I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Easter Sunday; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this morning were Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and John 20: 1 – 18.
These are the memories of one of the twelve, Nathaniel Bartholomew, of that day long ago.
There is a spiritual sung throughout the south that asks if you were there when they crucified my Lord. (“Were You There?”). Sad to say, I wasn’t there that day. I, with nine of my friends was hiding; hiding because I knew that the authorities, having arrested our teacher and friend, would pretty soon be coming after each one of us.
And as the political and religious authorities arrested and tried him, we ran away and hid. We had failed our Lord, our teacher, our friend. At the time that He most needed us, we weren’t there. One of us had betrayed him; another had denied Him.
But I was there that Sunday morning when I heard the good news of His Resurrection and it is that good news that I wish to share with you this morning.
My name is Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the twelve disciples. I was there from almost the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, of his walk through the Galilee offering a new message, a message of hope and promise to a people forgot by the rich and powerful, the authorities, and even the church. Granted, I should have not been there for I almost dismissed Jesus as another one of those charlatans who wandered the countryside, promising much but delivering little, taking from the people and never returning anything.
When my friend Philip first told me that they (meaning his friends James, John, and Peter) had found the Messiah and that he was from Nazareth, I jokingly remarked that “what good can come from Nazareth?”
You have to understand that we Galileans were considered the lower part of society. The rich and powerful lived in Jerusalem and felt that anyone who did not live there was worthless. And among the Galileans, those from Nazareth were treated the worse. Only the Samaritans were treated worse than those of us from the Galilee. So it was that I first dismissed my friend’s bold claim.
But then I met Jesus and I knew that I was wrong. He told me how he had seen me studying under the fig tree and I knew that the promise of the Scripture was fulfilled in this man from Nazareth (I said then and there that Jesus was the Son of God and the true king of Israel). So I gathered up my books and I began to follow, just as James, John, Andrew, Peter, and Philip followed. Andrew and John had been followers of the Baptizer, the one who spoke of another one who was to come; one who would bring God’s grace to the world.
So with Thomas, James the Less, Matthew, Jude, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot we followed. Such an interesting group we were; with the exception of Judas Iscariot, we were all Galileans. We were young and life for us was like steam in an un-popped kernel of popcorn just before it exploded. We understood that we had a responsibility to our God and to our country and, in following Jesus we had the opportunity to meet that responsibility. We had a chance to make our lives count.
It was a troubling time; beneath the surface of joy that we had were many anxieties. You could not always see the troubles but you could feel the greed and hatred, the selfishness and anger, the lust and the hate that existed between areas of the country, between those from the southern lands and those from the northern lands, between the Israelites and the Samaritans, between all the Jews and the Roman authority.
Our country was an occupied country, governed by a tyrannical military government that imposed its own taxes on top of our own. There were only rich people and poor people and each day more and more people sold themselves into slavery to pay their bills.
Yet in this darkness was this promise of hope, this offer of a better life if we would but choose to follow Him. So for three years, we followed and listened; for three years we heard the words that brought joy and comfort to a people burdened by an uncaring society, increasing taxes, and domination by Roman. For three years, we watched Jesus bring life to the limbs of the lame, sound to the ears of the deaf, and light to the eyes of the blind. For three years we watched one man bring hope and promise to a people cast aside by society and their religious leaders.
In this unfriendly world, the only way many people thought that they could survive was through corruption and abuse of power. You would have thought that the priests and rabbis who ran the Temple in Jerusalem would have cared for the people of Israel; that is what our rabbis at home had taught us. The Torah was very specific about the need to care for people, to show concern for the sick and infirm, the poor and destitute, those without possessions. But when we would go to the Temple, we had to pay the tax and our own coins, carefully saved for that once a year trip to Jerusalem, were judged worthless by the Temple authorities.
“Go to the money changers and get the right kind of money,” they would tell us. And Matthew, wise to the ways of the tax collector and the money changer would catch them every time charging more than was fair or equitable. And we wondered how many men, women, and children came to the temple to bring a sacrifice but were turned away because their lamb was imperfect or their dove had a spot on its wing and no one would sell them the “right” animal without trying to take advantage of the situation. Even with the tricks that Matthew showed us, it was still impossible to help all the pilgrims, even more so when it was clear that the High Priest, his priests, and the rabbis, all benefited from the graft and corruption. We could see Jesus getting angry but we never knew how angry it was going to make Him.
And one day, Jesus sent us out into the world, telling us to preach the Gospel and heal the people. And much to our surprise, we could and did heal the sick, bring voice to those who could not speak, sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf.
But then, one day, things began to change. Mary and Martha received word that their brother Lazarus was dying. We hurried back to Bethany but it was too late; Lazarus’ body was sealed in the tomb. Yet Jesus stood before the tomb entrance and commanded that Lazarus walk out of the tomb. And then Jesus began speaking of His own death. We had never heard those words before and they were confusing. Peter told us about the day that James, John, and he went with Jesus to the mountaintop and there saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah and how Jesus had commanded them not to say anything.
Peter, being Peter, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah but then when it became clear that Jesus was speaking of his own death tried to shut Jesus up. It was a very confusing time.
And then came last Sunday. Jesus told us to go to a house in Bethany and get a small colt in preparation for a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Finally, after three years of traveling across the countryside of the Galilee, we were going to get some recognition.
And the people cheered, shouting Hosanna and waving palms. Three years of frustration, three years of wandering the back roads of Galilee vanished in the shouts of the people. 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 understand the message of the kingdom that Jesus taught.
On Tuesday we went to the Temple and three years of frustration and anger came to a head. We have never seen Jesus angry but here He was, a man who preached peace, throwing out the money-changers and the sellers who overcharged the people. It was clear that what mankind had done in and to the Temple was never what God had intended and Jesus made it clear that things would be different in the coming Kingdom.
We then began to make preparations for the Passover meal. This was to be the best Passover meal we had ever celebrated as a group. Together with our families and our friends, we were celebrating the proclamation of Jesus as our Savior. But this meal, of celebration and promise, quickly became a meal with the pall of death hovering over it.
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? Jesus told us of the sign of betrayal but we did not understand what He meant.
And then He told Peter that he, Peter, would deny Him not once but three times before the rooster crowed the next morning. Peter, being Peter, of course denied that and said that he would never do such a thing. Those very words, we would find out, would come back to haunt Peter for many days later.
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.
As was our custom, we went into the garden to pray that night. Unfortunately, the hours, the days, the week had taken their toll and we fell 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. And we ran away and hid.
Why shouldn’t we have run away and 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 in hiding, we discovered that Peter and Judas were missing. Some of our friends told us it was Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Why would he do this? Did he get angry because the woman bought that oil and had washed Jesus’ feet the week before? Or did he think that Jesus was going to lead an armed revolution against the Romans and the establishment?
Whatever the reason, 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 now he was missing.
And where was Peter? Peter had tried to stop the authorities from arresting Jesus, taking a sword and striking one of the soldiers and cutting off his ear. But Jesus stopped Peter from further action and then healed the soldier’s wounds. How interesting was it that on the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus took care of an injured soldier who took part in the arrest.
Peter didn’t go with us and we figured that he was going to try and 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. And now Peter was not with us.
Everyone knew that the trial that night was a sham and the people who were cheering His entry five days before were now turning against him. 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 because he couldn’t keep his money, his power or the glory of his position.
I still remember that Friday but only as the worst day of my life. The town of Jerusalem, once full of joy and celebration, was now strangely quiet. It was a dark and cold day with thunderstorms in the distance. And each rumble of thunder almost sounded like the hammer hitting the nails that were driven into Jesus’ hands and feet as the Roman soldiers nailed Him to the Cross.
And we could hear the weeping of His mother, Mary, and the other women in our band of followers over the cackling of the soldiers as they gambled for His clothing. How sad it must have been for Mary to watch her son, promised at His birth to be the Salvation of Mankind, die on the cross. And in the pain and agony of His own death, Jesus again thought only of others as he commanded the care of his mother to John Zebedee. But they could do nothing as He cried out in thirst and pain.
And as the sky turned black, He died, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Because it was the Sabbath, they took His body down. 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.
All through that 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 could not believe that it was true. Even though Jesus Himself had told us that this would happen, we did not believe it.
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 began three years before was not finished but just beginning.
I was there that first Sunday morning. Despite the efforts of many powerful politicians and religious leaders, I saw that the Gospel message that I had heard and seen take place for three years was to continue. And that is why I come to you today. Because Easter Sunday is not simply the proclamation of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and triumph of sin and death; it is the proclamation that the Gospel message continues.
Over the next few days, many and more of our friends, our neighbors and the disciples will become aware of this celebration. We will gather together on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and be with our friend, our teacher, and our Lord. We will meet Him on the road to Emmaus and He will join us in our groups, wherever we are. And we will prepare to take the Good News that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that there is hope in a world where there may not seem to be hope. We will begin to take this message beyond the Galilee and out into the world..
My friend Thomas and I will begin a journey to worlds we never even knew existed before we became disciples. Like John and Charles Wesley later, I will go to Georgia. It will not be an easy life, but we were told that early on. And though we may suffer, we understand what we will gain.
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!