There are moments when it feels like Matthew is almost working at cross purposes. On the one hand, the message delivered by the angels is clear, succinct and compelling: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” This message—“do not be afraid”—is in many ways the hallmark of good news. Announced throughout Scripture by angels and messengers at key moments of tension and drama in the biblical story, it always heralds the restorative and empowering word of courage that is the very essence of the gospel.
At the same time, however, Matthew also paints what is perhaps the most alarming and, quite frankly, awe-inspiring (if not downright fear-inducing!) picture of the resurrection of the four gospel accounts. First, there is the earthquake that comes as something of an antiphonal response to the quake that erupted when Jesus died (27:51). Next, note that the stone has not yet been moved from the entrance of the tomb when the women arrive on scene. Rather, an angel of the Lord descends and rolls back the stone. Moreover, the angel’s appearance isn’t just striking—with a face like lightning and clothing whiter than Tide could ever hope to get them—but is actually terrifying. Hence the guards at the tomb (another feature distinct to Matthew) immediately faint in terror.
No wonder these women are afraid. And no wonder the angel therefore first speaks words of comfort and courage. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” Of course, it doesn’t stop there; after the fear, and after the words of courage, comes a command: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
And they do. They come and see and then run and tell. And Matthew describes their obedience as a mixture of “fear and joy.”
I wonder if that isn’t also our reality. I mean, don’t we and our people also live lives tinged by both fear and joy. Fear of what may happen to our children in a dangerous world; joy at the blessing they are to us and, we pray, they will be to the world. Fear of whether we will have a job in the year to come; joy at the colleagues who surround us. Fear about the fate of a loved one struggling with illness; joy in the gift that person has been to us. Fear about the future amid problems both national and global; joy in the present moment surrounded by those we love. Or to come a bit closer to home, fear about the future of our congregation and church; joy in our call to proclaim the gospel.
I think it’s striking that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. This is the very definition of courage. And, I would argue, courage is precisely what Easter is about. For while some preach that coming to faith in Christ should smooth all the rough places of life and still the tremors of this world, I believe that the gospel gives us the ability to keep our feet amid the tremors and enables us not just to persevere but even to flourish when life is difficult.
“Do not be afraid.” This charge—repeated by Jesus when he encounters the women—gives us insight into the very nature of our lives in this world. For there is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient—real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality.
Fear and joy, despair and hope, doubt and faith—these are the two sides of our lives in this world. But in the end we have heard the resurrection promise that joy, hope and faith will ultimately prevail. It’s a powerful message and perhaps just right for people coming into our doors this Sunday, dressed perhaps in their Easter best but also harboring a host of concerns they rarely utter for fear of being overwhelmed.
When I think of the promise of Easter courage in the face of daily fears, I am regularly reminded of the funeral service of Winston Churchill. Perhaps you’ve heard the story. At the close of the service that Churchill planned himself, a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Abby and sounded “Taps,” the song that signals dusk and the close of another day and is frequently played at the end of a military funeral. But after a moment of stillness that followed the last plaintive note of that song, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul’s, the end that faced the rising sun, and played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.
Churchill perceived, you see, that Christ’s resurrection signals above and beyond all else that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear—though sometimes we wish desperately that it would—but it does offer us courage and hope by anchoring us in the sure promise that God will have the last word, and that that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy and love and peace.
Preach this word, a word of resurrection courage, and know that as you do your role is no less significant than the divine messenger of all those years ago. For the fearsome and joyous news still has the capacity to create life and faith in our people, and I am so very grateful for your willingness to bear it.