Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Matthew 28:1-10, 1 John 4:16b-21 ~
Have you ever been afraid? Feared for your life… health… child… country?
Then perhaps you noticed, in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, the words “fear” and “afraid” appear more than any others. Which isn’t surprising. I mean, imagine what it must have been like for the disciples. After following Jesus for three years, they saw him executed by crucifixion, a method used by the Roman Empire to terrorize and control the people. And it was quite effective, for the disciples were terrorized— and terrified. If the State had killed Jesus, who’d be next? Thus, they scattered. Except the women. Who were probably just as frightened but stayed with Jesus anyway, through his execution, death, burial preparation and entombment. Stayed until a great earthquake caused by an angel who looked like lightening rolled back the stone…
But let’s take a step back. None of us here is facing the wrath of the Romans (not to mention a glowing angel with a boulder!). And yet, we each have legitimate fears. So, what is yours? What is your biggest fear this morning?
I imagine there are as many as people in the pews. We each face our own unique version, perfectly fitted to our individual lives. For that’s what fear does. It finds something that really matters and latches on. Our children. Our health. Our livelihood. Our love relationship. Our social standing. Our most closely held beliefs.
Fear latches on, then makes us uncertain— not open and humble, but cynical, doubting, unable to trust or even hope. Fear cripples. It clips our wings.
And it was no different back then. Hence, in Matthew’s account, both the angel and Jesus reassure the women, telling them, “do not be afraid.” Though they probably had more to fear from that odious 1st century patriarchy than the guys who ran away! But, they didn’t. They didn’t run. And I wonder why. What protected those women, what protects us from the ravages of fear? What made it possible for them to act with courage, which is not the absence of fear but the ability to act intentionally in its presence?
Well, in biological terms, it’s our frontal lobe. Our well-developed cerebral cortex gives humans the power to override the incredibly strong signals of our limbic system. Even so, sometimes we’re able to use this power and sometimes we’re not. What is it that enables us to act with intention (rather than fight, flight or freeze) in the face of fear?
I think it’s belief. Or, rather, what we choose to believe. What we believe affects the way we feel and the way we behave. For instance: do we believe in love or judgment? Do we believe it’s “all on us” or that we can let go and let God (and others)? Do we believe in a universe that arcs toward justice or has no arc at all? Do we believe our lives matter? Do we believe all lives, with special emphasis on those who usually don’t, matter?
Let’s take a look at our second reading from 1st John (which, by the way, is not the same as the Gospel of John). In this short reading, the word, “fear,” appears multiple times as well. Three, to be exact. But the word “love” appears thirteen! And, there is, of course, symbolism in this ratio: Love is greater than fear. And if the numbers themselves don’t make the point, the author says it straight out: “there is no fear in love!”
There is no fear in love. But is this true? I mean, it sounds good. But is it how our brain works?
Yes. Not that the author of this first century text would have known about the cerebral cortex! However, he knew about belief and that actions arise from beliefs. So 1st John believes God is Love. In other words, God doesn’t just act in a loving manner, God is Love. And we’re called to abide or rest or let ourselves sink into this God, this Love. We’re called to believe in, put our trust in this Love. To know it is and will be there for us.
At the same time, God, by virtue of being Love, can only act with love. Thus, the author says, if we claim to follow this God, our actions must be loving as well. In other words, loving God without loving our fellow humans is meaningless. We’re called to Love a God who is Love and to put this Love into action by loving others.
Of course, the English language uses the same word, “love,” to cover a variety of different relationships. So, to clarify, “Love” in 1st John is not romantic or filial or even maternal/paternal love. It’s far greater and more powerful! It’s Love with no limits, Love so extravagant it embraces every single human that ever was and ever will be. Love beyond our capacity to imagine (though I’m asking us to try!). In this Love, this God, there is no fear. Nor is there hatred, loneliness, suffering, sorrow, pain, or even death. There’s not really even “you” or “me;” just “we.” We’re all One: one Body, one God, one Love.
There’s no fear in Love, because if we choose to believe in Love, if cast our lot with Love, if we take a leap into Love, there’s simply no room for fear. But, how do we do this? How do we “leap” into Love?
Well, back in the day, when I heard (or used) the term, “leap of faith,” I thought it meant faith in a classic and formulaic belief statement, like the Nicene Creed. Or, in some circles, an acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior, who died to save us from our sins. Yet, as I’ve traveled further on my own journey of faith, these formulas have become less meaningful to me. In part, because they focus on a different message than the one Jesus actually lived and taught.
Thus, I’ve arrived at an understanding that the leap of faith lived by Jesus was a leap into Love— God’s Love, God as Love. In an era defined by violence, power, oppression and betrayal (and, aren’t all eras?), he, simply and radically, chose love. Loving those whom others hated, discarded, or disdained. Preaching and practicing forgiveness. Reminding and then remonstrating that it’s not our job to judge. Distilling “all the law and the prophets” into two commandments: Love God, Love neighbor. Giving one final commandment before he died: Love one another.
And so, I believe the central Christian task is to love. Which means the central Christian belief is: we are loved by a God who is Love.
Can we do it? Can we choose to believe it?
Recently, I spent a week at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, participating in a program for adolescents who live with chronic illness and pain. Many of them have spent years going from one physician or treatment or test to another, always being told “this one” would cure them, or make them feel better, or tell them what’s wrong. All of them live with levels of fatigue and/or pain and/or other debilitating symptoms that would bring most of us to our knees.
Yet, at Mayo, despite the failures of former treatments, despite their well-earned feelings of cynicism, hopelessness and despair, these teens are asked to trust. They’re asked to set aside their skepticism and fear and give the program a chance—actually, more: to take a leap, commit to it, give it their all.
And what’s amazing is most of them do! After an initial period of distrust and distress, they take the leap. They do this hard thing. But why? How?
I suspect it’s Love. Or should I say, the Love connection. If any of these teens were in the program alone, they’d most likely quit after Day One. And if any of them were in the program without the support of parents who love them enough to make them go in the first place, they wouldn’t be there at all. These teens are able to endure three long hard weeks, because they not only have parents who love them enough to take a leap themselves, but also there are doctors and staff who embody Love in action and other teens with whom they can connect in solidarity, friendship and yes, Love. They tell (or text) one another, “You can do this hard thing. I’m doing it. You can, too.”
There’s another group of teens we’ve all heard of, because they’ve been so much in the news. They’re the survivors from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, inspired to action by the gun violence in their own community and across the country.
Last Saturday, at the March for Our Lives, there were over 800,000 people on the streets of DC demanding our politicians do something about gun violence and begging them to care more about children and young people than reelections or bank accounts. Perhaps you were there, or maybe you saw the video of one Parkland teen, Emma Gonzalez, who stood before this massive crowd and loved them into silence. She didn’t threaten. Though she’s been threatened. She didn’t bully. Though she’s been bullied. She didn’t vilify. Though she’s been vilified. She stood and spoke and then did not speak: for over six minutes. The length of time it took the shooter in her school to kill seventeen people. The length of time it took one person with access to “the sword” Jesus asked his followers to set down to terrorize an entire community. The length of time it took to galvanize a movement.
And, that’s where we end—and begin: with movement. Love in action. The opportunity to choose and then live according to Love. Because Easter is a movement. Easter is love in action. It’s about what happens when we believe our God is not just a God of Love but Love itself! It’s about what happens when we follow that God: Love our neighbors as ourselves. Love our enemies. Simply, Love one another!
It’s not easy, but it’s a leap we can make. Sure, we’re afraid. We’re human, after all. But, as we go from here to our Easter brunches and baskets and egg hunts and other fun and festive activities, I ask you to think about the women who stayed with Jesus, who chose Love over Fear, who allowed Love to cast out Fear. And, imagine: what if we took a leap into that sort of Love? Together. How might we change the world?