The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
April 16, 2017
Easter Year A
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Welcome, everyone, to this feast of Christ’s resurrection. It does not matter who you are, where you are from, or what you believe: you are welcome here. This is the most important celebration of the Christian year, and as followers of the same Jesus who loved everyone and commanded us to love one another, it is the joy and privilege of Christians on Easter to welcome every single person here. If this is your first time here or if it’s been a while, please know this: we loved you before we met you, and now that you’re here, our joy is complete. It does not matter if you are devoutly Christian, devoutly something else, just trying to figure it all out…or just here because someone else made you come. We love you no matter if you are sad or feeling good, gay or trans, rich or struggling to make ends meet, if you are undocumented, if you grieving or broken hearted or just plain feeling yourself this morning. You are most welcome. And to our Jewish brothers and sisters, Chag Sameach. Thank you for bringing your Passover celebration into this house of worship.
That empty tomb on the first Easter morning was open for everyone to see—not just a privileged few. The miracle of the resurrection does not belong to Christians or church-goers any more than the sky belongs to pilots or the seas to scuba divers. This ancient story we read this morning is vast and eternal. It is the foundation of faith in Jesus, and everything Christians think about God and how we should act in the world is based on it. Listen: if you’ve ever heard someone say that to be a Christian you have to have this opinion or hate that group of people or pass judgment on this person or follow that rule—just forget all that nonsense. The life of the Spirit is to follow this Jesus in his life spent preaching and practicing love toward all people, through his suffering, which we all share, and arrive at this day, wounded, yet full of new life.
And on this journey from death to life, there is a great revelation that rings out this Easter morning. It gives shape to our faith and teaches us to look for new life even when it seems far off. It is something you and I can begin to practice right now as we endeavor to be formed into an Easter people. The open tomb proclaims this: that joy conquers fear. Always and in all circumstances. Even in the darkest hour, we must believe: joy conquers fear.
First a word about joy. The Gospel of Matthew says that the women who discovered the empty tomb were overcome with emotion. When the angel announced to them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they left to go tell the disciples, and the text says they left with “fear and great joy.” So it was a mixture. And that’s what true joy is—it makes you just a little bit afraid.
Joy that doesn’t make you tremble just a little bit isn’t joy. That’s happiness. And Jesus never promised us happiness.
Happiness can be bought, or sold. Happiness can be induced through chemicals or experiences. Happiness really does feel good. But it’s just a cloud in the sky, a leaf floating on the river. It is a fleeting moment. That doesn’t stop us from chasing after happiness. In fact, much of our consumer society is structured around, well, the pursuit of happiness.
The women at the tomb were not happy when they learned Jesus was alive. Instead, they were filled with great joy, the kind of joy that is so overwhelming, so brilliant, so all-consuming that it’s almost a little bit scary. That’s joy. Joy permeates every part of your being. Joy springs from and endless well. Joy is what gives us the strength to face the challenges of life. Joy is what makes every new phase of life a chance to grow. Jesus preached joy at every turn…and brought joy to those who loved him even after he died. Remember: joy conquers fear.
So now a word about fear. The women at the tomb might have felt some fear mixed with their joy, but they weren’t the only ones. In fact, every single person in this story is afraid! Those poor guards—they are so afraid that they started shaking and, the Gospel says, became like dead men. But this isn’t a surprise to the angel, which is why the first words out of his mouth are, “do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. Jesus says it over and over again. Long before his death and resurrection, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear. Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Later, when his friends are caught in a boat during a storm, they see him walking on water—and it freaks them out. It’s at that moment that Jesus says, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
There are so many things for us to be afraid of. As someone who has suffered from anxiety all his life, I could keep you here all morning with a list of things to be afraid of. There are the daily fears—the ones Jesus talks about in that Sermon on the Mount. How will I pay the bills? What’s going on with my job? What about my family? Even when you have those fears under control, scratch the surface and you’ll find some more. Because the deeper your encounter with life, the more unsettling it can be. Here are some of my fears right now:
What on earth is going on with our society and who have we become as a people?
Will this city be underwater in 50 years?
I am blessed to have food and shelter today—but what about the 2.7 billion people who will live on less than two dollars today?
And then there is the ultimate fear, the one that looms over us all yet is hard to comprehend. One day, this life will end for all of us. If you don’t think that the fear of death is a powerful force in the world, just take a look around you. Because we fear death, we consume vast resources to remind us we are still alive. Because we fear our own death, we become comfortable with the deaths of others, whether just or unjust. Because we fear death, we consent to strong powers that make unrealistic promises in a moment of catharsis to distract us from this, our greatest of fears.
God knows all these fears, from the smallest anxiety to the largest, most gripping terror. And that is why God leaves no fear unanswered—even the fear of the grave. Jesus entered the tomb and emerged again. Life will always be more powerful than death. Joy conquers fear.
The senior member of All Saints’ Church is a remarkable woman named Vera Crane. She is 103 years old. She lived in Park Slope from the late 1920’s until just this fall, when she moved to New Jersey to be closer to her family. I have never spent time with her when she wasn’t able to express some kind of joy. I was very sad the day she left her apartment on 14th Street. So was she, and in that moment, I think she sensed my fear of losing her. So she looked at me in the eye and she said, “death is no big deal. It happens to everyone.” We both laughed. We said a prayer, and we went on our separate ways. Because of her faith, because of her mastery of even the deepest of human fears, Vera held on to joy—and in the process, let me have some of hers too.
Friends and neighbors, Christ is risen, and with him, all our fears are cast out. He has set us free to live joyfully. Because we have nothing to fear, we can spend our days walking in love, just as he did. Our vocation as human beings is to love God with all we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. A life of compassion for all people and things is a fearless and joyful life. And on this holiest of mornings, I bid you to acknowledge with me that the empty tomb beckons us to such a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Joy conquers fear. Always and everywhere.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!