Here are my thoughts for Easter Sunday, 2008. I will be preaching at Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY. I am trying something different this year, telling the story from the view of one of the disciples, Nathanael (Bartholomew). (It has been edited since first posted on Friday evening).
Information about the disciple Bartholomew and the observations about Nazareth were found at the following locations:
A man comes running in, all excited and shouting, “Did you hear the news? Can you believe what they are saying? Is it possible?”
He continues, “The tomb is empty!!! Jesus is not there!!! Has He truly risen from the dead? Did Jesus do what He said He would do?”
Good morning! Allow me to introduce myself. I was one of Jesus twelve disciples, listed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as Bartholomew. In the Gospel of John, I was called Nathanael, which means “gift of God.” In truth, I am both for I am the son of Tholomew and thus am called Bar-Tholomew or son of Tholomew. But my parents called me Nathanael, so I am your humble servant Nathanael Bartholomew. I would like to speak to you this morning about a man called Jesus, who is the Christ. He was my teacher and my friend.
My first encounter with Jesus was not an impressive one and perhaps I should not be here today to tell you of the wondrous news of this morning.
My friend Philip came to me one day and told me that he and his friends, John, James, and Peter, had found the Messiah, the man whom Moses and the prophets spoke of so many years ago. They had found Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.
Now you must understand what this meant to me. Growing up in the Galilee was different from growing up in or near Jerusalem and the southern part of Israel.
With Jerusalem the capital, the rich and powerful lived there. To the people there, the Galilee was just a territory and one easily forgotten in the business of the country. Galilee was nothing more than the backwoods and we Galileans were treated as such. We were often scorned and rejected; only the Samaritans were treated worse.
But no matter how we were treated as a group, the people of Nazareth were treated worse. In the years to come, Nazareth would be a town whose name would be written in the pages of history but it is not even mentioned in what you have come to call the Old Testament. Neither Josephus nor any of the rabbis ever wrote a word about Nazareth. It was a town for ridicule and scorn; it was a town from which nothing good was expected.
So when Philip told me that they had found the Messiah and He came from Nazareth, I could only ask, half in jest, “can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Yet I knew that good could come from Nazareth because I had studied the Scriptures and the Law. Everyone else expected the Messiah would come from the line of David and that meant that He would come from Bethlehem and Judah, Every scripture that you read tells you that the Messiah will be born in Judea, not in Galilee. But I had studied the scriptures as well and I knew that good in the form of the Savior could come from Nazareth.
And, in my heart, I was looking for this Savior. Andrew and John had all followed the Baptizer as he traveled around the Galilee before they had become Jesus’ disciples. They brought their brothers Simon and James to meet Jesus. Then they brought my friend Philip.
I heard the Baptizer’s call for repentance and preparation but his call was not the call I sought. When Philip came with his message, I knew in my heart that Jesus was the one I was searching for, the one that I sought.
You can understand how I felt. You do not go to the doctor when you are well; you only go when you are sick. You do not call the plumber when there are no leaks but when a pipe leaks, you quickly call. And so now, when you feel lost and forgotten, you try to find the one who will give you direction.
When I met Jesus for the first time three years ago, He spoke of seeing me studying under the fig tree in my yard. I knew then that He was the Messiah.
It would take me three years of following and listening for me and the other disciples to understand His teachings. We would watch in amazement as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. We were in awe as he gave life to the limbs of the lame and he cured so many people of their illnesses and diseases that only perplexed the doctors and healers.
And when He sent us out on our first mission and we did many of the same things, what joy filled our hearts! Of course, we did not understand what power He had given us nor did we understand what it was we were to do with this power. But we saw and we listened and we were amazed at what was happening across the landscape of this country.
And we were there when He brought His friend Lazarus out of the tomb some three days after he had died. Of course, we did not understand what that meant when we saw it that first time.
And last Sunday, what joy we felt when Jesus was welcomed into the city. The people crowded the streets, shouting “Hosanna” and waving the palms in the celebration of the new king. Three years, we had walked the countryside and now we entered the city as heroes.
But the joy of the people quickly disappeared. They wanted an earthly king, one who would lead an army and drive out the Romans. Like us, they did not always understand the message of the kingdom that Jesus taught us.
And our joy quickly disappeared into confusion and bewilderment. And the confusion quickly became fear. And with the fear came the thought that everything, everything that we had done was gone.
One of our own was dead and another was in hiding, having openly denounced the man who had taught him and named him as his successor.
We had gathered on Thursday for the Passover meal. A meal that was supposed to be a meal of celebration and joy took on the ghostly pale of death.
First Jesus announced that one of us, one of those who had walked with Him for three years, would betray Him that very night. Who among us would betray the trust and friendship that three years had developed? We did not know?
And then Jesus spoke of His death. He offered the bread and called it His Body, broken for our sins. He offered the wine and called it His Blood, shed for our sins. The Passover is a celebration meal and yet He was talking of death. It was not the first time He had spoken of His death and yet we still did not understand.
And then we went into the garden to pray. Unfortunately, the day and the week had taken their toil and we disciples feel asleep. Twice Jesus woke us up and encouraged us to keep watch and pray with him but we could not. So, at the hour of His betrayal, none of us saw the authorities coming with the soldiers to arrest Him.
Yes, we ran away. Yes, we hid. We feared for our lives. We felt that after the authorities dealt with Jesus, they would come after us and we did not want to suffer the same fate that Jesus was going through.
As we gathered we found out it was Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Judas had been our friend and it confused us as to why he would do so. Perhaps it was because Judas sought military power and wanted to fight for the kingdom on earth.
But it was clear that he no longer believed in Jesus as we did. But he didn’t expect the authorities to try Jesus and condemn Him to death. We know that he tried to give back the monies that the authorities had given him in exchange for his betrayal.
And where was Peter? After we hid, Peter had said something about trying to find a way to help Jesus escape but each time that he was spotted he denied knowing Jesus. And when the rooster crowed on Friday morning, Peter had denied Jesus not just once but three times, just as Jesus said he would.
The trials, which everyone knew were a sham, were completed that night and we saw the people turn against the very man whom they had cheered some five days ago.
I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. When we started three years ago, the crowds were huge but they soon dwindled as people realized that they were being called to take on responsibilities in the new kingdom that Jesus spoke of. How many times did we see some rich man or some Pharisee come to us in secret and profess his belief in what Jesus was saying but leave disappointed that he couldn’t keep his power or the glory of his position.
And Friday, we heard that Judas had killed himself. We were told by some of our friends that Judas realized what he had done and how the authorities had lied to him. He tried to give the money they had given back but they only laughed in his face. So ashamed of his act was he that he killed himself.
And Peter was missing and we feared for what he might do. And as we hid, fearful for own lives, our Lord and Teacher died on a cross on a hill just outside of town, in the place they called Golgotha.
John was able to take Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene and other to Golgotha but there was nothing they could do but watch as the soldiers mocked Him and gambled for His clothes. They could do nothing as He cried out in thirst and pain.
And He died, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And He died.
And as the sky turned black on that Friday, they took His body down. There was no time for a proper burial so they placed His body in a tomb. How ironic that we had friends who would find a place to bury our teacher but would not speak out in His time of need. They wouldn’t even let Mary, his mother, or our friends Mary and Martha properly prepare His body for burial.
All through the Saturday Sabbath, we hid and wondered when the authorities would come for us. All through the Sabbath, we wondered what we would do.
Peter, Andrew, James, and John spoke of going back to the Galilee and begin fishing again. I thought that maybe I could find a school where I could finish my studies but I wondered who would teach me as much as I had learned from Jesus. We all knew that we couldn’t really go back to the lives we had left some three years before but what could we do?
And then this morning, the word came. Mary and Martha had gone to the tomb, hoping somehow to find the body and do what was the only decent and proper thing to do. We knew that the authorities had posted guards around the tomb because they thought they we would seek to steal Jesus’ body. They had even gone so far as to place a bigger stone than usual in front of the tomb to keep us out.
How were we ever going to steal His body? What power did we have? They had shown us what they thought of us and it was clear that they were not going to tolerate what we had to say any more than they had tolerated our Teacher.
But then Mary came running in to tell us the tomb was empty. We did not believe her. It wasn’t that her words were false but how could a man rise from the dead and live again? Even though we had seen it happen with Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, we still not believe that it was true.
Peter and John ran to the tomb to confirm this. And Mary then told us that she had seen Jesus and that He was alive. She told us that she was not to touch Him but that she should tell us to return to Galilee and He would meet us there.
Then, it became clear. Everything that Jesus had said over three years, every illusion or mention of resurrection and everlasting life, every mention of what was to come began to make sense. Jesus did escape from the tomb and the movement that He had begun was not finished. It was almost as if it was now just beginning.
In a few days, I will gather with my friends and we will again be with our friend, our teacher, our Lord and our Savior. We will encounter Him on the road to Emmaus and we will find Him on the beach preparing food. We will see the wounds on His hands and feet and see where He was pierced in the side. We will know that He has truly risen from the dead.
And we will begin taking the movement from Galilee into the world. My friend Thomas and I will begin a mission trip to take the Gospel to the Indians and I will travel to Georgia, much like John and Charles Wesley will do.
I leave you today with these thoughts. When I first met Christ, it was clear that my most hidden thoughts of my mind and my soul were open to the One who would send His Son to seek us out. And just as God used Philip to bring me to Jesus, so does He use each one of us to reveal Christ to the world. He will find ways to use us in ways that we cannot understand at this moment; He will give us the words and the confidence that we need at those times when our words and confidence disappear.
And as He Himself said on that first encounter, we will see things that will bring the Glory of God to life in this world. We celebrate today because today we know that Christ has indeed risen. Alleluia and Amen!