Here are my thoughts for Easter Sunday.
There are certain times of the year when I will be in certain places. The fourth weekend of May, normally Memorial Day weekend, finds me at the USBC Open Championships. This is a bowling tournament that I have participated in for the past 28 years. This year, my 29th tournament, my four teams and I will be in Corpus Christi, Texas. Plans have been made for my 30th tournament which will be the same weekend next year but in Reno, Nevada. I would like to make 50 tournaments but that is a little bit too far down the road to even consider.
Over the years, there are certain other places that I have wanted to be at certain times of the year. For many years I wanted to be in Memphis for Thanksgiving, to be with my mother, brothers, and sister. Christmas was to be with my own family. Some years, the two were reversed with Christmas being the time to be with my mother and siblings while Thanksgiving was with my family.
And that leads me to Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday was a time that I don’t particularly like to travel for I have always felt the need to be in my church that Sunday. By “my church” I mean the church in which I held my membership. Over the past few years, it has been the church that I was serving. But it was a Sunday that I wanted to be in “my Father’s house” rather than my own.
It started, I think, back in 1969. Then I was a precocious 18-year old college sophomore. In many ways, it had not been a good year. I was not doing well in school and there was the specter of the draft looming over me. I was, like so many individuals, searching for a meaning to what was transpiring in my life. And because of the political currents of that particular time in our country’s history, I was also trying to figure out how we could have a world of war and hatred, of poverty and ignorance. How did the Gospel message of hope and freedom fit into this scheme of things?
Against this background was my scheduled trip from Kirksville, MO (where I was in college) back to Memphis, TN, for spring break. While Memphis was my home, my home church was in Kirksville and I could not see missing Easter services or communion at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville. Yes, I knew that there was the possibility of communion at Bartlett United Methodist Church, the church where my parents were members and which I attended while in high school. But it was not my home church and there was a feeling in me at the time that I needed to somehow take communion before I left for the break.
To that end, I approached Marvin Fortel, then the minister at First Church, about taking communion before leaving. He was a little taken back by the request, because most of the students who attended the services were members of churches in their hometown and only attended out of obligation to their parents. But he agreed to my request and we met in the chapel of the church before I was to leave.
It was not a normal communion but rather a chance to talk about the process of communion and what it meant. When I left the chapel that day, I left with a better understanding of what communion meant and what it meant to be both a Methodist and a Christian. More than any other communion that I have taken, this one day changed how I viewed who I was and what Christ meant for me.
What I learned that day in the chapel and have come to understand over the years is that no matter who I am or what I am, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross opened the door to God’s House for me. No matter what the problems of the world may be or are, there is a place in which I can find shelter and solace. I came away from the church understanding that, having come to Christ, I needed to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity.
On this Easter Sunday, we need to stop and think about what Christ means for each one of us. It is not just that Christ died on the Cross so that we could live. It is what our relationship with God became. When Jesus began his ministry, God was a distant part of many people’s lives. God, for them, was something mysterious, forbidden, and distant, only accessible through the observance of myriad laws and regulations. These laws and regulations were so rigorous that many people did not even try to find God.
But Jesus came to them, in the most complete expression of love any father had for his children, and offered the hope and promise of life eternal. Jesus broke down the barriers that the establishment of the day had built that kept God away from people’s lives. Jesus showed the people that God had not forgotten them.
Jesus was persecuted because the establishment, both religious and political, feared the message that he presented and the implications it had for their future. Those in power, who had reached that position by oppression and intimidation, understood that before God they were no better than those they tried to rule. It was in their interests to remove Jesus from the scene.
And for two days at the end of that first Holy Week, they felt that they had accomplished what they wanted, the removal of the most serious threat to their political and religious power. They had used a “show trial” worthy of any dictatorship to justify the crucifixion of Jesus and they had used the most horrible source of punishment every conceived by the human mind to kill Jesus. Jesus was buried in the tomb; the tomb was sealed and guarded. These people believed that the movement that brought Jesus into Jerusalem one week earlier and had proclaimed him king would not survive.
Even those who had followed Jesus over the past three years feared that the movement was crushed and dead. Many saw their futures only in terms of what they had been doing before they left everything to follow Jesus. Many perhaps wondered why they had even thought that the message of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and freeing the oppressed would be able to succeed. Jesus had been crucified and was buried, no longer a threat to the forces they thought they could defeat.
And so it was on that first Easter morning the women came to the tomb, hoping to complete the task of preparing the body for burial. There had not been time to do so on the Friday before and, even with the hopes of the ministry seemingly crushed, these women still hoped to prepare the body of their friend and teacher, according to the customs of the day.
But we know that they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. But the tomb cannot be empty unless someone had stolen the body. And there was no reason to steal the body. The grief of the weekend was compounded and the confusion about the mission was increased. But then Jesus spoke to Mary and the world changed.
The statements prophets had made long ago had come true. Christ had risen from the dead, in triumph over sin and death. The hope and promise of the Gospel message did not fade but rather was made clear and better understood. As Mary told the disciples and the disciples saw for themselves, the pain and grief turned to joy and happiness. And as the pain and grief disappeared, it became clear that the hope and promise of the Gospel message was still there and still alive. In joy and happiness, the disciples told others and the word spread.
Today, there are those who are seeking God, trying to find answers to the questions that the world poses before them. They see violence, death, hatred and ignorance in the world around them. They are questioning the values of this world and wondering how there can be a God. On this day, as we have gathered in our Father’s house, we are challenged to take the message of the Gospel out into the world. In a world which slams doors shut and prevents access to hope and promise, the stone before the tomb has been rolled away and the victory of Christ over sin and death tells us that our Father’s house is open to us all.
Those that sought to kill Jesus and silence the message want the stone to block the entrance to the tomb. For that gives them the control that they desire; that gives them the desire to say who can enter their house. But the stone has been rolled away, because all who follow Christ, no matter who they are, are entitled to enter their Father’s house. The stone has been rolled away because Christ conquered sin and death. The Gospel message is still alive.
It is up to us today to carry that word, just as the first disciples did some two thousand years ago, out into the world, proclaiming that Christ is alive and the Gospel message is indeed the Good News.
Hi just wanted to let you know how nice it was to read this. Marvin Fortel is my grandfather and I can’t wait to show this to him. It is always nice to hear these things.
Thank you for the note. I would like to know how Reverend Fortel is doing.
I am Marvin’s daughter. he is almost 91 and as most of the elderly has had health problems but he and my mother still live in their own home in Blue Springs, MO and are attending my nephews wedding in a few weeks. He has touched many lives and to read about one is really something. Thank you.
Thank you for the information about Reverend Fortel. Please give him my best wishes and let him know how I am doing.
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Reverend Marvin Fortel did this past week (October 20, 2010)at the age of 93. He will be missed by his family, his friends, and those like myself whose lives he touched and changed with his ministry.
Dr. Tony Mitchell
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Thank you so much for the kind letter you wrote to my granmother. She was very touched by both the letter and the sermon that you preached the Sunday after my gardfather died. It was so kind of you to think of her and hold us up in your prayers.
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