“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell His disciples.”Matthew 28:8 (New Revised Standard Version)
When the women left the empty tomb on the first Easter morning, given the news by the angel that Jesus has been raised from the dead, they react with fear and great joy. Fear sets in for any number of reasons, not the least being the uncertainty about what this highly disruptive turn-of-events could mean. It would be understandable, should they run away in fear alone. But it is not fear alone. It is fear and great joy. Not total and pure joy as we might expect at the discovery that the Lord’s promise has come true and that He is indeed risen from the dead, the Savior of the world. That is all true, but it is not enough to cancel the fear. There is tremendous joy indeed. Alongside fear. Fear and great joy are the twin reactions to the Resurrection.
It is important to me, when I read this passage, to realize that these two emotions interact with one another in an uneasy dance, almost competing with one another to see which one will be able to carry the day. At the end of the day, they are both still there. Not only describing for us the reaction of the women but also alerting us to the way the Easter Gospel stirs up a variety of emotions for followers of Jesus even today. But I take note also that the words are not “great fear and joy.” The words are “fear and great joy.” One of them is greater than the other. Joy has the definite advantage in the light of the Resurrection. Still, fear has a say.
In this Easter season, as the Resurrection light continues to shine into a broken world, I sense the same dynamic. It is not the same intensity of reaction that those first women had at the shocking news because Jesus’ victory is no longer shocking to us. The interplay between the wonderful and the worrying persists. Trying to be faithful to Christ’s call and to be mindful of the world we live in, I describe my posture, in parallel to the scripture text, as caution and great hope. For short, cautious hope.
In the pandemic, I have great hope that the vaccines are going to be effective, first in containing then in subduing the coronavirus. Churches are seeing in-person participation pick up as people feel safer when they are vaccinated and when they know others are being vaccinated. Of course, the virus is still very much on the loose and we still have a ways to go before everyone is vaccinated. There is always the possibility that the pandemic will take another unexpected turn and surge again with a stubborn variant that eludes the vaccine. So, I am not ready to throw caution to the wind. I am still cautious, practicing the COVID protocols, and prepared to retreat again if necessary. But mostly, I am really glad that we are finally seeing progress. Great hope, and caution.
On the journey to dismantling white supremacy and rooting out racism, I have great hope that we are turning a corner in the right direction. The vindication of George Floyd and conviction of Derek Chauvin resonate as a milestone in this turnaround. Perhaps we will see meaningful legislation to rectify problems in our current system. Regardless of legislation, I see a shift in heart attitudes among many who are awakening to the injustice and determining to change their own lives and their own communities in the direction of racial equity. Because Jesus is Lord, I have great hope that this movement is grounded in God’s Kingdom and that we shall overcome, sooner rather than later. Still, there is caution as we see an outbreak of mass shootings born of anger and hatred. Episodes of police mistreatment of persons of color, while surfacing to the light of day instead of being denied in the shadows of deceit, clearly show that there is still a long way to go on this journey. We have been naively optimistic that progress will come automatically, as time goes on, and we know that is not working. But there is something more emerging, and it has stirred up in me great hope, tempered by real caution. Cautious hope.
In the life of our churches, I have great hope that God is stirring up new life to empower a winsome witness for the Good News of Jesus Christ and His life-saving love as the true hope for the future of creation. It is a great joy that the first class of Neighborhood Seminary has graduated from the two-year process, and are eager and equipped to be in ministry in creative ways in neighborhoods around the district. It is a great joy that every one of our churches has made it through the pandemic, with suffering and sacrifice to be sure but also with flourishing and ingenuity; many people have stepped up to meet challenges and find new ways to be the church in our communities. Of the four Fairfax County governmental districts that are in the Alexandria District, two of them named United Methodists as their Community Champions this year (Rev. Dr. Brian Brown in the Mt. Vernon District and Betsy Clevenger (member at Annandale) in the Braddock District). It is now time to focus on the post-pandemic re-entry and how the church can help our communities to move on after this disruption/trauma/retreat. We have learned much and we are equipped to minister in new and effective ways. It is not wise to act as if the pandemic were already over because it is not. The great hope is checked by the reality that our forward momentum will be cautious. Still, it is a great joy to be at this point of cautious hope.
Personally, I am cautiously hopeful about retirement. In two short months, I will be retiring into a new chapter of life and ministry. Our plans are to live at Lake Junaluska, a United Methodist community in the mountains of western North Carolina, where we will be much closer to our grandchildren. We look forward to enjoying more time in the grandparenting mode and getting to know our new neighbors. We will be paying attention for the ways God is leading us and savoring with gratitude the many ways God has blessed us and led us so far.
Because the Lord Jesus is risen and reigning now and forever in union with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, and because the world is still broken and people are still suffering and systems are still oppressing and hearts are still tempted to sin, we live first in great hope and great joy, but not yet without caution, for there is still cause to fear. Keeping our hearts, minds, and souls fixed on Jesus, we know that in the end there hope will prevail. There will nothing but joy and perfect love. At this the caution disappears and there is only great hope.
Grace and Peace,
Alexandria District Superintendent