Goodbye Guilt, Goodbye Fear, Good Riddance

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, March 22nd and St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church, March 23rd (Easter Vigil and the Sunday of the Resurrection)

“To see Christ is to see God and all of humanity. This mystery has evoked in me a burning desire to see the face of Jesus.” These words of Henri Nouwen begin a chapter on his experience of Andrew Rublev’s icon of Christ – an icon which Nouwen says has brought him “closer than any work of art to ‘seeing Christ.’” But, even for all the time he has spent looking at this icon, he admits, it will never be enough, because, “in the presence of this holy face I am still blind.”[1]
The Gospel reading for Easter morning – no matter which gospel we hear it from – always tells of the women’s first encounter with the risen Christ. Each gospel differs slightly in the details, but Matthew’s gospel takes the cake for the being the most sensational.

“And suddenly, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”[2]

If all three gospels were filmed, Matthew’s would no doubt receive the award for the best special effects.

Playing favorites is probably poor form and yet, I really do prefer Matthew’s account – and not just for the special effects! It just seems that Matthew gets the drama right. In the first place, in light of the earthquake and the unexpected appearance of an angel, the guards are so afraid they begin to shake and then pass out cold. The women are also afraid though they manage to keep their heads about them. Fear and trembling in the face of an earthquake and an angel are not particularly surprising – you and I would likely react similarly (I suspect I’d be out cold with the guards!). But then, as the story continues, the angel of the Lord tells the women that their Master, their friend, is not dead – “'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”[3] “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”[4]

In Frederick Neidner’s reflection on this passage in The Christian Century he asks us to consider how we might react if a recently deceased loved one were to appear before us. I imagined my grandmother and grandfather once again sitting in their recliners in their condo in Vero Beach, Grandpa repeating something they had both just heard on the television and Grandma responding, as if on cue, “how ‘bout that?” And, if I were there to witness this exchange once again, I imagine I’d be overjoyed. But Neidner’s reflection called me up short because he continued,

“When we die, most of our sins die with us. When someone else dies, so do the wrongs held in secret between us. Should a loved one return from the grave, memories of our failings as parents, spouses, and other shameful specters would once again walk the earth.”[5]

Perhaps if my grandparents returned they would instead remind me of the times that I didn’t call them, didn’t send them letters or cards, didn’t come to visit.

So this morning, we have an image of the guards outside the tomb of Jesus. Why were they there? What were they protecting? Perhaps they were worried about the possibility of body-snatchers - thieves who would take the body away in the night and claim that a miraculous resurrection had occurred. Or, perhaps, as Niedner suggests, they were instead guarding against the possibility that he would, in fact, rise from the dead and stand before them in judgement – or worse, seeking revenge. For the guards taunted and mocked Jesus in his final hours, the guards cast lots for his clothes – if Jesus truly were to rise from the dead, they would have a lot to account for. And what of the disciples? Those not-so-faithful followers of Jesus who in his final days and hours were unable to stay awake with him in the garden, who betrayed him, denied him, and ultimately locked themselves in a room out of fear? They too might have reason to fear Jesus’ return.

And here is the great miracle of that Easter morning: suddenly the risen Jesus meets the women and says, “Greetings! . . . Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”[6] He calls them “brothers.” He does not call them traitors. He does not call them cowards. He does not call them liars nor does he accuse them of abandoning him in his hour of need. No, he calls them “brothers.” All of their sins have been buried in the grave. Jesus returns, but their sins do not. And the promise of the resurrection for you and for me? Brothers and sisters, all of our sins – those things we have done and those things we have left undone – all of it - buried in the tomb forever.

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Wausau, Wisconsin, several of us would gather each year at sunrise on Easter morning on the top of Rib Mountain. Nick Smith would play his guitar and we would all sing this Avery and Marsh song,

Ev’ry morning is Easter morning from now on.
Ev’ry day’s a resurrection day, the past is over and gone.
Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear; good riddance!
Hello, Lord! Hello, sun!
I am one of the Easter people. My new life has begun!

Today, I imagine the two Mary’s as Jesus greets them. Their fear evaporates because now they see the face of Christ. Returning finally to the Rublev’s icon of Christ, Henri Nouwen writes,

“It seems as if Jesus comes down from his throne, touches our shoulders and invites us to stand up and look at him. His handsome, open face evokes love, not fear. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us. . . . We still feel awe, but it is an awe enriched by joy, the same joy that filled the disciples when they recognized their risen Lord.”[7]

“Awe enriched by joy” – fear evaporates, we stand up, and we see a face of compassion, of forgiveness, and of love. And, from now on, every day is a resurrection day, the past is over and gone.

[1] Henri Nouwen, “The Icon of the Savior of Zvenigorod: Seeing Christ,” Behold the Beauty of the LORD: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1987), 45,46.
[2] Matthew 28:2-4.
[3] Matthew 28:8a.
[4] Matthew 28:8b.
[5] Frederick Niedner, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (Vol. 125(5): March 11, 2008), 21.
[6] Matthew 28:9-10.
[7] Nouwen, 52.