Before Easter all the disciples had one thing in common – they were frightened. They were frightened of storms, hunger, the Romans, the Pharisees and even each other. Fear dominated their lives. Before Easter, the disciples were a bunch of clumsy, unenthusiastic followers. Their lives were distinguished more by their fear than their faith. Before Easter, Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes because the disciples were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough to eat. Before Easter, Jesus calmed the storm and the waves because the disciples were afraid that their boat might be swamped. Before Easter, Peter denied his Lord three times, because he was afraid of the consequences of being associated with Jesus.
But after Easter, after Easter – they were transformed. After Easter, this same group of followers became so empowered and inspired that they spread the good news about Jesus from Africa to Rome and beyond. After Easter, they wrote, traveled, preached, taught and took on huge hardships. These same frightened, timid, disciples who ran and hid for fear of the Romans became people willing to suffer beatings crucifixion, stoning, imprisonment, and many other horrors. And the only thing that separates their before and after images are the events of this morning. The only thing that transformed them is what happened on this day. Is it hard to believe in the resurrection, in the empty tomb and the risen Christ – not for me not when you see the before and the after.
Do you know my favorite part of the Easter story? It isn’t the empty tomb, or the sight of the risen Christ. No, my favorite part of the Easter story is what Jesus says to his disciples after he encounters them at the tomb. “Do not be afraid” – he tells them. Do not be afraid. This isn’t a command like – do not kill. Rather, it is more like what I say to my children when they wake up frightened at two in the morning because of a bad dream or strange noises in the night. I don’t order them not to be afraid. In fact, I know I can’t take away their fear. Instead, I hold them and I comfort them and I try to assure them that although they are afraid they are not alone, I love them and I am with them. The risen Christ promises us the same. Do not be afraid Jesus says from the other side of the grave for I am with you and you are not alone.
As modern disciples of Christ, we have to decide if we want to live before or after Easter. We have to decide whether or not we are Easter people.
There is an old joke that goes: A middle-aged woman had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. While she was on the operating table she had a near death experience. Seeing God she asked, “Is my time up?” God said, “No, you have another 43 years, 2 months and 8 days to live.” Upon recovery, the woman decided to stay in the hospital and have a facelift, liposuction, and a tummy tuck. She even had someone come in and change her hair color. Since she had so much more time to live, she figured she might as well make the most of it. After her last operation, she was released from the hospital. While crossing the street on her way home she was hit by a bus and killed. Arriving in front of God, she demanded, “I thought you said I had another forty years! Why didn’t you save me from that bus?” “Oh hey,” God replied, “I didn’t recognize you.”
As baptized Christians who have received the Easter promise, would God recognize us? Have we had our before and after? Are we trapped by our fears as the disciples were or do we know the freedom that comes from witnessing the empty tomb? We live in a world dominated by fear. You only have to read the headlines to know this truth: Business professionals at Enron who ruin their careers and bankrupt their corporations because they are so afraid of losing that they compromise their values and their integrity in order to win. A world religion that is so afraid of change that a large number of its believers somehow find it justifiable to murder innocent human beings in cold blood, in the name of God. Two Semitic peoples living side by side on a tiny strip of the earth who are so afraid of one another they indiscriminately continue to kill each other in the name of national defense.
Fear is everywhere. This world is a scary place. And, being an Easter person does not mean that one does away with fear. We can’t do away with fear any more than Marshall and Eliza can in the middle of the night when the bad dreams come. But we can learn to believe and trust in the Christ who comes and says – Do not be afraid, I have risen, I am with you. Being an Easter Christian means living in a fearful world in loving ways. It means being a square peg in a round hole. It means going against the grain. It means holding onto hope, and joy and forgiveness when everything around you says that you ought to run for the hills. I saw a bumper sticker once on the back of a Volkswagen Micro bus that said: “I feel like I am diagonally parked in a parallel universe.” (Given what that guy who was driving the bus looked like I think his feelings might have been chemically induced.) Nevertheless, I think that bumper sticker is a great description of what it sometimes feels like to live in this world and be an Easter Christian.
“Be not afraid,” these are the empowering words of Easter. The freedom from fear is the achievement of the resurrection. The promise of the empty tomb declares that Jesus goes before us blazing a path for us to follow, and where Christ has gone we need not fear. Christ went to the cross; we need not fear the cross. Christ went to the grave; we need not fear the grave. Christ has gone into the future; we need not fear the future. The world is still a scary place but we have more than our fear to cling to, we have the promise of Easter. 1
Christ is risen. Do not be afraid. Christ is risen. Amen.
1. Sermons, Peter Gomes, p.78.