is a story that doesn’t dismiss fear, or deny death. This is a story that is full of fear, one that looks death right in the face.
And it’s a story that says there is something else. Something even more powerful. Because Jesus lives, there also is great joy. This joy doesn’t get rid of fear, but it cuts through it. This joy doesn’t prevent danger or death but it gives us a way to live in defiance to it. This joy doesn’t say that everything is going to be OK, but it gives us the power to look fear in the face and say “hallelujah anyway.”
Hallelujah anyway because Christ is Risen! Hallelujah anyway because not the coronavirus, not “social distancing,” not greed or hoarding, not closed schools or packed hospitals, not even the finality of death itself can stop God’s love from living, a love that is alive and is here and that sustains us through these particularly fear-filled days. Hallelujah anyway!
This hallelujah isn’t just something we say because of Easter. It’s something we can’t help but live because of Easter. It’s something that transforms us. Moves us. Did you catch what Mary and Mary did in light of the resurrection? It says, “they left the tomb with fear and joy, and ran to tell the disciples.” Yes, Mary and Mary were still afraid, but the joy of resurrection moved them into action. Yes, they were still shaken, but they were also shaken into life. Not just back into life as it was, not back into “business as usual,” (cause as it turns out, “business as usual” is a system built to cause death – in Marys’ time and in ours) but into a whole new way of living and moving in the world.
The resurrection moves us into a whole new way of living too. It doesn’t prevent fear but it does means we are not stuck in it. It doesn’t steady our trembling completely but it does empower us to stand up on our shaking legs and move. It doesn’t eliminate our fear but allow us, in spite of it, to run toward one another, to run toward our neighbors in need.
Maybe “do not be afraid” doesn’t mean stop fearing. Maybe “do not be afraid” is another way of saying, yeah, this is a fear-filled and death-filled world, but “Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. So hallelujah anyway!” Amen.
Kimberly Wagner, “Matthew’s Resurrection: Surprise Encounters,” preachingandtrauma.com, April 7, 2020.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, “A Mini-Sermon on Fear, Love, and Kent Brockman,” The Corners, March 19, 2020.