By the Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
Sunrise Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb
3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 "Don’t be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ’He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’"
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
It was back in my college days.
Mary Todd came by the dormitory and asked me if I wanted to go for a bike ride.
Sure, why not. So off we went riding on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We rode for a long time -- you see, I went to college in a small town called Due West, South Carolina, and on a Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t much else to do, so we rode on and on.
We came to a dirt road and Mary Todd told me that she had been down that road once and she’d made a discovery. "Come on, let me show you something," she said enticingly.
I followed her onto that dirt road, into the woods.
We came to a field of weeds. In the field there were places where the earth was depressed. These depressions were all the same size and shape. They formed a distinctive pattern, row upon row. Mary Todd told me it was an old cemetery. It was so old that the coffins had rotten away, causing the dirt to
sink inward. There were one or two gravestones. They were so old you could just barely make out a letter here and there, but no words.
I realized it was beginning to get dark. I suggested to Mary Todd that we go back to the campus before the dining hall closed. She agreed.
Then after supper, I went back to my room and got in bed, but I kept thinking about those graves -- fascinated with how they were sunken inward.
Even though it was night, I got up, and I went back to that cemetery alone. I looked down at one of the graves, when all of a sudden a hand reached out of the grave, grabbed my leg and started pulling me in! I
started screaming for help!
In the distance, I could hear a voice. "Maynaaaard. Maynard. Stoooop screaming. Wake up Maynard, you’re having a nightmare."
Of course, it is an embarrassing thing to have happen. There I was in bed, with 5 or 6 college guys looking down at me. Laughing.
Mary Todd and I had gone to that cemetery and I had dreamed about it that night. I’d had a nightmare.
But cemeteries are frightening places. And the nightmare of someone in a grave coming alive is a frightening thing.
New Ebenezer is a camp and conference center in Rincon, Georgia, where I have led or assisted in a number of youth camps. One of the things about that camp is that it is right next door to an old cemetery.
I have often taken small groups of campers into that cemetery to see the ancient gravestones. The best time is at night, not because of the fear factor, but because some of the older gravestones cannot be read in the daytime. You have to go at night and hold a flashlight on the edge of the marker and let the
shadows highlight the faint letters.
On one particular camp, I took some boys on the tour and then back to the cabin. And after I was asleep, some of the boys snuck out of the cabin and went the cabin next door and got some of the boys who had not been with us on the tour of the graveyard. And the boys took these other campers on the same tour that I had given earlier.
Of course, there was one difference. My boys had taken one of their friends and had him hide in the graveyard. He was laid out on top of a grave. The other boys had covered him with leaves. Then at just the right moment, just as our boys were taking the other campers on the tour, trying to read the faint inscriptions on the gravestones, this pile of leaves would erupt and a young boy would scream at them: "AHHHHHGGGG".
The problem with that joke is that you can only do it once. There is nothing more fun for a camper than to scare the wits out of another camper. And there is nothing more frightening than a graveyard late at night when something that is supposed to be dead comes alive.
In Mark’s Gospel, the account of the resurrection tells of three women who go to a cemetery. It is very early. It is sunrise and the shadows are still long and dark. They get to the grave and it is empty. It is a terrifying moment, and there is nothing funny about it!
And there is an angel there proclaiming that Christ has risen from the dead. And the first thing the angel says is, "Don’t be afraid."
Which doesn’t do much good.
Because the women leave the cemetery. In fact, Mark’s Gospel says they ran from the cemetery. Afraid. Terrified.
Over in John’s Gospel it describes the events of that early Sunday morning. But it goes beyond what Mark describes and begins to describe what happened late that Sunday evening.
It’s late. The shadows have lengthened and the evening has faded. The disciples have gathered. They have the doors locked. And they are afraid.
You and I look at the resurrection as a celebration of Easter. It’s old hat to us. But for the disciples, it was different. They watched Jesus die. They buried him. Now they hear that he has gotten up and walked out of the grave. And that is a frightening thing.
So there they are, late at night, all gathered
together. The doors are locked. Who knows what will happen next? The disciples don’t know.
Then Jesus appears right there in the room with them. He shows them his hands. He is not a ghost. He is a man. He is a living breathing man. He shows his hands, with scars still in them.
The first thing he tells them is "Peace be with you."
And suddenly the disciples are filled not with fear, but with joy.
Fear is a natural first reaction to the resurrection, because there is nothing more terrifying than a cemetery when things that ought to be dead come alive, but Jesus says no to fear, and gives peace instead.
Fear is a natural first reaction to the resurrection, because suddenly everything Jesus said is true. And that might be frightening to some.
Fear is a natural first reaction to the resurrection, because more than anything else, when we meet Jesus as the Risen Lord, we come face to face with God. A person who comes face to face with God, cannot help but become aware of his or her own shortcomings in the presence of God’s perfection, and
that is a frightening thing.
But Jesus says no to all that fear. Instead he says, peace.
It seems that some people in Christianity have never heard the first message Jesus spoke after the Easter event, "Peace." They are stuck in the fear mode of dealing with religion.
I remember reading a bumper sticker sometime ago. If you read it quickly the message seemed to say, "Read the Bible, it will scare the hell out of you." But on closer examination, it read, "Read the Bible, it will
scare you out of hell."
For many, fear is the primary motivation of our religious experience.
Adam and Eve, hiding in a Garden, hiding from God, they are afraid.
Jacob, awaked from his sleep after his vision realizes he is in the presence of God -- and he is afraid.
Moses, face to face with God who comes with the sign of the burning bush, is afraid.
Fear has always been a natural first emotion when approached by God. Ministers are as guilty of this as anyone of prompting this. So often we try to woo people into heaven by scaring them out of hell.
We become Christians, because we are afraid of hell.
We lead moral lives, because we are afraid of judgment.
We follow the Old Testament Law as well as New Testament mandates because we are afraid of punishment.
Lillian Smith, in her book KILLERS OF THE
DREAM tells what it was like growing up in the South when the revivalist preachers would come to town with their tents and sawdust. Night after night the whole town would gather in the tent and listen to the screaming preacher talk about sin and sex and whiskey and all the other things that back then children never heard about except during the revival time. And the children would take all of this in. The
whole town would be there and take all of this in. And late at night everyone would go back to the home vibrating with excitement and enthusiasm.
Lillian Smith says that all of this was wonderful -- until late at night, when the children were tucked into their beds and the adults were far away, gathered around the dinner table sharing coffee. It was then,
says Smith, that the words of the revivalist preacher would come back to the minds of the children. Sin, and sex and whiskey. Death and demons and Satan.
It was then that the children could imagine hell reaching out for them with bright long fingers of fire and singeing the very edges of their beds. The children would cling to the bed sheets in their early fears of religion.
Jesus comes along, and the first message he delivers after the Easter event is Peace. That has always been Christ’s message.
Mary, a young woman, sees an angel who tells her she will give birth to a son, whom she will call Jesus. The message of the angel is "fear not."
Shepherds watching their flocks of sheep in the night suddenly see the skies fill up with angels who tell the, "fear not."
In the early hours of the morning, three women see the open, empty grave. "Fear not," they are told.
Paul, in his letter to Timothy (II Timothy 1:7), said that God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and love.
In one of his letters, John said (I John 4:18) that there is no fear in love, but that perfect love casts out fear.
And yet, so much of our religious experiences involve fear.
But Jesus doesn’t come to give fear. He comes to give peace.
Now I have to admit, that if I had been Jesus
Christ, and I had risen from the dead, and I had found myself with a roomful of disciples, huddled together late at night, behind locked doors, and suddenly there I am with them, risen from the dead, I would look at these quivering disciples and say: "BOO!"
I wouldn’t be able to help myself, It would just come right out. Like a camper who wants to scare the wits out of another camper.
But Jesus doesn’t do that. He looks at these
frightened disciples and says, "PEACE."
He looks at us, huddled in our lives, many of our psychological doors locked, trembling with fear, oppressed by our anxieties. "Fear not," he says. "Peace be with you."