Easter Day: Faith Through Fear

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

There’s a lot of fear in this Gospel.  Mary Magdalene and the other women are afraid they won’t be able to move the stone away from the entrance of the tomb where Jesus has been buried.  But then they see the stone already moved, and their fears change.  Stepping inside the cave-tomb, they see a young man—maybe an angel—and now they’re really scared. From him, they learn that Jesus is not there.  He has been raised and is going on ahead.  

The women stumble out of the tomb terrified, amazed, and fearful.  The scripture says that at first, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  But then an amazing thing happens, Mary Magdalene finds the other disciples and becomes the very first Christian preacher as she tells them what she has seen.  The other disciples don’t believe her, (They think she’s been smelling too many Easter lilies, or maybe she’s gotten into the poppies) but she keeps on. 

What’s happened to her fear?  Was it replaced by faith?  I don’t think so.  I think her faith surrounded her fear, the faithful fear and fearful faith commingled, and the two become an even more powerful witness to the risen Christ.

Throughout scripture people are confronted with angels, messengers from God, and on occasion, God himself, and each time the first words are “Do not be afraid.”  “Fear not.”  And so, on one hand, it’s clear that we’re not supposed to be full of fear, eaten up by it, paralyzed by it, defined by it.  

Sometimes FEAR can be that acronym some people use where F.E.A.R. represents Forget Everything and Run.

That’s one option. But if we think about the many times in scripture that God or an angel or Jesus says, “Fear not,” those words come in the midst of action that has already begun.  The person visited has NOT run away, but there’s STILL fear.  God says, “Don’t be afraid,” all the while, knowing, understanding, perhaps even sharing a little in our experience that even with faith, we may still have some fear. 

What this means, I think, is that God calls us not to be fearful, nor to be fear-less, but to be a little of both, to be fearsome.  

Fearsomeness is the quality of being able to cause fear, to instill fear, but it also carries with it a slight sense of one’s still being afraid. F.E.A.R. can also stand for Face Everything and Rise.

As a church, we’re called to be fearsome.  Even though so-called “organized religion” gets a lot of criticism, we can quietly and faithfully offer our experience.  In the face of corporate greed and economic amnesia, we can be speak out.  And if we aren’t heard at the ballot box, we can make the voice of faith heard at the cash register.  We can be fearsome, if we allow the Holy Spirit to ignite us.

As a parish, we’re called to be fearsome—to get more deeply involved in our community and city, to take on more creatively the issues that are on our front doorstep as well as on the other side of the world, and to try to be a parish that is open and welcoming to all, even when the souls that present themselves may not be exactly like us.

As individuals, we’re called to be fearsome.  Granted, I don’t sit at your desk and I don’t work with your colleagues, have your boss, or deal with neighbors, coworkers, inlaws, or family.  But I know this:  Fear can be a means of avoidance, and if we avoid too much of life, we’ll miss the miracles.   

In today’s New York Times, the Rev. Esau McCaulley articulates this idea of being fearsome as he ponders the place of faith and Easter as we move through the pandemic.  He writes

To listen to the plans of some, after the pandemic we are returning to a world of parties and rejoicing. This is true. Parties have their place. Let us not close all paths to happiness. But we are also returning to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. This period under pressure has freshly thrown into relief the fissures in the American experiment.

As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again. The weight of this work fills me with a terrifying fear, especially in light of all those who have done great evil in his name. Who is worthy of such a task? Like the women, the scope of it leaves me too often with a stunned silence.  (“The Unsettling Power of Easter,” New York Times, April 4, 2021)

We’re called to be fearsome with the love of Christ.  This resurrected love that faces down death itself can help us in the face of all our fears.  Asking Jesus for help, to hold on to us in the face of fear, is the first step. Then, after the first or second step, when we’re scared again, we can ask him to speak to those fears, and move us a little further ahead. And on, we go.

This is the life of faith—not in opposition to fear, but moving through fear, just like we move through joy, and sadness, and gratitude, and heartbreak—even through death—until we, with angels and archangels, saints and martyrs, all those we have every known and loved, the holy and unholy of every age, and—when we, too, experience Resurrection.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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