No matter who we are or what we are doing there are always things to fear in life. Some people are born worriers. For them, fear is always close at hand. When a loved one travels, they fear that the airplane will go down. When they begin a new job, they fear that they won’t do well. When they pack for a trip, they fear they won’t bring the right clothes. When they find a spot on their skin, they fear it is cancer. Others hardly ever worry. For them, fear is almost an unknown. When a loved one travels, it doesn’t even occur to them that the airplane could go down. When they begin a new job, the thought that they might fail doesn’t even enter their heads. When they pack for a trip, they don’t spend a minute wondering whether they’re bringing the right clothes. When they find a spot on their skin – well, they don’t even notice the spot on their skin! Now, neither of these groups is better than the other. Those who don’t worry may enjoy life more easily, but those who do worry may actually catch the cancer before it spreads. There are pros and cons to being either a worrier or a non-worrier.
Whether a person is a worrier or a non-worrier, there are certain things in life that cannot help but cause fear. One of those things is the reality of death. Soren Kierkegaard, a famous Christian existentialist theologian who lived in the eighteenth century, believed that the inevitability of death is the central anxiety of being human. The knowledge that one day we will die is with us at all times, shaping the decisions we make and how we live at each moment, whether we are aware of it or not. I guess he would say that some of us are just more aware of it than others – hence the existence of both the worriers and the non-worriers.
The reality is that we human beings are vulnerable creatures. Our skin can cut. Our bones can break. Our organs can disease. Our minds can crack. Our hearts can stop. Our bodies can die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Most of us are uncomfortable with the fact that we’re so vulnerable. We spend a lot of time and energy protecting ourselves from that reality. There are countless ways that we do so. We don’t want to get old because getting old means that we’re closer to death. So, what do we do? We work out so that our muscles and heart maintain their strength and elasticity. We use special skin creams so that our skin doesn’t wrinkle or spot. We dye our hair so that it doesn’t go gray. We get plastic surgery so that our skin doesn’t hang. We diet so that we maintain the shape of young bodies. Okay, not everyone does these things, but if you look at television or the movies, youth – or, at least, the look of youth – is the ideal. Because youth is invulnerable, right?
Another thing we do to protect ourselves from the reality of our vulnerability is to protect ourselves from violence. We have alarm systems in our cars and our homes. We move into gated communities so that not just anyone can get near our homes. We move out of the inner city into the suburbs – until the inner city moves out to the suburbs, and then we move out to a further suburb. Of course, this creates suburban sprawl, which makes us vulnerable to other things, like individualism, isolationism, homogenous communities, and damage to the environment. By protecting ourselves from one kind of vulnerability, we create another kind.
Another way that we protect ourselves from the reality of our vulnerability is that we refuse to be intimate with one another. We hide our true selves because, God forbid, if anyone should really know us, they might reject us and we could never survive the rejection so we just forgo the intimacy altogether. Better to be lonely and safe, than to be intimate and hurt.
Another way that we protect ourselves is that we store up treasure. We have retirement accounts for ourselves, college accounts for our children, investments, stock options, bonds, and CD’s. We’ve thought of every possible rainy day scenario and done something financially to protect us when the rain finally comes.
These are some of the ways that we protect ourselves from the reality of our vulnerability. We build fortresses of one type or another around ourselves so that we aren’t vulnerable to a surprise attack. Even so, despite all of our efforts to protect ourselves from any possible misfortune, we are not immune to fear. We look 15 years younger than our age, but we’re aging, anyway – death will surely come some day. We’ve moved to the suburbs, but our neighbor could be a closet pedophile. We’ve kept an emotional distance from others, but there just might be that special someone who someday steals our heart from across a crowded room. Our stock portfolio is performing fabulously, but there could be another economic downturn tomorrow. No matter what we do to protect ourselves, there is always something to fear. Being vulnerable is the nature of being human.
The disciples of Jesus felt the full weight of their vulnerability when Jesus was arrested, condemned, crucified, and buried, with a stone rolled resoundingly into the opening to the tomb, closing it off from the light and air and activity of the world of the living. They felt the weight of their vulnerability so fully that they scattered and ran. After the amazing welcome they had received when Jesus had entered Jerusalem, this turn of events came as a shock. Despite the warnings that Jesus had given them, they were unprepared, and fear gripped them.
Apparently, the disciples were still gripped by fear on the morning of the third day, for it was the women who brought spiced oil to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Perhaps, being women in a culture in which women didn’t have much power, they were used to being vulnerable, and instead of being gripped by fear they were overcome by grief. Perhaps they felt that fulfilling the rituals of death would comfort them in some way. And so they went to the tomb early in the morning to anoint the body.
The women weren’t afraid as they approached the tomb, but they were as they left it. When they arrived at the tomb, the stone had been rolled away and inside the tomb sat a heavenly being that spoke to them, saying, “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. But 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” (Mark 16:6-7).
Jesus’ death had brought them grief, but his rising brought them fear! They fled from the tomb, seized by terror and amazement! Death, although something to fear for oneself and those one loves, is to be expected. Once it occurs the fear is gone, replaced by grief. But rising from the dead is not to be expected – it is so awesome, so not-of-this-world, that it is to be feared. If Jesus could be raised from the dead, then anything could happen. The normal rules, the normal limitations, the normal vulnerabilities of life no longer applied. Reality as these women had known it was torn open. They had always known they were vulnerable to death, but they had not known they were vulnerable to life after death. What other rules would God break? What other limitations would be removed? Just what could God do, and just what would God do? Even though the finality of death no longer applied, the women were still just as vulnerable to God as they had ever been. As I said before, being vulnerable is the nature of being human.
The challenge for us is to embrace our vulnerability and to learn to live with the fear that comes with it. If we try to deny our vulnerability, if we try to deny our fear, then we deny our very humanness. We lose the opportunity to be the beings that God created us to be. He created us to be vulnerable because vulnerability keeps us humble and open, to God and to each other. Vulnerability enables us to have satisfying, fulfilling relationships with one another. Vulnerability allows us to be compassionate to those in need. Vulnerability forces us to accept help when we are in need. Vulnerability prevents us from becoming arrogant or proud. Vulnerability reminds us that we cannot depend on the things of this world. Vulnerability keeps us focused on God – on what God is trying to tell us, on where God is trying to lead us, and on what God is asking us to do.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. . . . Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” Perhaps the women who went to the tomb in grief fled away from it in fear because, all of a sudden, they were faced with the awesome power of God, a power that they could make manifest in the world as faithful disciples of Jesus. Perhaps their deepest fear was not about their limitations and inadequacies and vulnerabilities, but about the responsibility that would come with such power. Perhaps they were afraid they could not live up to it. Perhaps they were afraid they would be asked to do too much. Perhaps they thought living into and up to that power would require more faith than they thought they had. And so they fled in fear and said nothing to anyone.
Even though the Gospel According to Mark continues after this passage, most biblical scholars consider this account of the women fleeing from the tomb to be the original end of Mark’s Gospel. They think that the other accounts are later additions. They think this because the longer ending is missing from the earliest, most reliable Greek manuscripts of the Gospel According to Mark.
Let us, today, consider the end of this passage to be the end of Mark’s gospel. If the women fled from the tomb, terrified and amazed, and said nothing to anyone, then how did the disciples find out that Jesus had been raised? How did the story get told to others? How did Christianity survive and thrive?
I would like to imagine that, after the women had absorbed what they had seen and heard and were able to process it, they were filled with an abiding faith. Not an abiding faith in themselves or in the things of this world, but an abiding faith in God – in his love and his power. And, filled with that faith, they believed they could live into and up to whatever it was God had in mind for them to do. So, they shared the news with the disciples and went with them to Galilee to see Jesus, believing that he would be there just as he said he would.
This doesn’t mean that they were no longer vulnerable to their own failings or to the misfortunes of the world. They and the world were not suddenly made perfect. No – they were just as vulnerable as they had always been, and they felt fear just as they always had. They just didn’t let that stop them from living the lives God was calling them to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. They added faith in the love and power of God to their vulnerability and fear. Adding faith to the other two made all the difference. They found the rest that Jesus had promised to all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens because they placed their faith in a God who was more powerful than sin, more powerful than evil, more powerful – even – than death (Matthew 11:28).
This is the God we worship, the God that raised Jesus from death. This is the God Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.” This God “is our hope for becoming better men and women” and “our mandate for seeking to make a better world.” This God empowered the women at the tomb to become better women and to seek to make a better world. This God empowers you and I to become better women and men and to seek to make a better world. This God does so in many and various ways according to the gifts he has given us. This God does so despite our vulnerability and despite our fear, as we go forward into the future led by him.
Jesus Christ is risen! Alleluia! The normal rules, the normal limitations, the normal vulnerabilities of life no longer apply, for the God of the resurrection is alive and well and moving among us, making a way out of no way, transforming dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, taking regular women and men and turning them into amazing, awesome disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017.
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