“T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” – Amazing Grace (verse 2)
Like so many preachers this Easter, I really wrestled with what text to preach on. Which of the four evangelists was right for this COVID-19 moment? Or would something from St. Paul or one of the other epistles be more suitable?
I ended up going with the Gospel of Mark, in part because of the strange and abrupt way Mark ends the Easter story. After the three women are greeted by an angel (presumably) at the empty tomb and then instructed to go tell the disciples that they’ll see Jesus alive in Galilee, Mark finishes the story this way:
“So 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.”
What kind of ending is this? There’s been plenty of scholarly debate about whether this was Mark’s original ending, or did it get lost at some point in transmission. Clearly some Christians early on were uncomfortable with the “incompleteness” of the conclusion, and someone (or likely several) took a shot at giving the story a better ending (see the “longer ending” in verses 9-20). But it’s obvious that this isn’t Mark’s voice. (Although I do have to say the snake handling stuff is pretty cool).
I’ve always thought it best to take the ending as it comes handed down to us. And here’s what intrigued me especially this Easter, amid all of the uncertainty and fear of COVID-19: the mixed messages at the first Easter on the whole topic of fear.
When the women encounter the angel at the tomb, Mark tells us they were “alarmed.” The angel says to them, “Do not be alarmed!” But how can you not when you meet a messenger of the living God? The women would soon discover, however, that the messenger isn’t nearly as alarming as the message he has for them: “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here!”
So they go barreling out of the cemetery, dresses hiked up to their knees, scared out of their wits. It’s kind of confusing isn’t it? “Don’t be afraid,” says the angel. But then they go running and mum’s the word, “for they were afraid.”
So what is the right response to Easter? Fear or fear not? Don’t be afraid, Mark seems to be saying, because God has just done something to make you afraid.
I’ve heard it said often that doubt isn’t the enemy of faith, fear is. After all, doesn’t the Bible tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear?” Obviously there is truth to this. But it needs more nuance.
In his thought-provoking book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye draws upon the wisdom of thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas to give us a more nuanced and biblically rich understanding of fear. Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Aquinas insisted. It certainly can be, especially when it comes to worldly fears that “contract” our hearts, paralyze us, and hold us captive. We can fear the wrong things in the wrong way (or even the right things in the wrong way). Like when a novel coronavirus makes us excessively anxious and fearful and causes us to panic buy and become self-focused. But fear can also be a good thing, a virtue, when we fear the right things in the right way. We fear because we love, and if we had no fear, it would be a sign that we have no love.
So the goal, says Aquinas, is not to be “fearless.” That’s foolish and an indication of a life void of love. The goal is to put our fears in their proper place—to fear the right things, to the right extent, and in the right way. The only way to do that is when we ultimately fear the right thing—God first and above all things. One of the central teachings of the Hebrew Testament is that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). This fear of God is not coercive and controlling; it is “born of love” for the God who loves us. It wakes us up to wonder and awe because we are gripped by the power and glory of a God who is more than we could ever imagine. It suddenly snatches us up into a story that is so much bigger than ourselves, the story of new creation!
It is the kind of fear that the English poet John Donne prayed for when he wrote, “Lord, give me a fear of which I won’t be afraid.” A fear that overcomes all other fears. A fear that is not the enemy of faith but an authentic expression of it.
This is the fear that I believe gripped the women at the empty tomb on that first Easter morning. We’ve made Easter far too safe and predictable. When’s the last time this good kind of terror and amazement really seized you?
In this Eastertide, while there remains so much to make us anxious and fearful, may we know true Easter hope–this fear of the empty tomb that jolts us to life, awakens us to love, and overcomes everything else that would make us afraid.