Don’t Be Afraid

This is my sermon for the Service of Ordination at this year’s Annual Conference at Asbury UMC in Madison. We had a grand, informative, inspiring Conference. This sermon was my charge to our newest clergy.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” 8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
6 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

— Matthew 28:5-10, 16-20

We’re still in Easter, still in shock that crucified, dead Jesus has been raised. The women go to the tomb early on Easter while it was still dark. Where were the men disciples you ask? Don’t. Their’s is not a pretty story. Let’s just note that the first witnesses of resurrection, the first preachers of Easter, are women.

(Take that, you denominations that mistakenly teach that women shouldn’t preach!)

At the tomb, the women are met by an angel. And the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. I’ve got some fearful news to tell you women. Brace yourselves for some terrifying information. Here I go with the frightening news: he is not here. He is risen. He is going on before you.

Question: why would the Easter angel say to the women, “Don’t be afraid”? He gives them the most unimaginatively joyful news and follows by saying, “Don’t be afraid?”

I think it’s because right after the angel says to the women, “He is risen!” the angel says, “Go preach!” Go and publicly proclaim: God wins! Jesus is raised!

Later, when the women meet the risen Christ, he also says to them, “Don’t be afraid.”

You would think he would have said, “Rejoice! I’m raised from the dead!”

But the first thing the risen Jesus says to them is, “Don’t be afraid.” And the next thing he says is, “Go preach! Tell those cowardly male disciples (hunkered down behind lock doors) I have been raised!”

Some kind of connection is being made here, not simply between “He is raised” – “Don’t be afraid” but rather between, “Don’t be afraid” – “Go preach!”

If you have difficulty understanding the link between fear and vocation, between terror and the call “Go preach!” then ask any ordinand here tonight. He or she will explain it to you.
I meet with all our ordinands before I lay hands on their heads. In those encounters with soon-to-be deacons and elders I’ve heard:

“I’m afraid that God may have gotten me mixed up with somebody by the same name from another county.”

“I’m really scared that I don’t have the training I need to oversee a congregation.”

Or, “Sometimes I fear that seminary didn’t really train me to lead anybody anywhere.”

In Christian leadership, fear comes with the territory. Scripture says that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.” Presumably, it isn’t fearful to acquiesce into the arms of a dead god, a god whom we use to get what we want. But it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God who uses us to get what God wants.

Well, the male disciples do as the women proclaim. They go to Galilee and, just as he promised, the risen Christ appears. Matthew says that when they saw Christ, “they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Anytime the church gathers to worship Jesus, along with prayer and praise, there’s also doubt. But here it’s not just any old doubt.

What did they doubt? The risen Christ stood right in front of them, had been with them for weeks, say some of the gospels. Surely they didn’t doubt that he was resurrected. What did they doubt?

The answer is in the specific words Jesus speaks: “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

His resurrection is authorization by God Almighty that Jesus Christ has complete divine authority. But authority to do what?

That is answered by his next words: “Go, therefore,…make disciples, baptizing and teaching all that I have commanded.” Jesus’ authority is the authority to commission, to send these fearful, doubting disciples into the world to make disciples.

I think that’s why “some doubted.” They didn’t doubt that he was resurrected. They doubted Jesus’ authority, or at least his good judgment, in commissioning a rag-tag group of losers like them to, “Go…make disciples….baptizing…teaching….”

Lori, Mark, Alex, Joy, Wade and all the rest, I bet (if Methodists were permitted to bet) that you know exactly why “some doubted.”

How can it be that a crucified, resurrected Lord would summon fearful, doubting people like us to do his courageous, revolutionary work?

Tonight, in this service, that’s what the church tries to say to you:

Don’t be afraid. God knows what God is doing when God calls you for ministry.

Don’t doubt. Jesus believes that you will be faithful to his call, even more than you may believe in you.

In your ministry after this night, believe that. Believe not only that dead Jesus was raised, but that resurrected Christ immediately began calling women and men like you to help him save the world.

After thirty-nine years of ordained ministry the only claim I have for authority, the only hope I have that my pitiful ministry counts is this: I’ve been summoned by a Savior who confounds the wisdom of the world by calling fools like us to grow his Kingdom.

Upon my arrival here, when I laid out my plans for what I wanted to do, a wise, old, experienced pastor asked, “What gives you the right to tell us what to do? D you think that these changes will make a difference? We’ve been declining for a decade and I don’t think you are good enough to turn things around.”

And in the face of his justifiable incredulity at my episcopacy all I could say was, “I believe, despite my fears and doubts, I’ve been called. I believe that this was God’s idea before it was mine. I’m not the smartest or most experienced bishop you could get, but I’m the only one God sent. So there.”

Don’t be afraid! Believe in Jesus’ vocation more than you believe in your human limitation!

I recall the woefully frightened young pastor who was sent, for his first appointment, to a congregation universally acknowledged to be the meanest in the South Carolina Conference. That poor young preacher nearly had a breakdown when the bishop appointed him there.

First Sunday summoning forth his courage, he went out to the church and somehow managed to tremble and shake through his first sermon, terrified to look up from his notes at some of the mean looking Methodists.

Finally he stood at the door, bidding farewell to the stone-faced, cold handed members as they exited. The lay leader of the church paternally put his arm around him and said, “Son. We know what you have heard. We ain’t going to hurt you.”

The terrified young preacher went limp with relief.

“We ain’t going to harm you,” reassured the lay leader. “But we aim to kill that fool bishop that sent you.”

True story.

Newest sisters and brothers in our Conference, my charge to you tonight: “Don’t be afraid. There is no daunting task that Christ sets before you that he will not also give you what you need faithfully to fulfill his summons. Don’t doubt. Jesus has this uncanny gift for calling the right people to do his work.”

Tonight your church rejoices that once again, the risen Christ sends us just the people we need to give our church a future, to enable us Methodists to be faithful. Don’t be afraid.

– William H. WIllimon

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