Do not be Afraid!
Do Not Be Afraid!
Colossians 3:1-4 & St. John 20:1-10
by William Klock
St. John tells us in today’s Gospel that “on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” He says nothing more of what Mary found there that morning and tells us that she ran to find Peter and John. She didn’t understand. She didn’t know what had happened. She suspected someone had stolen the body. We get a sense of her fear as she ran to tell the others. Jesus was dead. It couldn’t get any worse than that—well, aside from the authorities now coming for his friends—but it did get worse. Now his body’s gone.
Matthew, Mark and Luke fill us in a bit more on the details. In the other gospels we read about the angels who met Mary at the tomb. And the first thing the angels says is, “Do not be afraid!” It’s the first thing angels in the Bible always say when they meet a human being: “Do not be afraid!” Unlike most modern depictions of angels, what we read in the Bible tells us that there’s something both fierce and glorious about these heavenly beings, something that moves human beings to fear. So there’s Mary, crying on her way to the tomb. She’s lost her friend and her lord. All of his disciples and friends were afraid—would the authorities be looking for them next? And then the empty tomb. Mary was upset and afraid and naturally so. And the shock of the angels. She needed to hear those words, “Do not be afraid!”
I think we need to hear those words today, too, and the rest of the Easter story reminds us why. Our immediate circumstances and our reasons to be afraid today aren’t the reasons that Mary and Jesus’ disciples were afraid, but it’s hard to miss the fear that’s out there today. You and I may be coping with it—or not—but even if we are, the palpable sense of fear around us—even to the point of paranoia—is so thick you could cut it with a knife. What does Easter have to say to us?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be afraid. Even when the angel said, “Do not be afraid” to Mary, he wasn’t just wiping away everything that Mary and the disciples had to fear. The angel could give them assurance that Jesus’ body hadn’t been stolen. God had raised him from death! But that didn’t change the possibility that the authorities might be out looking for his associates, to crucify them, too. And the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead doesn’t mean that we have no reason to fear the sickness raging through our world right now. Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t erase the potential for coming social and economic devastation.
It’s foolish to think that sickness can’t touch us just because we’re Christians. We all know personally the reality of disease. You can’t just “declare” it away in the name of Jesus. There are folks doing that, but they’re foolish and their theology isn’t the theology of the Bible. It’s paganism with a thin veneer of Christian-sounding talk over the surface. Sickness, pain, trials, tribulation are real. As I’ve been saying these last few weeks, we modern people have often thought ourselves invincible. Science or economics or government will save us. We’ve made false gods of these good gifts that God has given us. And they’re being exposed right now and we have good reason to be afraid. The things we’ve relied on, the things we’ve trusted in for security are failing.
The causes of our fears are real and they’re here. What we need is to learn how to fear in the right way—how to fear in a way that brings honour to God. That might sound weird, but bear with me. There really are things out there to legitimately fear. St. Paul, himself, wrote to the Corinthians:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair… (2 Corinthians 4:8)
Paul knew what it meant to be afraid. He’d been arrested, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked—all for the sake of the gospel message he proclaimed. Eventually he would die for that good news. He was afflicted in every way, but his fear never crushed him. Circumstances never drove him to despair. Paul knew fear, but that fear never drove him to paranoia. He knew sleepless nights, but he never lost hope. When the angel says, “Do not be afraid”, he’s not telling us to ignore the things that make us afraid. He’s telling us to fear in a God-honouring way.
And that’s our calling, Brothers and Sisters. To bring honour to the name of the Lord is our calling as his people. That calling doesn’t change just because our circumstances have. The challenge is how to fear rightly. And Easter tells us just that.
You see, when God tells us not to be afraid, those exhortations are always connected to two things. First, they’re always connected to the assurance that God cares for us. Second, God’s exhortations to fear not are connected to the promise that even though bad things happen and even though we are sure to know suffering and tribulation, we have a sure and certain hope of life in a future world where every tear has been wiped from our eyes and everything wrong with the world has been set to rights.
Consider an example from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 12—the parallel passage is in Matthew 6—Jesus exhorts his disciples not to worry. He says in verse 32:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Why would they be afraid in the first place? Consider the cost of discipleship. Jesus tells his disciples to do things like sell all they have so that they can give to the poor. He warns them that they will be persecuted—even face death—for his sake. But he also gives them a promise as they face destitution and persecution. They may, indeed, lose things in life that they hold dear. The Gospel is, at the very least, a call to leave our comfort zone. But losing everything—even our lives—isn’t the end of the story. What we look forward to, the end of the story that we so often lose sight of in the midst of suffering and tribulation—is something we can never know apart from giving up everything for the sake of Jesus. If we are in him, God has promised us the life of his kingdom and of the age to come.
You see, Jesus wasn’t asking his friends to ignore the very real possibility of suffering. He wasn’t whistling past the graveyard and neither should they. What Jesus was asking them to do was to trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
But how do we know that God is really and truly good and faithful? To trust in someone—to really trust them—we have to feel that they’re actually worthy of our trust. Does God really love us? And is God capable of delivering on his promises? Well, that’s just what Jesus outlines for his disciples in the verses leading up to his exhortation for them not to be afraid. Here’s what he says starting in Luke 12:4:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.”
This wasn’t an idle warning. Of Jesus disciples, all but John—who was imprisoned on the island of Patmos—all of them were martyred. They died for their faith in Jesus. The time was coming—they thought it had arrived right after Jesus’ crucifixion, but as it turned out, it would be decades—the time was coming when they were faced with a choice: deny Jesus and live or confess Jesus and die. And Jesus says, “do not fear” these people who threaten you. Being my people, proclaiming the good news about me is more important than life itself. That’s a tall order. But Jesus says two things about how to fear the right way, the God-honouring way. You see, there’s fear and there’s fear. Again, there’s more than on kind of fear. There’s bad fear and there’s good fear. And so he says to them, “Do not fear those who kill the body”, instead:
Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:5)
Judgement was coming on the people of God. Would the disciples trust in Jesus as the Messiah even as the corrupt and faithless leaders of Israel threatened them with death? Judgement was coming, God would visit his people, and those who opposed him would be destroyed. Jesus calls up this image of Gehenna—the smouldering garbage dump just outside the city—where the dead would be dumped. On that day when judgement came on Israel, the Lord would deliver those who stood firm and confessed Jesus even in the face of death, but he would cast out, would put from his presence and destroy those who rejected him. Jesus’ point is that there’s something worse than death and that’s facing death apart from the Messiah’s redemption, facing death as someone whom God has rejected, to whom he has said, “You are not my people”—to be excluded forever from the life of God’s kingdom.
As Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. The Lord holds our life and our death in his hands. We have good reason to fear him. And yet it’s not a cowering fear of some sadistic being just waiting to smite us. As much as I appreciate Jonathan Edwards, I think much of his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is off the mark—particularly when he talks of God dangling us over hell like a man dangling a spider over a fire, just waiting to drop us. Edwards was right in that destruction is what sinners deserve. But Edward’s is not an accurate picture of the God who gave his Son out of love for sinners. The fear of the Lord is a reverence for the God who is both the source of life and the one whom we know will faithfully and lovingly set his creation to rights one day. To fear the Lord is to acknowledge that out of love for his creation, God must one day wipe every bit of wickedness and sin from it. That includes the unrepentant. But this is also the same God who has given his Son as a means of reconciliation so that we can be spared being wiped from the face of creation on that final day. To fear the Lord is to stand in awe of the mercy shown as he delays that final judgement, even though it means the temporary continuation of suffering and tribulation and wickedness, so that the good news about Jesus can reach the ends of the earth and the entire human race.
This is what St. Peter was getting at when, as Jesus’ people began to face persecution, he wrote:
Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy. (1 Peter 3:14-15)
Again, there’s something beyond the suffering we face in this life. For Jesus’ people, death isn’t the end. There is a hope beyond suffering and death and so we honour Christ the Lord as holy despite the suffering of this life. That’s what it means to live in hope. We fulfil our God-given calling as his people. We proclaim the good news about Jesus, crucified and risen. We continue to proclaim the royal summons—Jesus is Lord—even when we face persecution. We live the gospel in our daily lives, even as the world around us falls apart. We bring new creation into a broken world. Because we are God’s people and bringing honour to his name is our calling. We fear the Lord, because we know that one day he will come as judge, one day he will purify his creation and set all to rights, and our duty is to bring the world to Jesus in faith that they might escape his judgement and know life through him.
So this is what it means to rightly fear—to fear in a way that honours God. But to trust in God we need to be assured of more than just the fact that he will judge the world and set it to rights someday. To rest in his goodness and faithfulness, we need assurance that he really does care for his people.
In the Luke passage, as Jesus explains to his disciples how to rightly fear, he also tells them:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7)
Right after this Jesus tells them that there’s more to life than worldly goods. He tells a parable about a rich man who gathers in a great harvest. He builds bigger barns and he finds his assurance in his wealth. He relaxes, he eats and drinks and generally makes merry. And that night he dies. It was all for nothing. And Jesus says to the disciples:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:22-23)
God takes care of the raven, even though he doesn’t build barns like that rich fool to store his food. God clothes the lilies in garments that make Solomon’s pale in comparison. And he clothes the fields of grain in beauty even though the destiny of the grain is the scythe and the oven. Jesus says,
Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. (Luke 29-31)
The Lord will surely care for his own. We need to hear that today more than ever. And Jesus continues:
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:32-34)
St. Paul points heavenward, too, in our Epistle today from Colossians 3:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossian 3:1-4)
There is something greater awaiting us than the things of this life and Jesus gives us every assurance to trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness. The evidence is around us everywhere.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to trust. The Gospel this past Thursday reminded us that Jesus himself struggled with fear. That night he was arrested, after the Last Supper, he went to the garden to pray. He knew that his hour had come. He knew that he’d be abused and brutally killed. Mark says that he was “greatly distressed and troubled”. He fell on the ground and prayed:
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
Three times he prayed. Three times he committed himself to the goodness and faithfulness of his Father. And when he was finished he rejoined his disciples and simply told them, “Let us be going”. Going where? Going to his arrest. Going to his suffering. Going to be mocked for trusting in his Father. Going to the cross to die. But he went knowing that there was something bigger and something better than his fear and something better the other side of his death.
Brothers and Sisters, Jesus’ faith was vindicated on Easter morning when God raised him from death. God’s new creation, his new world was born that morning. John tells that when Mary returned, after running to tell Peter and John about the empty tomb, she met Jesus in the garden. She didn’t recognise him. She thought he was a gardener. It wasn’t until he said her name that she realised who he was. There he was pulling weeds. A weird thing for the resurrected Messiah to do—until you realise that this act was the simple, small beginning of new creation. This new creation would spread as Jesus’ people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, carried the message to the world that this Jesus, dead and now alive, is the world’s true Lord. Men and women in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and eventually across the Roman Empire and beyond bowed their knees to this Jesus who forgives rebellious and sinful hearts and makes all things new. Even as they faced rejection, persecution, and martyrdom they submitted themselves to Jesus knowing that there was something greater than fear of those who kill the body. They bowed the knee to this risen Lord in whom they saw the faithfulness of God made manifest and the goodness of God at work. In Jesus the promises of God to his people are being fulfilled and so in Jesus the world has hope for a day when all will be set to rights, a day when the world will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Until that day we will live in a creation suffering the results of our rebellion against God. We will face sickness. We will struggle with sin. We will toil to draw our bread from the earth. We may even face rejection and persecution for our commitment to Jesus and his kingdom. And one day each of us will die. But we face the realities of this fallen world in faith-filled and expectant hope—even joy—knowing that what God has begun in raising Jesus from the dead, he will one day bring to completion. We live as Easter people. Jesus has now entrusted to us the task of taking and spreading his new creation into all the earth. We do that as we carry the justice, the mercy, the grace, the love of God to the world around us. We do that as we proclaim the good news about Jesus, crucified and risen. By the cross, Jesus has redeemed his people from sin and death and gives a promise of life in the age to come. Like the angel, our task is to point the world to the empty tomb and to declare, “Do not be afraid!”
Let us pray: Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant us by your grace to set our minds on things above; that by your continual help our lives may be transformed; through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.