Do not be afraid

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.

Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day.

Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

-Matthew 27:57-28:1-10 

Good morning, Friends! Happy Easter!

Easter is a very simple story. Jesus rose from the dead.

There were lots of different witnesses to the resurrection – people who saw and responded to Easter in different ways. They all tell us the same basic message – the empty tomb, the risen Christ. But people met Jesus in so many different ways.

There was Mary, who met Jesus in the garden. She had come expecting to wrap Jesus in spices and linen. Instead, she found that the tomb was empty. She asked a man she thought was the gardener where they had taken Jesus. But when she heard the voice, she knew it was him.

Then there were the two guys who met Jesus walking along down a country road on the afternoon of Easter. They walked together with him all day. They didn’t know it was him till he sat down and broke bread with them.

There was the unamed disciple, the one who Jesus loved, who went running to the cemetery in the gray of early dawn. There was Peter, who ran to the tomb with him and found it empty, and went home wondering what it all meant.

In today’s reading, there were the guards, who testified that Jesus must have been the Son of God.

But there was one more witness, one we’re not so familiar with, who we only get to know here in Matthew’s gospel.

When Jesus died, someone had to take his body down and bury him. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? The one who took care of that was a man named Joseph of Arimathea.

Joseph of Arimathea was actually a pretty important guy. From the different gospels, we know that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council. The gospels also say that Joseph was a rich man, that he was respected, that he was a good and just person.

We don’t usually spend much time on Joseph of Arimathea. We want to get on to the good stuff. But Joseph turns out to be one of the central characters of the resurrection story.

One gospel says that Joseph was “looking for the kingdom of God.” Mark says that Joseph didn’t go along with the others and didn’t consent when the high council voted to put Jesus to death. John says that Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus, who didn’t dare to come out in public because he was afraid.

In any case, Joseph went to the Roman governor, Pilate, and he asked for the body of Jesus. That probably took a lot of courage. Jesus had just been killed that very day. Joseph was really sticking his neck out. Everybody else had run away. It was open season on disciples right then.

But Joseph asked for the body of Jesus, and took the body himself, and wrapped it up for burial. It was a very intimate and personal thing for Joseph to do. I don’t know how any of us would have handled that assignment. It meant that Joseph saw, clearly and at closer range than anyone else, just how terribly Jesus had been beaten, how he had suffered, and what the soldiers had done to him.

All the other gospels say that Joseph laid the body of Jesus in a tomb or a vault cut out of the solid rock. Matthew adds the detail that this was Joseph’s own personal tomb, which Joseph had set aside to be used for himself when he died.

If anyone had reason to despair that Friday evening, it was Joseph. He knew Jesus. In private, he accepted Jesus’ teachings. And in private, he believed who Jesus was. But he was too afraid to say so in public.

Now it was too late. Jesus had been betrayed, and arrested. Joseph sat by, scared, while they ran Jesus through a kangaroo court that broke every rule of Jewish trial procedure. Joseph didn’t have the courage to speak out.

Too often, we’re like Joseph. We find our courage only after it’s too late. It’s not that we’re bad people, any more than Joseph was. But we wait till it’s too late to speak out, or to do anything. That’s one of the worst feelings there is. It happens so often – that cycle of fear, and being paralyzed, and despair.

I don’t know that fear killed Jesus. I think that hate was really responsible for Jesus’ death. But fear was part of what made it possible.

So Joseph laid Jesus’ body in the tomb, and he rolled a great big stone over the entrance, and then he went home. That’s the last we hear of Joseph, for the rest of the Bible. We don’t know anything more about his story.

What did Easter mean to Joseph? If anyone ever had a reason to feel like a failure, he certainly did.

I wonder how Joseph felt, as he laid the body of Jesus in the tomb – the tomb that Joseph had bought for himself. Did he feel love? Or pain? Or grief? How did he feel?

This point is important, because we all have things we regret. We all have parts of our lives where we have closed the door, where we feel things are dead and gone. Just like Joseph, who rolled a big stone against the door of the tomb, to seal it, and went home.

He probably felt grief, and fear, and shame. All those things are natural to feel, when something terrible has gone wrong. He probably felt horror, and shock, and disbelief that something like this could happen. I’m sure he felt guilty that he hadn’t done anything to stop Jesus’ execution.

I wonder what Joseph thought, when word came to him that Christ – Christ who he, Joseph, had laid in his very own tomb – had risen from the dead? Of all the people who were there that first Easter morning, Joseph seems to me to have had the biggest turnaround to make.

Peter didn’t change that much. Peter always had a big heart. Peter was capable of great faith – if Peter was in a boat, he’d jump overboard if Jesus told him to. When Peter made mistakes, he made big mistakes. But he always got the important things right.

Mary didn’t change all that much. She had loved Jesus before, and after the resurrection, she still loved him.

But Joseph – Joseph had to have been changed. More than anyone else, Joseph knew that Jesus was dead. And more than anyone else, Joseph knew how impossible Easter was. Christ rose from Joseph’s own grave.

No matter what happened, for the rest of Joseph’s life, nothing would have been the same again. Even if Joseph was afraid now and then, after Easter morning fear could never have the same grip on him, ever again. If Jesus was alive, then the very foundation of Joseph’s fears had to be completely overturned.

What if everything that Jesus said about the life that goes on forever is true? What if Jesus meant what he said, when he told us our sins are forgiven? What if all those teachings about love and mercy are real?

The angel on Easter morning said, “Do not be afraid. . .he is not here, for he has risen. . .come, see the place where he lay.” Can we imagine what those words meant to Joseph?

What if we laid Christ to rest in our own tomb, in the place where we despair and give up, the place of our deepest fear, the place of our own loss and disappointment?

We all have places where we say, “I give up! This is it. I’m done.” We all have places where we say, “I just don’t dare to speak up. I’d lose everything!”

What if Easter means that Christ rises from the sealed graves in our own lives?

What if Easter means that the closed doors have burst open, and that Christ has overcome death in our own places of deepest despair?

What if Easter means we never have to be afraid, ever again?

Remember all the times in the Bible where an angel says: “Do not be afraid!” Those are the same words which God spoke to Abraham. “Do not be afraid!” That’s what God said to Moses. “Do not be afraid!” The angel said those words to Mary, before Jesus was even born. They’re the same words the angel said to the shepherds.

Over and over again, so many times in the Bible, God tells us, “Do not be afraid!” God says, “I am with you, I will never leave you, I will guide you, I will uphold you.”

The early Christians heard the Easter story and they took it personally. They heard about Joseph of Arimathea and they all identified with him. Not only was Jesus alive, but Jesus had risen from their own graves, from the places of their deepest fear.

I’m sure the early Christians were still afraid at times. But they were willing to go anywhere, if Christ was with them. Into danger, into prison, into strange places they’d never been before. They witnessed to their neighbors. They got called on the carpet before governors and officials. Nothing could silence them.

“He is going on ahead of you. You will see him. . .”

Those are the promises of Easter. Wherever we go, Christ is there ahead of us. No matter how bad it gets, Jesus has been here first, and Jesus has been through worse. Any place that’s strange or scary, he’s already there. Any time we don’t know what to say, his own Spirit will give us the words.

Those promises are what give us our faith. Easter marks the place where we don’t have to be afraid any more. Not in our own lives, not in our church, not in our community. Christ has overcome even death itself. What can we be afraid of, ever again?

Listen to the angel’s words one last time:

“I know that you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here – he has risen, just as he said! He’s going on ahead of you. You will see him!”

Today is Easter. Christ has risen. Do not be afraid. Come and see for yourselves

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