On Maundy Thursday students from Hunter Valley Grammar School were here in church for a visit as part of the religious studies programme. They have been studying the writings and the life of Saint Paul, and we spent time together exploring not only the beauty and the symbolism of this building, but also Saint Paul’s message. In amongst our conversation I invited them to reflect on the life of Saint Paul not only as a letter writer – for which he is probably best known – but more significantly for his work as one of the greatest missionaries of the history of the Christian Church.
Of course what is true of Saint Paul, is true also of the first Apostles, the disciples who had travelled with and lived alongside Jesus, and who became the first Apostles of the Church. It is extraordinary to think that because of these men, and the women companions who travelled with them – because of them, we are able to be here today. This beautiful church building, the faith that nourishes us, the good that the Christian Church has done down through the centuries – all of this has been possible only because those first followers of Jesus (his disciples, the women, Saint Paul) were willing to risk their lives to share what we celebrate today with others. It is extraordinary that here on the other side of the world, nearly 2,000 years later, we even know about, let alone fashion our lives around the story of Jesus.
We will find this even more extraordinary if we stop on this Easter Morning, to place ourselves in the shoes of the first disciples on the first Easter Morning, because on that morning Jesus’ followers had no idea what was going on. Almost everyone had deserted Jesus. The great crowds who had shouted Hosanna as he rode into Jerusalem: they had no idea what was going on either. Later, their cries turned to ‘crucify him, crucify him’. The thousands in Galilee who had hung on his words and celebrated his miracles: they were just a distant memory. Most of Jesus’ closest disciples had run away, just as Jesus had said they would, rather than face the end. Judas Iscariot had betrayed him to the religious authorities. Peter, the chosen one, the so-called rock, had denied three times he ever knew Jesus. He was to hear the cock crow, and, remembering, go out to weep bitterly. Perhaps only Mary his Mother and John his beloved disciple had stayed with him to the very end, and a few others who crept out to give his body a hasty burial.
Where had they all gone, when they fled for their lives? Most of them went to hide in the Upper Room, the safe place in Jerusalem, where they had eaten the Last Supper. The Roman authorities would deal with any threat to their power ruthlessly. So they fled and locked themselves in, terrified that they too might be arrested and crucified. After a little time, some of them hoped to sneak away, back to Galilee, back to obscurity. It was all over. Their high hopes of a new and godly rule overcoming the Romans and re-establishing an independent Israel had come to nothing. What was there left to do? Slip away hoping not to be noticed. They were all afraid.
It is clear from the Gospels, that the women amongst Jesus’ closest followers had more guts than the men. They could do nothing but weep on the Sabbath. But early on Easter morning, they crept out before dawn to honour the body properly, despite the risks of being singled out by the Roman authorities of being associated with him. They crept out in order to anoint his body decently with spices and herbs. At least he deserved that, the man they had trusted and loved but whom they must have seen now as a misguided failure. They took the risk of leaving their safe place in the Upper Room. But they were terrified too.
Most of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are surrounded by amazement, terror, fear and confusion.
Saint Mark gives the earliest Gospel account that we still have today. There may have been even earlier depictions that have now been lost, but we still have his. He tells us that Mary Magdalene, with the other women, came early to the tomb. As they walked together, they wondered who would roll away the stone in front of the tomb in order for them to have access to the body. But when they got there, they found the stone already rolled away and a young man in white sitting inside the tomb. Saint Mark tells us they were amazed, frightened: when the young man had told them that Jesus was not there because he had risen, they went away trembling with fear.
Saint Matthew recognises the fear. In his account of this history-changing moment the first words of the angel to the women are ‘do not be afraid’. But they run away. Then suddenly Jesus meets them. His first words too are, ‘do not be afraid. Go and tell my disciples’.
Saint Luke tells us that the women go and tell the disciples what they have seen and heard, but the disciples, still living in the raw shock of all that has taken place dismiss the story as nonsense. When Jesus appears to them in the Upper Room, still locked for fear of the authorities, they are startled and terrified and think they are seeing a ghost, until he reassures them and eats some fish with them.
The account from Saint John’s Gospel that we have just heard proclaimed on this Easter morning, told us of the beloved disciple’s hesitation before going into the tomb. He fears what he will find. We hear of Mary Magdalene’s overwhelming sadness as she stands by the tomb weeping. Do not be afraid, says the angel. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. But of course they are.
The disciples have at least three good reasons to be afraid. They are afraid for their lives. At any moment they could be arrested, tried and condemned to a dreadful death. They fear an uncertain future, the unexpected, the unknown. They must also know that they have let Jesus down; they feel guilty and ashamed, and fear at least his disappointment, if not something worse.
There are good reasons in this life to doubt, to be of little faith, and good reasons to be afraid. Many people in our world face the future with uncertainty, and fear the unexpected, the unknown. Many people in our world live with the effects of the harm others have done to them or the harm they have done to themselves and others. Many people in our world suffer the effects of violence and insurrection, the loss of homes and livelihoods, the breakdown of familiar landmarks and the loss of civilisation, the effects of terrorism, both directly and indirectly, the suffering and death of children and parents, relations and friends.
Into the reality of this fear and suffering, we hear the words of Jesus. Do not be afraid. The Jesus who speaks these words to us today speaks with authority. He has faced his own fear. ‘Father, let this cup pass me by. Yet not my will but yours be done.’ This is the apparently defeated and dejected Jesus who was betrayed and denied, flogged and mocked, nailed to the Cross, and left to die. This is the Jesus who experienced so powerfully not only his physical suffering but also the spiritual agony of separation from his loving Father, who cried out on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This same Jesus, who suffered and died, is the Jesus whose resurrection from the dead we celebrate today.
There may be good reasons for fear. And the fear reaction in humans and other creatures exists to protect us. But Jesus says to us, do not be afraid.
His Beloved Disciple was later to acknowledge the one thing that can and does drive away fear. ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’ Perfect love casts out fear. The only perfect love is God’s love, God’s love so intense, so powerful, so creative. God’s love for the creation and for humanity, the love that conquers sin and death, the love that brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ: God’s love is what makes fear almost irrelevant, robs it of any real meaning.
It took a little time, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, that first group of Jesus’ disciples who had locked themselves away fearing for their lives became the ones who risked everything, even death itself, to proclaim to the whole world that their beloved Lord and Saviour was truly alive. Were it not for them and the power of what they proclaimed, we would not be here. If they had stayed in the Upper Room in fear, or if they are stayed there keeping the good news of Jesus only for themselves, we would never have known about it. The world would never have known about it.
Saint Paul says, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is true. Hear these words of hope again this morning, because they are words for me and for you. We follow in the footsteps of the disciples, of Saint Paul, out of the confusion, out of the safety of the Upper Room, to share this message of new life and resurrection with others.
Do not be afraid. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!