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The following sermon was preached on April 19th at University Hill Congregation for the Easter Vigil service. It was my pleasure to preside over the baptism of Patrick Fuller, the outgoing president of our campus club, and baptism renewal for three other students. It is a custom at University Hill to address the sermon to the person being baptized, so the sermon is addressed to Patrick. Though, as we find in the Bible, single people can be symbols for whole nations (Abraham as Israel, for example), so it is also addressed to all.

University Hill Congregation
Matthew 28:1-11
Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014

“Do Not Be Afraid”

    Patrick, this seems like an appropriate time for a baptism. Not just because the ancient church always did baptisms like this. Not just because it’s Easter. Not even because you are surrounded by the love of good friends. But this seems like a good time for a baptism, for your baptism, because this is a time of transition for you. The school year is ending. Your formal leadership of our campus community is coming to a close. But even more than that, you are preparing for a strange new world beyond University. A strange new world that is no doubt filled with uncertainty. Your baptism tonight marks not only your transition to full participation as a member of the church on earth, but it also marks another transition between your life as it once was, towards a future that is hidden, out of sight. There isn’t a better time for a baptism.

And the scriptures for this evening seem to sense this, too. Talk about transition. Talk about uncertainty. By the time we get to our reading in Matthew’s gospel, it looks like all is lost. Jesus has been crucified. He’s dead.. Most of his followers have fled or have been scattered, just like he said they would.  He’s laid in a tomb, like a cave, and they roll a huge boulder in front of the entranceway, heavy enough to take several people plenty of effort to move out of the way. And, worried that his followers would steal the body and claim that Jesus has risen, the Romans and the Jewish authorities set armed guards at the entrance. It looks like all is lost.  No one is getting in or out.

Not everyone has deserted him, however. On this, the third day after his death, Mary Magdalene and, the “other Mary,” presumably his mother come to see the tomb. Their worst fears have been realized. Not only is Jesus’ own ministry over, where he gathered disciples, healed the sick and fed the hungry and proclaimed God’s kingdom in their midst. What appeared to be the dawning of a new age has come to a tragic end. It looks like the world is back to the way it was–the status quo, a world set in order by violence, poverty, oppression, and worst of all, fear. Fear that God either would or could do nothing to heal or restore creation to its intended goodness. For these women, all there is left to do is to keep vigil, to mourn and to grieve the loss in front of a sealed tomb with a battalion of soldiers in the back ground. There is no hope.

But suddenly, in the midst of their fear and their grief, an earthquake hits. You can imagine them reaching for something solid to hold on to, as the world shakes and shifts underneath them. Then, out of nowhere, an angel of the Lord descends. The angel comes, rolls the heavy boulder away from the tomb, then sits on it. The appearance of the  angel, whose face, it says, looks like lightning and whose clothes are white as snow, causes the guards to shake and faint in terror like men struck dead.

The angel looks at the women. “Do not be afraid,” says this terrifying figure. “Do not be afraid, because I’m here to tell you that Jesus who has been crucified is not here in this tomb, but he has been raised, just like he told you he would.” And if its appearance itself isn’t enough proof, the angel tells them to take a peak inside the tomb. “Come, see where he lay,” says the angel. “But then go quickly to tell his disciples that he has been raised, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him. This is my message for you.” Just when they’d lost hope, just when they’d thought it was the end, just when they thought life itself was sealed up inside a tomb with Jesus’ body, God shakes the whole world under them. Nothing can keep God locked in. He is risen! Jesus lives! He lives and out there on the road they will meet him. And there they will see him.

But there’s something strange about it. They do what the angel says. They come and see, and then they go and tell. But as they rush out to do so, the story tells us, they do so “with fear and great joy.” Great joy and fear. It can’t be left over fear from Jesus’ death because they’ve heard that he’s alive. Even though, the one who they thought was dead now lives, even though the world as they know it has changed for good, even though the angel says “do not be afraid,” they still fear. Even in the midst of great joy. They are still afraid.

Will Willimon, former Dean of the Duke University Chapel, tells the story of a man from one of his first congregations who once came to confide in him a secret he’d kept bottled up for a long time, one that still weighed heavily on him. The man told him that while wandering home after a late night poker came, he had a stunning vision of the Risen Christ. That Christ appeared to him “vividly” and as real as anything he’d ever seen. But even though this event shook him deeply, he’d never told anyone else about it in ten years. Willimon asked why he’d kept it silent for so long. “Were you worried about embarrassing yourself?” He asked. “Or afraid others wouldn’t believe you and mock in disbelief?” “No!” the man explained, “the reason why I told no one was I was too afraid that it was true.” “I was too afraid it was true.” “And if it’s true that Jesus had really risen, that he had come personally to me, what then? I’d have to change my whole life. I’d have to become some kind of radical or something. And I love my wife and family and was scared I’d have to change, to be somebody else, and it would destroy my family, if the vision was real.” Perhaps the two Marys are afraid because since Jesus lives, it changes everything. And it means their lives will never be the same again.

This is why this is your baptismal text, Patrick. Because this news changes everything. I think we are often tempted to imagine that religion, Christian faith, is something that is meant to give us stability. It’s meant to bring us comfort, and bring us peace, to soothe our fears.  The opiate of the masses, meant to dull our senses in a world of suffering. None of these things are bad things. But here, even the words “do not be afraid” said by a heavenly messenger, don’t offer much comfort at all. They don’t erase fear, at least not entirely. It’s almost like this wonderful, astounding news actually creates new fears. Perhaps that’s why the angel has to say “do not be afraid.” Because if it’s true, if Christ is risen, it means that life as we know can never be the same again. Life has to change.

Because when the angel says that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee, it’s not only the place where he promises to gather his scattered sheep again. It is also the place where his ministry begins way back in the beginning of the story, with his own baptism in the Jordan. It’s where Jesus is healing, feeding, proclaiming God’s kingdom to the least and the lost, showing compassion to the suffering, blessing the children and eventually suffering and dying on account of it. The risen Christ summons his disciples to the very same place where it all began and invites them to “go and do likewise.”

This, Patrick, is where your baptism summons you to. This place on the road where Christ will meet you. This is where baptism summons us all to. This is the scary part. If Christ is risen, it means that the world that seems so normal to us, the world which knows such violence, hatred, and despair, as the norm, just as the way it is, is actually a lie. It’s real, but it’s a lie, and has no real hold on you. If Christ is risen, it means that even in spite of evidence to the contrary, justice, joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail over these things. It means that what you do matters, that your life is now part of God’s mission to redeem and heal the world. If Christ is risen, it means all the things you fear now, aren’t worth being afraid of, at all. As crazy as it might sound, the good news is that the words “do not be afraid”–which Jesus repeats to the women when they see him on the road–mean that the only thing you have to fear is God. Not because God is mean and will punish you, but because God might use you to do something risky, and something beautiful in this world. You are told “do not be afraid” because it takes immense courage to face this new world, to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It also means you have been given the gift of courage no matter what your life holds ahead, no matter what  might happen next, no matter what the world might ever throw at you, and you will be able to share this same news with those around you. This is what you’re getting yourself in to tonight. This is your last warning!

So, Patrick. Do not be afraid. Though you may fear the future and you don’t know what is out ahead, do not be afraid. Though you now live a life that is not your own for a mission that is not of your own doing, do not be afraid.  Though the earth might quake beneath your feet, do not be afraid. When you leave this place, go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honour all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Be willing to risk it all because you know Christ is Risen and is waiting for you on the road ahead, where he will always be with you, until the end of the age. Do not be afraid. Christ is risen, indeed. Hallelujah! Amen!

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