Moving Beyond Fear: Easter 2020


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

Texts: Psalm 116; Mark 16: 1–8

      Yesterday was an absolutely beautiful day. With the sun beckoning me outside and the garden begging me to take notice of what yet needed to be done, I put aside my original plans to put my study in order – seriously, though I can always do that when it rains. People walking by moved to the other side of the street; even the people I know seemed reluctant to respond to a “good morning” or “what a beautiful day” as if word from across a street would infect them.

        I had noticed this behavior on Wednesday when I went for a walk, people not just moving over to the other side of the street but an enforced isolation even in speaking, responding to a simple “hello.” And it isn’t like one has to shout on a residential street. It seems like the fear of any human contact has taken over our lives.

        The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us into the realization that, ultimately, we really have very little, if any, control over our lives. And this sense of loss of control has created not just fears of predictable dangers but the kind of generalized fear that we cannot seem to escape. This fear is driving our response to forces in society beyond our control, such as illness, and, of course, the ultimate question of our own death. 

      Death is the great unknown. Although we read about near death experiences, none of us know someone who has actually returned from the dead to tell us what actually lies beyond the grave. We depend on religion to tell us that. In fact, the burial of the dead is the earliest evidence of religious belief. The graves of Quetzah located in modern Israel date from 130,000 years ago, and recently discovered evidence of the now extinct Neanderthals from more than 40,000 years ago demonstrate that we humans treat our dead in ways different than non-human animals, including other primates. And our treatment of our dead is based primarily on our religious belief system, on our faith.

        Throughout history we humans have tried to placate the Other, the Divine, the Holy, that power that seems to have control over our lives. We have created gods and the idols that represent them; we have striven to placate those forces we believe have control over our lives through religious ceremonies and even human sacrifice. We have been and continue to be at our deepest level afraid of the ultimate unknown – death. Religious doctrine and practice have developed largely in response to that fear. 

       Moving beyond our fear into an experience of faith is what Easter is all about. Easter speaks to our deep desire to know that we need not fear the grave. In our modern world we think that the process of moving beyond fear is a process of gaining control, but the question is: what is it that we actually gain control over?  

       We mouth the words that love conquers death but what does that really mean for us? How is it that our experience – note I use the word experience, not belief – our experience of Easter shape our lives?  Belief is an intellectual exercise; our experience, however, is something deeper than merely our intellectual assent to a theology. 

       All of us here have lost someone we loved, whether a husband, a parent, a grandparent, a friend. What should control our experience of loss is our experience of our continuing love for those persons lost to us. In many cases we feel the continuing love that we actually had for those persons who have died. In other cases, we sense a presence we cannot explain in words. 

        In our Gospel reading this morning, the three women go to the tomb where Jesus' body was buried to anoint it with spices. This practice was part of the Jewish burial ritual of the day. The bodies of the dead were first washed, anointed with oil, and then wrapped in linen bands with spices such as myrrh, called the bitter perfume. Then several days later more spices would be added as the body began to decompose. 

       In the first century, the time of Jesus, family members would return to the tomb on the one-year anniversary of the death, wash the bones and place them in an ossuary, a container made of limestone, for final burial. This would mark the end of the official mourning period. Modern Jewish mourning practice reflects this practice in the unveiling of the gravestone on the first anniversary of the death of the deceased.

        In Jerusalem where the Western churches celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection pilgrims traditionally have thronged the Church of the Resurrection, an enormous structure containing two of the sites holy to traditional believers. The first is Golgotha, the mount on which Jesus was crucified. 

        Just several hundred feet away is an edicule, an enclosed shrine traditionally held to be the place of the tomb. Unlike the rest of the huge structure which is usually filled with people, people enter this place in a single file and are in the room with the slab alone for about 10 seconds. The original fourth-century church and its neighboring church dedicated to the Crucifixion had been demolished in the early eleventh century by one intolerant ruler only to be rebuilt by another twenty years later. 

        Final reconstruction, however, was slow and painful primarily due to the infighting between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. As with the Church of the Nativity, the site and building are primarily occupied by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic churches with a small Coptic Orthodox chapel. 

        As overwhelming as the church was when I visited Jerusalem, it is in the places where I share God's love that I experience the underlying truth of the Resurrection we celebrate today. And I believe that it is in our daily lives of giving to others that we experience that truth. 

        The women who came to anoint the body with spices were doing more than simply fulfilling their religious obligations. They were women who had seen their lives and the lives of others transformed through the ministry of the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The account in Mark is the earliest account we have of the empty tomb. 

         Prior to this account, written some 35 to 40 years after the event, we only have Paul's testimony in his letter to the Galatians. Variations of the empty tomb story in later accounts vary from this one. But although faith cannot ignore history, ultimately faith is based on our own experiences.

         Our faith is based on our experience of God's love as shown through Jesus of Nazareth who was transformed into something that we do not fully grasp but of which we have only indications. Mark's Gospel tells us that the women who went to the tomb that day were seized with terror and amazement and fled from the tomb. 

        Had any of us been there, I imagine we all would have responded in much the same way. But following this terror and amazement, as the other Gospels tell us, Jesus' followers came to realize that something had truly changed. And they were transformed by their experience. As a result, they were willing to go out and preach the new way that Jesus calls us to live. They risked all and most paid with their lives. They had moved beyond their fear.

        Moving beyond our fear does not mean we have erased those fears but that we have learned to overcome them in a new and different way. It means that we have internalized our experience of God's love to such a degree that we take on the challenge of being the face of God through Christ in the world in spite of the consequences we might face. 

        People die as they have lived. When we live moving beyond fear, we die in much the same way for we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God for that love is with us now and forever. Amen.