Princeton University Religious Life

Easter Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 23, 2008
Matthew 28: 1 - 10

Did you hear it in these verses – the overwhelming part of fear in the resurrection story? I’ve only recently noticed it. Did you hear it, too? Each of the four gospels’ accounts of the resurrection of Jesus has quite a lot in common, naturally: they describe the same event! But each has, in addition, a unique perspective on that event; each lifts out for emphasis particular factual details, and these, in turn, lead to the highlighting of particular theological truths in the resurrection. My living with Matthew’s resurrection account in recent weeks has prompted me to notice something for the first time: the overwhelming presence in these verses of fear.

 

On their surface, some of the events described would make almost anyone afraid, like the earthquake. (I have experienced one, and I hope never to again!) Then, an angel descends, rolls back the massive stone that seals the entrance to the cave tomb, then sits on top of that rock, glowing like a lightning bolt against a dark night sky. Here again, fear might be quite understandable, as would wonder, delight, curiosity. The guards, we are told, are so afraid that they are paralyzed, frozen in a kind of sentient rigor mortis. The angel speaks to the women, but can tell that they, too, are terrified, and so begins instructions to them with the words, “Do not be afraid.” They leave the tomb, commissioned to tell the disciples that a living Christ, a resurrected Christ, awaits them in Galilee, but then they ran away, says Matthew, “with fear and great joy.” They are not mutually exclusive, fear and joy! The women immediately encounter the risen Jesus and throw themselves at his feet. He, too, discerns what they are feeling and begins his words to them with, “Do not be afraid.” 

 

Fear is everywhere in this gospel’s account of the resurrection. Given the supernatural and political circumstances, I’d say that’s pretty understandable. But how carefully each of the evangelists weighed each word of the gospel. I’d like to reflect with you this Easter morning on why the overwhelming presence of fear must be – theologically, in terms of the life of faith – only natural. 

 

I can think of two relatively common human experiences that must approximate the particular combination of fear and joy experienced by the women at the tomb, and maybe the specific tone of this kind of fear will be spiritually helpful to us. I’m thinking first of the peculiar mixture of joy and fear that can sweep over a person who is just understanding that the person with whom he or she has been falling in love just may . . . even . . . feel the same way. Simultaneously there is a delirium of joy and breaking out in a cold sweat. The second instance that comes to mind is learning that you are going to be a parent (and assuming that you want to be one). Oh, the joy; oh, the fear – in both cases, a sweetheart and a kid – how both feelings rage like a forest fire as you consider the possibilities, the responsibilities, the potential for fulfillment and happiness and human connectedness, the work, the risk, the reality that pain, when it comes, will be as powerful as the love, no more, no less. When tragedy strikes or things are difficult, we will hurt only as deeply as we have ever loved.

 

I wonder if that’s what these women grasped in the split seconds total of the earthquake and angel and commissioning to go and tell. Christ resurrected! New life! Oh the possibilities, the responsibilities, the potential for fulfillment and happiness and human connectedness and life eternal, the work, the risk, the reality that pain and sacrifice, when they came, would be as powerful as these women’s faith and love; that the rewards of faith would only ever be as high as their faith was deep. The resurrection of Christ would bring them danger in this world as well as eternity in the next. Many disciples would die martyrs. Yes, they ran away consumed with fear and with great joy.

 

In Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “I wonder if a man, handing another man an extremely sharp, polished, two-edged instrument would hand it over with the air, gestures and expression of one delivering a bouquet of flowers. Would this not be madness?    What does one do, then? Convinced of the excellence of the dangerous instrument, one recommends it unreservedly, to be sure, but in such a way that in a certain sense one warns against it. So it is with Christianity.”

 

Kierkegaard knows the fear of those women.  Those women know Kierkegaard’s hesitation to yell a casual “Alleluia!” and claim Christ as Savior. Their examples both are so worthy of our consideration. We would do very well to permit – even to nurture - an element of fear and hesitation into our practice of Christianity, into our acceptance of its truly wondrous promises. But on what should our fear be grounded? Those who’ve experienced real fear in their practice of Christianity often endured it because of the manipulative cruelty of people who wanted to scare them into a kind of a religious submission. Such mean fear, I hope I’m making clear, is not at all what I’m on about here. So is it fear of condemnation, failure, insufficiency, or damnation that should be incorporated into our practice? No, these too are unhealthy fears, as would be greeting a new love relationship while gripped by fear of rejection, or shaping parenthood around fears of a child’s potential sickening unto death. One can certainly work to prevent these things, but they will warp the joy and the truth and the promise if they become the fear by which one lives and loves from the beginning. So it is with the Christian faith. Our fear, rather, should be grounded in our understanding of what it means to accept - to put on – Christ:  the possibilities, the responsibilities, the fulfillment, the work, the risk, the potential for pain or disappointment as a result of our faith. There is much to fear – fear of reprisal, having accepted the responsibility of Christianity to speak truth to power, and to live with the consequences. Loss of friends. Loss of that loved one. There is plenty to fear in really being clothed with Christ – like being changed! Becoming a renewed person, leaving off old goals, ideals, life plans. Kierkegaard is right – we must not blithely recommend Christianity to anybody. Christianity is a way of being that unsettles, that demands of its adherents that they live but an ethic that often contradicts all that is around us, that calls us to love when we’d rather cave in to resentment or hate, that calls us to make justice real for all, even if it compromises our cherished standard of living. It is in the true understanding of the possibilities, responsibilities and real pain that are to come that we get our mixture of fear and joy, as one might when anticipating childbirth, or a great love.

 

Genuine fear in the practice of religion is not the desire of the great majority of spiritual seekers. We prefer our religion warm and affirming. That Christianity certainly is, but not that alone. How many people, though, walk away from Christianity because it turns out to have ethical demands of it adherents – it has responsibility, along with warmth and affirmation – and because of what they perceive as its negativity – its persistent attention to sin, to evil. But who among us has not known evil – a person out to destroy, an ideology out to strip us and beat us down – pernicious racial oppression, for instance. In our spiritual lives we do not want to deal with those things that our everyday experiences prove are all too real – such as evil, and sin. Christianity, whose founder got nailed up to die after being sold to Rome by a supposed friend, isn’t gonna let us get away with that. But what irony! Many who would wash their hands of the supposed negativism of Christianity – who do not wish fear to be an element of religion – do so in active denial of the fear they know too well.

 

The ethicist Douglas John Hall writes of “the propensity . . . to avoid, precisely, suffering:  to have light without darkness, vision without trust and risk, hope without an ongoing dialog with despair – in short, Easter without Good Friday.” In truth, you cannot hear the wonderful news of this Easter morning – the news that love is stronger than death, and forgiveness stronger than sin – if you only ever ride the top of the wave – (And that is, I might add, impossible to accomplish all the time.) You can only hear, and   know, and believe that liberating, life-altering message if you don’t deny all fear but live in and through it in order to get beyond it. Karl Barth has written, “The Easter Message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately, they can no longer start mischief.

 

  

They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more.” Again – the irony of our fear! What is really to be feared is vanquished in Easter, but many cannot hear that because they continue to deny that fear is real, refusing to participate in a religion that they think dwells on the negative. Christianity doesn’t promote or introduce fear, but makes a case for a healthy spiritual reckoning with it. Sin and evil happen; they even happened to Jesus. They are inevitable in human experience and existence. Christianity preaches that reality, and teaches its destruction in the magnificent events of Easter morning – this morning: earthquake and angel, stone and guards, women and risen Lord.

    

Yes, it is Easter morning. I do wonder if some of you are saying to yourselves, “Well heck – it’s Easter, I came to church and this gal is going on about fear!” Easter is, as I began by saying, about a special combination of fear and joy, so let me bring back in a bit more of the joy stuff for us all. A new universe is born this morning. Yesterday at this time Christ was still entombed, cold and lifeless; death and lust for power were convinced of their own might. But this morning we see the humble, beautiful victory of “seemingly powerless love over loveless power,” as William Sloan Coffin liked to say: “seemingly powerless love over loveless power.” Powerless love takes the helm of our universe this morning; loveless power, as Barth has noted, hasn’t given up. It bullies us now and then but its cause was forever lost when those trembling women saw a figure in white who said to them, “Do not be afraid.” No matter what you have had to fear in months past – illness, loss, failure – no matter what pain or sorrow or anxiety you have had to endure, Easter is here, and heaven is opened, and all that we might really fear is vanquished. So take heart! Have joy. This now is an Easter world of promise and blessing beyond all our comprehension. Thanks be to God who made, Christ who saved, the Spirit who sustains the new and wonderful day into which we awoke this morning. Happy Easter! Amen. 

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