From Fear to Faith



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Scripture Reading:

Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1-8

16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


“From Fear to Faith”

Oddly enough, their steps were sure in the pale light that shifted just as the sun was coming up. It wasn’t that they didn’t stumble, because they did: their feet slipped now and again on the dew slicked dirt path, and once Salome cried out when her sandal caught on an exposed tree root, her frail voice drowned out by the sharp clink and clank of the jars that shuddered in her basket. Their steps were sure because they knew what came next: burial came after death. Their steps were sure because life after death unfolded in a predictable sequence of events. Death had its own protocol, its own unsurprising set of policies and procedures. When death comes, everyone knows what to do next, you engage in the small comforts of practiced ritual: wash the body, apply oils and spices, pray for an easing of the steady ache of grief, and try to go on with your life.

Mary Magdalene, and Mary, mother of James, and Salome didn’t know how life would go on after Jesus, but they were sure about what to do next, at least for the moment. They expected only a decent burial, the comfort of the familiar; that was all. So they did what they always did, gathering the ointments of death: heady spices and slick, sweet scented oils. Their routine of dealing with the dead had long ago been worked out; they knew the drill. Start with the head and work your way down. The particularities of this situation that concerned them were practical ones: would they be able to stand up in the tomb, or have to crawl in on their knees, would they go in one at a time or all together. They had worked out certain things ahead of time, Salome had agreed to pour oil into Jesus’ wounds: the raw hands and feet, the jagged tear in his side. Mary Magdalene had sobbed when she admitted that she just couldn’t handle that part. Salome was known for her cool head and strong stomach, “Don’t worry,” she assured Mary Magdalene, “I will take care of that.” But the one problem they could not puzzle out was the problem of the stone over the mouth of the burial cave. As they walked, they worried out loud to each other: “Who will roll away the stone?” If they themselves could not roll the huge bolder away from the entrance, then they could not give Jesus a decent burial. It was a small compensation indeed, but it was all they had, all they hoped for. The women expected a proper burial after death, nothing more.

But suddenly, the light went all funny and their eyes seemed to be playing tricks on them and they stared hard at the stone that lay, not over the mouth of the tomb, as they expected, but off to the side at a crazy angle. And Mary Magdalene bent over and leaned into the perilous cold of the tomb and she came back out so fast she hit her head and stood there swaying, suddenly completely uncertain about what came next. The tomb was empty of its dead body. They were hoping only for the small comfort of a decent burial for their friend. They didn’t expect resurrection.

What are you hoping for on this Easter morning? What are you expecting? Do you believe that life will go on as usual after today’s service? Sometimes we arrive at church on Easter morning hoping for small comforts. We hope the sanctuary will be as beautiful as it was last year, and we expect the music to be amazing. We hope the sermon won’t be too boring or the service too long. Perhaps we hope for small rewards of the usual rituals that give us comfort and provide structure for our lives. Perhaps our expectations of our faith have shrunk, and we’re happy to settle for these small rewards. An insight here, a glimmer of hope there, a soothing word to calm our anxiety for a time, we’d settle for anything that will help us to get through the night. Do you come to church on Easter morning expecting things your life to go on as usual after church, or do you expect your world to be turned upside down and your vision of things to be radically altered? You tell me.

In her book, Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher writes about her own struggle to believe in the truth of the resurrection in her life, to integrate its power to radically change her from the inside out. “Belief and disbelief in the resurrection trade places in my heart like ‘watchmen taking shifts,’” Gallagher writes. “I’ve known for years that even those words- ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ – don’t really describe what I think when I think about the resurrection. Something happened to Jesus, is the way I put it to myself. Something happens to me.” As the gospel resurrection story is read in her church on Easter morning, Nora relates how it impacted her. “I watch the light falling on the acolyte’s fair hair,” she writes. “Very suddenly, so suddenly I take a sharp breath, the story moves into me.” She writes that she had a fight with her husband before church that morning, and as she hears the story of the resurrection read, she reflects on how hard it is to change her patterns of relating. She speaks of the resurrection as God’s ability to help her change, to live and function differently. In a reference to this morning’s gospel lesson, Gallagher says “Often it was easier, less frightening, just to slip back into the painful but familiar past. If I had been with those women (who went to the tomb on Easter morning) I think today, I would have wanted to drop my spices and run. Not because I was afraid of those dazzling suits, but because I was afraid of that new life. He is not here… but has risen.”

Mark’s gospel originally ended with verse 8, with the women running away in fear and silence. The early church tacked on the longer ending with a resurrection appearance as if to neaten up this murky ending. Originally, this gospel ends in uncertainty. In some translations, Mark’s gospel actually ends in mid-sentence. “They were frightened for…” We can fill in the blank. It is almost as if we are asked to complete the ending of the story ourselves. The women in Mark’s gospel came to the tomb with low expectations, not knowing that their life was about to be radically altered. I think Mark’s ending is true to our response to resurrection. Fear. The resurrection of Jesus demands something of us. Nora Gallagher writes “Whether or not I believe in the resurrection makes no difference if I don’t make a different life. We are the ongoing story.” Resurrection changes us, even when our expectations of it are low.

The women came to the tomb of Jesus looking for the small comfort of burying their friend, but they got new life instead. Salome laid her hand on the huge stone that had sealed the entrance to the tomb, not noticing how cold it was. She turned and looked at Mary Magdalene, her eyes wide with disbelief. The other Mary dropped to her knees as if to crawl into the tomb, but just stayed where she was instead. The man in the white robe leaned forward slightly and whispered “Don’t be afraid.” (Now where have we heard that before?) He tone was kind and he spoke the words slowly, as if they were small children who might not understand unless he made himself perfectly clear. “I know you’re looking for Jesus, the Nazarene, the one they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now, on your way,” he said, with a brisk wave of his hand. “And by the way, tell his disciples, will you, that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

The women couldn’t move fast enough, falling over themselves as they backed away from the tomb, Salome’s jar of oil smashing as it slipped from her hands and hit the ground. Stunned, their heads swimming, they turned and ran as fast as they could back to their old lives, back to the familiar. All they wanted was the small comfort of a decent burial, but what they got instead was resurrection.

We are given a fright on this Easter morning. Perhaps we want to think of Easter only in terms of the promise of Eternal Life. But the promise is much more shattering than that. The promise of Easter is also that we will be given new lives. We will be given new selves. The old patterns, the old ways of being in the world, the old habits and addictions and ways we limit ourselves have no more power over us. Someone said that with the resurrection, we are doomed to happiness. I think it’s more serious than that: we are doomed to joy. Joy with its unpredictable appearances and life changing force. With resurrection, we get more than we bargained for. Our world is simply turned upside down. And we run like the wind, because it scares us to death.

And so it is Easter afternoon. The church service is over and you have returned home where life goes on as usual. You stand in the living room staring out the window down the tree-lined street, the smell of the baking Easter ham filling the air and the tune of that last hymn you sang in church running through your head. As you stand there looking out the window for the car that will bring your extended family to your house, you wonder if your father will drink too much or if your aunt will tell the same stories she always tells or if the kids will behave or if the teenagers will sulk or if your mother will ignore your partner as she always does. You wonder if you made the right decision about that complicated problem at work or if you will even still have a job after Memorial Day. You wonder if that dull ache in the pit of your stomach that sometimes haunts you at 3:00 a.m. will return. You wonder if you can ever really make the changes in your life that you want to make. You wonder about a lot of things.

The sunlight streams through the greening trees and into the room and as you turn, you suddenly feel frozen in time. You sense that you hear the whispering of Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome as they approach the tomb, you sense that someone is there, someone who is waiting to see how you will choose to spend the rest of your life. The early spring light cuts through the dancing dust motes and for just a second you think you see someone standing there, someone dressed in a white robe, his hand on a large, grey stone, a stone whose weight you know in your soul. Or is it just your imagination? For an instant, you think of all that longs to be transformed in you, all that chains you to the past, all that begs to be made new. You realize that you have no idea what God may be asking of you or offering you. You realize that you have no idea of what lies ahead of you. But there is something so compelling about this presence, you may feel only fear, but for once you know that God means only love. A car door slams and someone calls your name from the other room, and you lift your eyes to meet those of the presence who stands waiting before you. Then the doorbell rings and everything is normal again, but something is different inside, you feel that subtle shift from fear to faith. For now you know in your bones that a new life awaits you, a life in which you are doomed to joy. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. AMEN.



  • Rev. Nancy Willbanks