Here are my thought for this Easter Sunday,12 April 2020 (Year A)
This piece is entitled “This First Easter” because it is, for me, one of many “first” Easters.
For most of us, this will be an Easter where we will not be in our church but, because of technology, we will still be able to celebrate the Risen Christ. We will know that our friends will be celebrating with us, but we will not be with them to celebrate. While I appreciate the technology that allows us to celebrate Easter, I miss the interaction of the people that comes from meeting together and, perhaps, gives more meaning for the day.
And as I thought about this being a “first Easter”, I also thought about other “Easters” in my life.
My first Easter would have been March 25, 1951. As I was just six months old, I really don’t know much about that day.
There was the Easter that I celebrated in 1969. As I describe in Our Father’s House”, I was a student at Northeast Missouri State College and about to go home in Memphis for spring/Easter break. I knew that I would be in church with my family on Easter Sunday, it was not my church (it was the church I attended while in high school) and that didn’t feel right.
So I went to the pastor of 1st UMC in Kirksville, Marvin Fortel, and asked if I could take communion before I left town for the week. He agreed to do that and we met in the chapel of the church. And it was then I began to have a better understanding of what my faith meant. It was a conversation that I have remembered over the years (see my notes in “The Changing of the Seasons”).
A few years later I was in Lexington, North Carolina for the funeral of my maternal grandmother, Clatie Hunt. I flew out to North Carolina on Maundy Thursday and stayed for the wake and the funeral on April 3, 1972. The next day, April 4, 1972, was Easter Sunday and I flew back to St. Louis and drove back to my home in northeast Missouri. This was, to the best of memory, the only time I was not in a church on Easter Sunday.
In recalling these two Easter Sundays, one where I celebrated Easter on the day of the Last Supper one where I could not be in church, I realized that there were many Easter Sundays where I don’t remember if I was in church or not. But this was the period that I have come to call my “wilderness years” so it is understandable that I would not remember.
But as I wondered in the “wilderness” I also began to remember the covenant I had made with God in 1965 when I earned the God & Country award in scouts. And so it was that I began to be more active in the church, making sure that, at least on Boy Scout Sunday, I was the lector. I began to sing in the choir again and, in 1991, received the call to be a lay speaker.
On Palm Sunday in 1997 (March 30), I became part of a pastoral worship team serving two small rural United Methodist Churches in Mason, Tennessee. In 1998 I would move from Memphis to Whitesburg, KY. I was asked to become the lay pastor for the Neon UMC in November, 1998.
On April 4, 1999, I would celebrate “The First Easter” as a lay pastor. In the message I gave for that Sunday, I would use a story written by Thomas G. Pettepiece that was in my Prayer Guide.
Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.
There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”
“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”
I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”
We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of a dead girl came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)
This was Pettepiece’s first Easter in jail. I do not know why he was in prison or where he was in prison, though the use of “gaol” suggests he was in Ireland. I would use this same story a few years later in “The Message Is Clear”. Thomas Pettepiece’s daughter discovered this writing of her father but could not offer any information about what he might have been doing.
So on this First Easter, we are much like Pettepiece and the other prisoners, separated from our church and our family. And in our separation, we cannot even celebrate the “Communion of the Empty Hands.” On a Sunday when we should be celebrating the Risen Christ, we have a sense of sadness and our view of the future is shrouded in a cloud of gloom and despair. We have to ask ourselves if there will ever come a time when we will again be a physical community of believers. As we gather collectively on the Internet, we have to wonder what the future will be.
And if we stop for a moment, we can realize that these are the same feelings that the disciples and followers had some two thousand years ago. Two thousand years ago, the disciples were in hiding, knowing that if they were seen in public, they were likely to be arrested and suffer the same fate as their Teacher and Friend; as they woke up that first Easter morning, they must have thought that there was no future. After three years with Jesus, how were they ever going to go back to the old life? What will the future hold?
Today, as we watch the sun rise over the eastern horizon, we know that the Tomb is empty and the Son of God has risen. It would take a few hours on that First Easter before the disciples got the word from Mary and the other women of that news.
And because we do know that the Tomb is empty, we can, even separated, celebrate the Risen Christ.
Whether this is one’s First Easter or one of many, it is beginning of a season. As I thought and pondered about these words, I also realized that there will be days when in the solitude of our own room, we will feel the presence of the Lord, just as the disciples did in the Upper Room. Some may say that this is a simply a hallucination but then again, I am pretty sure that people said the same thing back then.
And as we find ways to take private walks in the woods, we are most likely to encounter Jesus in much the same manner the disciples did on the road to Emmaus.
In the coming days and weeks, as we begin to return to the world, we will, as the disciples and followers did, discover Jesus Christ is here, with us. We approached this First Easter with caution and possibly fear. We asked ourselves how we could celebrate the Risen Christ when we ourselves have been separated. And yet when this day is over, we know that we have been given the opportunity to reconnect with Christ, much in the way the disciples did two thousand years ago.
And no matter when it might occur, we will have a gathering of family, friends, and neighbors, much as the followers celebrated the Day of Pentecost.
The world tomorrow will not be the same as it was two months ago. Much has been discovered about our society and our world that has long laid beneath the surface. The cry for the Presence of Christ, so long quiet, has become very loud. Some will try to return to the “old days” and quiet the voice, just as their predecessors tried to do two thousand years ago.
Even as we are apart from family, friends, and neighbors, we are again one with Jesus and we will hear the call that came to the followers at Pentecost to take the Gospel message, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and free the oppressed. Take this “First Easter” to reconnect with Christ.