This is the message that I gave at Neon (KY) UMC on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1999. The Scriptures that I used were Acts 10: 34 – 43, Colossians 3: 1 – 4, and John 20: 1 – 8.
A few years ago, my mother gave my two brothers, sister, and I photo albums for Christmas. She had took all the photos that she had taken or collected of each of us, both individually and with each other, and arranged them in a year by year story of our life. There always seemed to be one or two photos of the four of us taken at either Christmas or Easter. You could always tell the Easter photos because it was spring like outside and it seemed like my sister had a new dress and my two brothers and I had new suits or sports jackets.
I think that is one thing we always remember about Easter. It is the time that we got new clothes. Easter has always been a celebration not only of Christ’s resurrection but also of springtime. I think that the celebration of springtime sometimes takes precedence over the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Still it is important to think of some of the first Easters that we have taken part in.
Today will be one of those Easters for me because it is the first Easter sermon I have had to write. I also remember the Easter back in 1969 when I went to the pastor of the Methodist Church in Kirksville, Marvin Fortel, and asked if I could take communion early that year because I wasn’t going to be in Kirksville for Easter that year. I think it took Reverend Fortel by surprise when I asked him because he wasn’t used to students asking to do that. But Kirksville was my home church and I didn’t want to miss that part of Easter.
But while we celebrate Easter, either by the gathering of the family or a special dinner or some new clothes, we have to remember that the first Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection didn’t start off as a celebration.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
For while Jesus had been telling his disciples that he would rise from the dead, they didn’t quite believe him. But like many things, this is a moment when everything that we are taught suddenly all clicks and we understand. The other disciple, after first afraid to go into the tomb, went inside and then when he saw that Jesus was not there, he understood and believed that Jesus had told them truthfully.
In the movie “Field of Dreams”, only those that understood what the baseball field was about saw the players playing baseball. If you did not understand what it was all about, you did not see the players. Interestingly enough, the players could see everyone. But people came to see the field of dreams because they wanted to believe. As Peter said in Acts,
but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
But what about those of us who were not there? How is it that we know that Christ overcame death and arose from the dead? There comes a time in our journey when we simply have to believe that Christ is our Savior. We have heard the stories, we know the message but are we ready for the truth behind the stories and the message?
How can we believe when around us, things look so sorrowful? When Mary came to the tomb that morning, she was distraught because Jesus was not there. Are we not like that? Are there not moments when we wanted Jesus to be there for us and it didn’t seem like He was there? But at those times, when the world seems the darkest, all we have to do, like Mary, is turn around and find that Jesus is standing right there.
This first Easter offered the believers hope for the future. In my prayer guide is a story about an Easter in prison. I don’t know the reason why the author was in prison, where he was in prison, or when he was in prison.
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 probably the first time that I used this story but it is not the first time that it was published – see “The Message Is Clear”, especially the comments.
To those who did not know what Christ’s death was about, this was a sign of hope. To those who knew but were not sure, it was a sign of renewal that their faith is true.
If Christ had not risen from the dead, there can be no hope for us. If Christ had not risen from the dead, then sin would have be victorious and we would have been in the prison of sin, without any hope. But Christ did rise from the dead and the hope is given that life is more than what it might seem.
But, for the tomb to be truly empty for us, for Christ, we must understand that Christ can rise from the dead, we must have faith in Christ. Like Wesley in Aldersgate, we must know in our hearts that Christ died for our sins, our sins alone. When this occurs, we will know it. For Wesley, he felt his heart strangely warmed.
We called those who came to the tomb that morning his disciples. We often think of disciples as “students of a teacher” but the word better means “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament means following Jesus, taking the journey with him.
To be on a journey with Jesus means to be a itinerant, a sojourner; to have no single place to call home. It means taking our lives from a day-to-day existence, trapped in sin to that of a life in and with the Spirit.
As Paul told the Colossians, we must no longer live in this earthly world but rather to set our lives above.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is in your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
This journey means listening to Jesus’ teaching – sometimes, like the disciples, not quite getting the message but then understanding it. It is not an easy road that we travel. Like Peter on the night of the crucifixion who denied Jesus three times, there are going to be times when we too will deny or even betray him.
But being a disciple of Jesus also offers the opportunity for us to eat at his table, to experience the banquet. Peter told the people in Acts “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” To sit at Christ’s table, means that we will be fed and nourished by Him. The journey may be a long one but like the five thousand Jesus feed, it becomes easier when Christ eases the journey by His presence in our lives.
The journey may be a long one but we know that we are not alone. Nor is the journey complete. Having come to Christ, having accepted Christ as our Savior, we must do as Peter spoke to the people in Acts:
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
On day in Israel some 2000 years ago a group of people gathered. At first the gathering was one of sorrow because Jesus was dead and all that they had sought for three years was gone. But the sorrow changed to happiness and joy when the disciples learned that He was alive and that all He said came true.
It is that way for us. This is a day of celebration, of knowing that the first Easter was still true today, that Christ has risen and that He lives today.