Faith, Fear, and Change

Prof. Stephanie Paulsell
Easter Sunday Sermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, April 4, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Every gospel tells the story of the morning of the resurrection a little bit differently. But they all begin by describing what the women were doing. In Matthew, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” as Matthew calls her, go out at dawn to see the tomb where Jesus was laid. In Luke, a group of unnamed women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem bring spices to the tomb to tend the body. In John, Mary Magdalene moves through the city in the dark, like the lover in the Song of Songs, to be near her beloved. And in the text that Lily read for us this morning, from the gospel of Mark, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” make their way to Jesus’s tomb in the early morning of the first day of the week.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus notices and admires the faith of women. When a woman seeking healing reaches through the crowd of people around him to touch his cloak, he stops and looks around until he finds her. “Daughter,” he says, “your faith has made you well.” And when a woman weeps over his feet while he sits at dinner and wipes them dry with her hair, he says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

That phrase—your faith has saved you—echoed for me when I thought of these women, disciples of Jesus, intent on caring for him even in death, intent on returning to him the dignity his execution had denied him. Their faithfulness is described by all four gospel writers, a faithfulness grounded in the practices of Judaism. Both Matthew and Mark note in their gospels that the women waited until the Sabbath ended before they went out to purchase the spices with which to anoint and care for the body of Jesus. In all the years I have heard these texts read aloud on Easter, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the significance of that detail in the way I did this year. These women, who remained present to Jesus as he was tortured and killed, who must themselves have been traumatized to their core, still kept some kind of Sabbath observance from the evening of Jesus’s death until the evening of the next day. The regular practice of sabbathkeeping, of joining God in rest on the seventh day, must have held them through the terror of those 24 hours. Did they light the candles, say the prayers, break the bread, share the meal? Their faith may very well have saved them—saved their sanity, saved their lives.

The other practices of faith that they attempt to perform in these stories, of course, are the burial rites for the dead. That’s what the spices they go out to buy after the Sabbath ends are for. They went to the tomb to bathe Jesus’s body, to anoint it, and to wrap it in bands of cloth, like the swaddling clothes Luke says Jesus’s mother wrapped him in when he was born.

The women navigated these terrible days by faith, by the practices of their faith. After the chaos and violence of Jesus’s crucifixion, they still found a way to keep the Sabbath holy. And after the other disciples scattered in fear, and Peter denied that he had ever even known Jesus, they venture out to offer a proper burial to a criminal, an enemy of the empire that dominated and oppressed their community every day. Sophocles wrote a play about a woman who risked everything to bury her brother centuries before these women went out on their potentially dangerous errand. Like Antigone, the women in the gospel refuse to leave Jesus “unwept, unburied”; like her, they feel beholden not to man-made laws that punish and degrade but to sacred laws that honor human dignity and, through that honoring, weave us more closely into the life of God.

The faithfulness of these women is described in all four gospel accounts of Easter morning, including Mark’s account. But in other ways, Mark’s gospel is quite different from the other three.

There’s an empty tomb in Mark’s account, just as in the others. There’s a rolled-away stone and a mysterious figure who tells the women that Jesus has been raised from death. But Jesus does not appear to them, resurrected. There’s no earthquake, no lightning flash, no angels. In fact, nothing supernatural happens in Mark’s account at all. There is only a story, told to the women by the young man they find in the tomb: Jesus has been raised, he says, and you’ll see him again in Galilee. The response of those traumatized women, who have been holding onto their faith to guide their actions in the wake of Jesus’s death, is to run from that empty tomb as fast as they can. “For terror and amazement had seized them,” Mark says, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And that’s the end of Mark gospel. You’ll find in your Bible two later attempts to give the gospel a more triumphant ending, but they’re very different in style and tone from the rest of the gospel and only show up in later manuscripts. In its original form, the last word of this gospel, the earliest gospel we have, is “afraid.”

And who wouldn’t be afraid? Because if Jesus is alive, then our capacity for transformation is startlingly limitless. As Peter Gomes loved to remind us when he was the minister of this church: we do not have to be as we are. We can be more just, more compassionate, more attentive and responsive to each other’s suffering. We don’t have to keep doing things as they have been done—filling up prisons as fast as we can build them, turning families and children away from our borders, tolerating state violence against people of color, allowing the brunt of this pandemic to fall on marginalized people and communities, turning away from the rising tide of violence against our Asian neighbors, trying not to see. The message of Easter morning is not only that things do not have to be as they are, but that things must not continue as they are. If Jesus is alive, then we can change. If Jesus is alive, we are called to change.

A friend of mine wrote me a few days ago and said that Easter really feels like Easter to her this year. I knew immediately what she meant. Last year at Easter, we were barely a month into our lockdown, unsure of what would happen next, unsure of how long this would last, not knowing yet how many precious lives we would lose.

This Easter, although we’re not at the end of this pandemic, we can see the end coming into view. Here at the university, we’re beginning to imagine teaching in classrooms again, returning to offices, seeing our colleagues. We’re beginning to imagine all of our students returning. Easter feels like it could be a new beginning this time. We might be standing on the verge of new life.

But as the traumatized women who found an empty tomb knew, that emptiness contains both hope and fear. Because if Jesus is alive, then everything can change. And if Jesus is alive, we will have to confront our capacity for change and also examine our desire for it. Do we, really, want to change? Are we ready to rise to the challenge of resurrection?

The gospel of Mark brings us face to face with this question because, in its abrupt ending, it asks us to take up the story. Mark doesn’t tell us what the women do after they flee the tomb in fear. But because we can hold Mark’s gospel in our hands and read it from beginning to end, we know what they did. They were afraid. But they did eventually tell the story. A story of resurrection, of hope in the midst of trauma, of life in the midst of death. They must have handled that story as tenderly as they had planned to handle the body of Jesus because a community grew up around that story as it got passed from hand to hand, and written down, and read aloud, and remembered. This is a story about Jesus rising from the dead. But it is also a story about a community rising to the possibilities that the story of resurrection holds, a story about hearing the claim Jesus’s resurrection made on them and rising to its challenges. A story about re-making the world in the wake of a terrible loss.

The passage from Isaiah that Larry read for us this morning is one that I imagine Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome had grown up hearing read aloud. The story that grew out of what they found when they went looking for the body of Jesus, seems deeply informed by Isaiah’s vision of a God who “will swallow up death forever,” and replace disgrace with dignity, and “wipe away the tears from all faces.” As we stand with those women at the open, empty tomb, may we feel our desire for resurrection and its transformations rising within us. And may we be brave enough to take up the story where they left off, brave enough to resist going back to the way things were and to seeking together the ways things could be.