Last week my grandson and I walked up Humpback. I first made that trip with my cousin over 50 years ago. I love to go out on the rocks and find that perfect spot where I can look out on both the Shenandoah and Rockfish Valleys. I was a little nervous about taking a six year old with me. I knew he had the stamina to make the trip but I was not sure what his reaction would be once we got to the top. I was not certain he would join me out on the rocks. Much to my surprise and dismay he exhibited no fear whatsoever. In fact I became the one who got rather cautious as Andy showed absolutely no fear. He wanted to run around and climb on the rocks, as if there were no consequences to a slip or faulty step. Imagine, living life without the fear of death. Actually, isn’t that what Easter is all about? Isn’t Easter the celebration of the elimination of the fear of death?
I suspect this morning, all through Rockfish Valley, folks have put on their Sunday best to go to church to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Depending on which doors you enter, the story will be told with varying degrees of detail. Some ministers will tell the story as if they were right there with Mary and Martha. Others will weave a tapestry of emotions that invite you to rise and fall with the timbre of the preacher’s voice. No matter the method, every preacher wants you to embrace the fearlessness of my grandson who ignored death while dancing on Humpback.
What actually happened on that Sunday Morning so many years ago? If you want the definitive answer based on eye-witnessed accounts, you came to the wrong church. I find the Gospels to be less than helpful. Each has a different version of the same event. The writers of John and Matthew claim Jesus appeared in the garden. Mark and Luke report an angel stating Jesus had risen and was not to be found. In Matthew’s version the disciples are instructed to travel to Galilee to meet with Jesus. In Luke and John, Jesus first appears in or around Jerusalem. In Luke the ascension occurs just outside Jerusalem. In Matthew, Jesus ascends in a mountain in Galilee. And what about Mark? A second ending was written to keep the gospel more in line with the other gospels. So what actually happened?
Some folks find these inconsistencies troubling. Other folks go to great lengths to homogenize the gospels into one definitive version. A few suggest the confusion of the gospel writers only hides what we dare not admit; maybe no one really witnessed the resurrection at all.
From my perspective, the inconsistencies do not detract from the power of Easter. Each gospel writer concludes their story with a celebration of the risen Christ. The differences in their reporting are inconsequential. I would suggest the proof of the resurrection is not in the sightings of Jesus, but in the reaction of the disciples.
None of the writers of the Gospels are particularly complimentary toward the pre-resurrection disciples. On more than one occasion Jesus questioned their ability to fully understand what was happening. Peter came up short numerous times. Jesus often seemed exasperated with the whole bunch. And then there was Holy Week. One by one the disciples sneaked away. Only John was reported to have been at the crucifixion and that is only recorded in the Gospel of John. Where did they go? I have no idea. Why did they go? We all know the reason. They were afraid.
Who could blame them? They were not six year olds. The possibility of their being arrested, tried, and executed was very real to them. Once Jesus was arrested, their lives were in great peril. Any person representing the authority of the Temple or the Roman Empire could have them arrested. The disciples were afraid because they valued their lives.
BUT THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED.
The disciples became ten times the people they had been before the death of Jesus. It was in response to their enthusiasm that the opposition organized. It was the lack of fear being displayed by the disciples which literally made the Sanhedrin afraid of the disciples.
Some have historians have argued the disciples were inspired by the martyrdom of Jesus. That is certainly possible. We all know movements often reach greater heights following the loss of their leader. But the inspiration of a martyr seldom inspires the faithful for more than a generation. Yet here we sit, over 2,000 years later singing, Christ has Risen, Christ has Risen Indeed”.
Some biblical scholars have argued that the physical presence of Jesus may not have been observed by the disciples. I really don’t care. In whatever form and in whatever way the disciples believed in the resurrection because Christ was within them completely. They didn’t gather in the Upper Room and sing, “Thanks for the Memory”. They sang, “Every time I feel the spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray”.
And pray they did. They prayed for guidance. They prayed for courage. They prayed to remember everything Jesus had taught them. They prayed for each other. And then they began to pray for those who would do them harm. To paraphrase Paul, the disciples came to the conclusion, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s, so let us live accordingly.” For the first time ever, the disciples lived without the fear of death.
Please don’t confuse what I said. The disciples knew at some point in time their physical lives would come to an end. But they began to live without a obsession with death. William Sloan Coffin preached, “Life is eternal, love is immortal, and death is only a horizon. And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
My friends, I have no idea what lies beyond the grave but I do know who is beyond the grave. Christ’s resurrection links both worlds. Therefore physical death need not be a lifelong terror. Because of the resurrection, fear of the unknown and fear of eternal condemnation are fears of the past, not the present and certainly not the future.
Paul wrote, “Since you have been raised with Christ, therefore set your mind of heavenly things. Put to death all your anger, wrath, malice and evil thoughts. Clothe yourself in the image of the Christ who is all and in all.”
Live your life as a disciple. Live your life as my grandson, who fearlessly dances on the rocks. You and I both know why he had no fear. His mother and father were beside him. He was never more than a step from their loving grasp. Are we any different? In life and in death, we are never far from the loving grasp of God. Therefore live your life to God’s glory. Be about the all important task of doing those things which are worth dying for. Be a disciple, transformed by the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. Be a disciple and dance on the solid rock of God’s grace. Amen.