Vanquished Fear

Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew’s Gospel offers some vivid details about Christ’s resurrection.

The first day of the week was dawning. The sun was just about to crest over the horizon. And, suddenly, there was a great earthquake!

Have you ever been in an earthquake? I remember a few from my childhood. The worst one struck in 1989.

By this time I was a young man, twenty-one years old, living in Davis, California as a college student. I was upstairs in an apartment I was renting with four other guys, doing homework. And, suddenly—to use the word of the Gospeller—suddenly the whole room started rocking back and forth, wildly. The two doors started rocking in their hinges, first this way and then that, slamming into the wall on their way back; books fell off shelves; I heard something crash in the bathroom.

By this time I was thinking, “Uh, maybe I should stand up and brace myself in a doorway.” Which I did. On the way over to the doorway I glanced out the window. The waves on the community swimming pool were small breakers. Seriously, you could have ridden them with a longboard!

There I stood till the tremor stopped, at last. I caught my breath. Then it occurred to me that Davis isn’t really near any known earthquake fault. If this quake was this strong here, what was it like near the epicenter?

So I ran downstairs to turn on the TV—and right away discovered that the kitchen floor was flooded. That community pool I mentioned, well, it was right next to the apartment; and the water from those small breakers had found its way through the wall! While mopping up I heard a special news report say that some bridges had collapsed in San Francisco, numerous fires were burning, and many people were feared dead.

My wife has her own version of this same earthquake to tell. At the time, she was a senior in high school in Mountain View, California; much closer to the epicenter than Davis. She was at school, in fact, practicing with the marching band outdoors, on the school football field. The way she tells it she could see the ground actually moving. That’s right! Waves of sod rolled toward her and under her so that she had to sit down for fear of falling.

So, now to return to the Gospel account, imagine the drama, the emotion, the seeming chaos! There was suddenly a great earthquake. An angel, whose appearance was like lightning and whose clothes were dazzlingly white, rolled the stone away from the grave. The Roman guards saw this and shook with fear, becoming, the Gospel says, like dead men!

Dang!

Then, with all this craziness going on all around them, the angel looks at the women and speaks.

Right at this point—just as the angel looks at the women but before he says anything to them—what do you think was going through their minds?

Do you think they were afraid?

What do you think they were afraid of?

What are you afraid of?

But the angel speaks, and he tells them, “Do not be afraid.” Nevertheless, they leave the tomb quickly, we hear, with fear and great joy. And just a little later the resurrected Jesus reiterates, “Do not be afraid.”

Could this be Matthew’s take-home lesson? Does Christ’s resurrection mean that we, Christ’s disciples, have nothing to fear?

Over the past few days, especially since the Last Supper, but even since Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we’ve seen a lot of fear expressed by the people in these stories. Let’s trace it out. Let’s follow this thread of fear back through the last few days, back through the Passion story, and see what fear has to do with the resurrection.

The first thing that comes to mind is actually a little ahead of where we are: the disciples huddling in a locked house. Do you remember this picture from the book of John? The disciples don’t yet know that Jesus is risen. And they’ve locked the door out of fear.

Also from John, we hear that a disciple named Joseph of Arimathea and a man named Nicodemus—remember him?—came to remove the body of Jesus from the cross by night. Why did they remove his body at night? It is because fear was involved, John says.

Back in Matthew, do you remember Peter’s denial? He denied three times, with oaths, that he knew Jesus—out of fear! Then he heard a cock crow; and he went outside and wept bitterly.

There was even some mild fear—or anxiety at least—over who was to betray Jesus at the Last Supper. “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “one of you will betray me.” And we hear that those with him became greatly distressed and began to say, “Surely not I, Lord?”

Do you see it? Fear permeates the Passion Week. In fact, it permeates much of the disciples’ lives; it permeates much of our lives.

But both the angel and Jesus tell us, “Do not be afraid!”

What’s going on here? Are we really to believe that the resurrection means we don’t need to fear? Can new life in Christ equal a life without fear?

Yes! That’s exactly what’s going on here.

So, I left off with the Last Supper. The disciples were in distress.

But there’s something else that happens at that Last Supper, something else we learn most demonstrably from the Gospel of John: through washing dirty, smelly feet.

We call it Maundy Thursday now, in our tradition. And I hope you were here to experience it just a few days ago; or at least that you’ve experienced it sometime in your faith pilgrimage. At the Maundy Thursday service we actually wash one another’s feet.

Anyway, this word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, related to the English word mandate and its variations, like demand or commandment. That’s because the focus here is not really on the washing of feet, but rather extends beyond foot-washing to a commandment Christ gave us on that night.

“A new commandment I give you,” he says; “love one another.” The focus of the Maundy Thursday service is on loving each other with God’s love, a perfect love, a love that is directed outward, towards the other. And we see this perfect love demonstrated through the washing of feet.

Now, there’s a connection to be drawn from this perfect love we see demonstrated at the Last Supper and the fear that permeates our lives. And I can think of no better way to express it than to quote this Bible verse, 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

Perfect love comes from our triune God, who has possessed and demonstrated this love for all eternity—each person of the Trinity towards the other two. And—here’s what amazes me most about all of this—we can actually possess this perfect love too. It is one of God’s so-called communicable attributes.

This is what it means, then, to live a resurrected life, to live new life in Christ Jesus: perfect love. Strive to possess it! Strive to live it out! Live out perfect love, a love that is Godward; a love that is others-focused; a love that doesn’t hesitate to wash someone else’s dirty, smelly feet.

And when you live out such a life of perfect love, without even realizing it you’ve cast out fear. It’s gone, just like that! You are no longer afraid of anything.

As the angel says, and as Christ reiterates: Do not be afraid! As Christ’s disciples, we have no reason to fear. Christ has already conquered death! We too have already conquered death; we are resurrected beings already! Death is already vanquished! Indeed, there is nothing more to fear.

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