“This First Easter”

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.

“What Do We Do Next? – Thoughts on Easter, 2017

There are two parts to this message – the first being random thoughts on the preparation of a message; the second being the actual thoughts.  I think the first is needed to set the tone for the second.

Random Thoughts on The Preparation of a Message

The first few times that I gave a message I used specific scripture readings.  I was only preaching once or twice a year so this method worked (and it is something that I suggested beginning lay servants do as well).  This works well when you have sufficient time to prepare and think through what you want to say and do.

But I quickly found out that this didn’t work as well when you had to do it on a weekly basis.  (The first lay speaking assignments that I received were on a multi-week basis and not spot assignments; not the assignments a typical lay servant would receive today.)  So, I turned to the lectionary for the basis of my scriptures; first using the Common Lectionary outlined in The Guide to Prayer (published by the Upper Room) and then with the Revised Common Lectionary.

But whether I was using specific readings or readings from either lectionary, I wanted to make what I said a connection between the readings and what was taking place at that time and place.  I also made the decision to use all three of the lectionary readings (which is something that I have suggested beginning lay servants do not do).

But the Holy Week readings have always been, for the lack of a better word, a dilemma for me.  Over the years, I have begun to understand how it is all set up and the need to know what is happening at the church where I am to work out what I shall say.  And I came to the decision that works for me is to look at the complete story, not simply the story expressed by the Gospel writers.

I have, with unspoken thanks to others, also seen that there are other ways to give the message and have tried on occasion to take the message outside the confines of the pulpit.

And so, it is that I come to this Easter Sunday.

Thoughts on Easter Sunday, 2017

I assume that you, dear reader, are familiar with the Gospel readings for this Sunday (if not, the lectionary readings for today are Acts 10: 34 – 43; Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 14 – 24; Colossians 3: 1 – 4; and John 20: 1 – 8) so I am going to focus on the setting and the thoughts of those that were there and try to put where we are today, socially and spiritually, into that context.

Keep in mind that this day is a nexus.  It marks the end of one story and the beginnings of a new story.  We have the benefit of knowing this; those that were there that day do not.  But even today, we are faced with as much of an uncertain future as those who had followed Jesus two thousand years ago and, perhaps, we are, just as they may have been thinking then, wondering what it is that we do next?

Easter Sunday begins in a cloud of doubt and fear.  Jesus is dead, buried in the tomb, and the disciples are in hiding, fearful for their lives and not certain what, if anything they can do.  Everything they have done for three years has been destroyed.

Can they go home and pick up where they left off three years before?  Will they even be welcome?  What do they say to those who question their friendship and devotion to one now considered by religious and political authorities to be rebel and a criminal?  Can it ever be safe to talk about what they did when someone asked them where they have been or what they have been doing?

And what of all the people with whom they worked or encountered?  What do they say to all those people who were healed, fed, or comforted?  Was it a trick or a con?  What will they say to those who come to them now, seeking the same healing, the same comfort, or seeking to be fed?

Right now, the only answer that they have is that HE is not here anymore so you must go somewhere else.

Is this not how so many of us feel today?  We see our world being destroyed.  Our land is being taken away by corporate and political systems our water, our air is being poisoned, often with the support of religious authorities.  Religious and political authorities seemingly want to tell us what to think and how to act (all while they themselves think they are immune to the same laws).

And the church, which in the past was a sanctuary of hope for those without hope, a refugee for those cast out by society, has become a mirror of the church two thousand years ago, exclusive and restrictive, saying to many, “go away, you do not belong here and you are not welcome.”

The person who is called Jesus in these churches is not the Jesus who lives in me.  I do not know the person who would say to any person, “go away or you are not worthy.”  I do not know the person who would say that wealth is good and one should see all one can, even if it means that others go hungry or become sick or have no place to live.

The Jesus that I know, the Jesus that is in my heart and soul is the one who let the children come to Him at a time when children were ignored.  The Jesus I know feed the hungry, even when it seems as if there was not enough for one person.  The Jesus I know healed the sick, even when doing so would make it impossible for Him to enter the Temple because he had become unclean.  The Jesus I know looked at the person and not the law; he gave meaning to hope.

And somehow, I think those where the thoughts that had to have been in the minds of the disciples and the followers that first Easter morning.  And yet they were probably also asking what they were going to do next.

And then it happened.  The word came, first with uncertainty but then with clarity that the tomb was empty and Jesus was not there!  The word was passed from one to the next that He was alive and all that He had said and done for three years was did, in fact, have meaning.  And it meant that there was a future.

It would be a future that became a vision and then a reality, first by the Twelve and those that were there at the beginning, then by Paul, and then by generation after generation of believers until today.  It would be a message that reached the limits of the known world.

It would be a future expressed by John Wesley.  In a world of danger and despair, of revolution and revolt, John Wesley would gather together a band of friends and work out a system that would offer hope.  It has been said that England at the time of John Wesley was on the verge of the same violent revolution that swept over and through France.  And yet, England remained calm, perhaps because John Wesley saw that the way to avoid violence was to remove the causes of violence.

How is today not unlike the world in which Jesus began His ministry or the world that John Wesley saw when he began what became known as the Methodist Revival?

And, on this day, when our doubts and fears are removed as easily as the stone was rolled away from the tomb, is it not clear what we must do?

It will take more than one day (remembering that Easter is a season and not just a single day on the church calendar).  It will take a lot of effort; even if Jesus had not predicted the violent deaths of all but one of his disciples, I am sure that they knew it would not be easy.

It will make us outcasts in society but no more so than John Wesley who would be barred from preaching in churches or even the early Methodists in this country who could not build churches of their own.

But we who know the truth know in that truth we will be set free.  And we know that what we do will change the world, even if we are not here when that change comes.

So, we remember why Jesus came and we remember that death could not keep him imprisoned.  We remember that the lives of people were changed two thousand years ago and through the ages until today.  And then we will know what we must do.

The Missing Day

This is not a “normal” Easter sermon.  First, I gave it on Saturday night at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY); second, I used the reading from the Psalms for Good Friday (Psalm 22) as the basis for part of the message.  I present to you today as the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew, a disciple and friend of Jesus Christ.  I have created a four-person play based on the reading from the Psalm and this manuscript (contact me if you would like to see a copy).


This is a night of questions, questions that often do not have any answers. In the darkness, we feel lost and afraid, more afraid than anything else that there is no hope, no promise. It is a night in which God has counted the people and we feel as if we have been missed in the counting. Hear now a story about that first missing day.

We hear the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew as he sits alone.

The Sabbath has ended and though it is dark outside, people are making plans to return home. They have come to Jerusalem and celebrated Passover. Now it is time to return home, rejoicing in the celebration of God’s redemption of His people, of His delivering the people from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance to the Promised Land.

But in other, darkened corners of the city, there are some for whom there is no celebration. Followers of Jesus, they are fearful that they too will be hunted down and executed in the manner in which their Master, their Teacher, and their Friend had been.

Jesus had spoken of the cost that following Him would take and it was becoming apparent that it was a deadly cost. The disciple Judas Iscariot, angry over Jesus’ refusal to sell the ointment the woman had used to anoint Him, was now dead. Having realized what His betrayal of Jesus really meant and that the religious and political authorities had been him played for a fool, he killed himself.

There is a rumor that Peter was also dead. Peter, known for his strong will and impulsive character, had denied Jesus three times during the night that Jesus was arrested. No one could predict what the leader of the disciples, the man who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah but then just as quickly and meekly denied he had ever known Jesus.

And so the disciples hid in fear. Twelve hours after Jesus cried out, “My God! My God! What have you forsaken me!” they too wonder where God may be and if He had forsaken them. Has God abandoned them as He appears to have abandoned Jesus?

Where are you, God! Why did you let this happen? What is to become of us? Why have you left us in our time of need and despair? Where is the hope, the promise that we were told would be coming when we left our homes, our families and our livelihoods to follow Jesus? Did we not enter Jerusalem six days ago amidst shouts of acclamation and celebration? Why did the people turn against Jesus so quickly? Where are you, God? Am I among the missing now?

We believed He was the Messiah but now He is dead, buried in a tomb somewhere.

I feel like a fool for ever thinking that Jesus was the Messiah. I should have known there was some sort of trick involved when He told me He had seen me sitting under the tree studying the Scriptures that day three years ago.

What do I do know? Where do I go? Surely, I can’t go home. My family and friends will all laugh at me. ‘Nathaniel, how is that this Jesus could save others but he couldn’t save Himself?’ they will ask me. Surely a king would have an army to fight for him; where was Jesus’ army?

And you and those others you have been with, why you didn’t even try to stop the soldiers from arresting Jesus! You were asleep and then, when you awoke, you ran away! This Jesus of yours was no better than some of the magicians who travel through this town using their magic tricks like changing water into wine to amuse the people. I bet all those people who you say Jesus healed were fakes. We’ve seen them before, faking illness to extract money from the passers-by. Your Jesus was a fake but you are afraid to say it.

But He did heal the sick. I saw Him give sight to the blind and I saw how He helped the lame to walk; I was there with the crowds and I helped Him feed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. I saw Him change the lives of so many people; people whom were scorned and cast-out, people barred from entering the Temple because there was something wrong with them.

And He taught me how to do the same. He sent us out into the world and we did all the things that He did. But now He is dead, consider a rebel and radical, a threat to society. Can I even think that I can do all those things without Him by my side?

And I suppose that I will be barred from the Temple now because I chose to follow Jesus. Perhaps it is just as well; if Jesus was truly God’s Son and God left Him to die on that Cross, then why should I even think that I could go into God’s House, the Temple again? I wonder if God is even in the Temple anymore. Could it be that God let Jesus die because we kicked God out of the house?

Wasn’t that what it was all about? Didn’t Jesus cleanse the temple a few days ago because it was no longer God’s House? Maybe God isn’t in the Temple? If He isn’t in the Temple, then where is He?

How many times did Jesus speak of His Father and being with Him and He with Jesus? Did not God speak to the people when Jesus’ cousin baptized Him and say that this was my Son in whom I am well pleased? Were we as blind as all the others? What clues did we miss?

What was He said last week when He rescued Lazarus from that tomb? What were those words that He said the other night when we were gathered for the Passover meal? Could it be that Jesus is the Messiah as we have always believed? Could it be that Jesus is the Christ and we have not been forgotten?

But how do I find out? My friend, Thomas, would probably want proof that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead. And the only way that can be is if we see the empty tomb and we perhaps see Jesus, just as we saw Lazarus walk from his tomb. But with soldiers guarding the tomb, that won’t be easy.

Suddenly the cock crows and the sun rises on the third day. And a voice cries out, “Nathaniel, have you heard the news!”

It was my friend and fellow disciple, Peter. He was alright. It was obvious that his denial of Jesus two days ago and the death of Jesus had really shaken him but he was still the confident leader of our band. But I saw that he had changed, perhaps in ways that only time would be able to show. And then He gave me the good news; Jesus was not in the tomb! He had risen! He told me that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women in our group had gone to the tomb to see if they could properly prepare the body, since it was taken down in haste before the beginning of the Sabbath.

They had no idea what they were going to say to the soldiers or how they were going to roll away the stone that closed the tomb. But when they got there, the stone had been rolled away and the soldiers looked as if they had seen death itself.

Mary said that an angel was sitting on the stone and told her to not be afraid, that she wouldn’t find Jesus in the tomb because He was not there. As He had said, He had been raised from the dead and if she looked into the tomb, she would only see the where he had been laid. She and the others with her were to go and tell us, the disciples, what she had seen and what she had been told and that He would be with us in a few days. And as she ran to tell us, Jesus met her and confirmed all that the angel had said.

We would meet Jesus a few days later. In fact, we would meet Him several times in the coming days. And slowly, each of us, the disciples, our friends, our families, all who had been with him these three years would begin to understand just what it was we have been a part of and what we were being asked to do.

There is a day in my life that I wish were missing – it is that day that began when Jesus cried out in pain and agony and gave up His life; it ended on the third day when He arose from the dead and conquered sin and death so that we might live. It was a day of private pain and anguish; it was a day of loss and grief. It was more than the loss of a friend; it was a feeling that I had lost every thing.

Perhaps there has been a day like that in your life, a day in your life, a day when you think that God has forgotten you and thrown you to the world. It may be that you have felt this loss and you have come here tonight thinking perhaps you can find what you are missing. Understand what tomorrow, Easter Sunday, means.

It means a new beginning for all, not just a few. It means that God cares about each person, no matter where they are in life, how old they are, or even who they are. It means that no one need live a life with missing days, where there is no purpose or form to life.

With the rising of the sun to mark the new day and to illuminate the empty tomb, the Risen Son can say to all that there is a new hope, a new promise to one’s life. The call is made to all to rejoice in this new day, to see the Risen Christ.

The call will be made to others, like Nathaniel Bartholomew, Peter, James, John, Thomas and even Mary Magdalene, Mary and her sister Martha, to seek those who are missing, to go out into the world and tell the story. It is a call to let everyone know that no one should be missing in God’s world.

And though the world may be dark as we leave this place tonight, we know that the sun will shine tomorrow and the Son will rise. We rejoice in the day that tells us we no longer must endure missing days.

“What Will You Say?”

I do not know about you but I have the distinct impression that were Christ to have been crucified last week, the protestors surrounding the hospice in Florida where Terry Schiavo is staying would be surrounding the cross demanding that Jesus be taken down from there. "He is in too much pain and suffering to be up there," they would cry. "He doesn’t deserve to die like that," they would say. "Even though He cannot speak for Himself, we know that His wishes would be to be with us," they would pronounce with all solemnity and ardor. But, were this to have occurred, the protestors, like the disciples in the New Testament, would not understand what transpired that Friday afternoon at Golgotha.

I am amazed at what has transpired this past week. But I am more amazed by what did not occur last week. If the protestors put so much value on one life, why are they not in Minnesota calling for the redemption of the lives of the individuals killed in Red Lake. Why are they not calling for support for school professionals to intercede when the warning signs tell us that a young man or woman is about to do something terrible. Are our concerns about the lives of individuals only important when a state has a large number of electoral votes?

The people who are fighting to keep Terri Schiavo alive have enough political power to force Congress into passing bills of questionable constitutionality and getting the President of the United States to intervene. Yet, while they will protest when nourishment and water has been taken away from one individual, they are not on the steps of the capitol in Washington, D. C., screaming at the congressman who voted to cut the food stamp and other support programs for the poor. Is it easier to fight for one person who has a name rather than the countless poor and homeless who have no names in society? In a time when the fight seems to be over values, what are the values of the protestors?

If life is so dear to these Christians, why are they not fighting to stop the war in Iraq and the killing in Northern Ireland and the genocide in so many regions of Africa? Is it because there is no political capital to be gained; there is no money to be raised to support their efforts?

I do not mean to be cynical and I am certainly do not want to diminish the pain and anguish that all concerned in this case must be going through. As Christians, we value and cherish life and, over the years, we have found ways to make life last longer. But, as Christians, we know that our time on earth is limited and that efforts to continue that time can often be meaningless and futile. It is not up to us to judge what others may do; it is not up to us to determine what others can or cannot do. We can and should give comfort and support, aid and assistance. But, if we believe that each individual makes the choice to follow Christ, then we must also believe that each individual has the right and the ability to choose for themselves the path they wish to walk into heaven.

As Christians, we hold to the belief in eternal life after death. Are we going to deny Terri Schiavo the right to decide that she would rather enter the kingdom of Heaven and say to her that she must live the life that she now lives? What in our faith says that we can make such decisions?

It is thus up to us to insure that others know what our choices are, especially in situations like what has transpired in Florida this past week, and it is up to us to honor the choices that others make in this regard. We cannot presume to know more than they nor, like some of the pronouncements that have come out of Florida, presume to know better than God what God is thinking or planning.

Our faith gives us knowledge of God, not a guarantee of knowing God’s wishes. As believers, we live in a dark world and we seek a path to the light. That light and the path to the light, as has been said many times, is Jesus Christ. We seek the knowledge of God, not God’s knowledge. We cannot claim to know God’s wishes, only that we know God through Christ.

This is the dilemma that the disciples faced that first Easter weekend some two thousand years ago. They watched their teacher, their friend struggle and die on the Cross. But they could not know that the sky was turning black because the sins of mankind from ages past and ages yet to come were covering the light. They could not know that Christ’s cry of anguish, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!" was the culmination of the sacrifice that Christ had to make in order for our lives to be free.

It was clear that they did not know what was to come that first Easter weekend. For if they knew, why were they so surprised when they found the tomb empty?

Mary comes to the tomb that first Easter morning more in grief than in expectation. What have the past two days been for her and the others? Perhaps she was angry at the Romans for killing her friend and teacher. Perhaps she was angry at the Sanhedrin for orchestrating the whole think and cooperating with the Romans. She may have even been angry with God.

And what were the disciples doing that morning? Their teacher had been declared a common criminal, an enemy of the state. Their own lives were in jeopardy and it was best that they hide for a while. And with the mission gone, what were they to do? As they secretly gathered somewhere around Jerusalem, did they make plans to return to the previous occupations such as fisherman and accountants?

And how that grief and anger must have multiplied when Mary found the tomb empty. Now she could not even complete the rituals of death that brought comfort to a soul; now she could not see to it that Jesus was properly attended too. And the disciples, upon hearing that the tomb was empty, surely they feared for their lives. For if word got out that the tomb was empty, would the authorities hunt them down as thieves as well as followers?

It is clear that the understanding of what today represented back then did not come that morning. It is clear that over the period of the next few weeks and even years, the disciples will struggle to understand what it is that they were a part of and what it is that they will be asked to do.

It would be one thing for us to grieve at the loss of Jesus; it would certainly be the most natural thing to do. After all, what man, woman, or child has not experienced grief in their time? Our lives most certainly have their frustrations; too often war, hunger, injustice, poverty, disease and natural disasters prevail. We have to ask ourselves what shall we say this morning? How can we explain this morning to our friends, our neighbors, those we meet on the street?

How can we explain what drove the prophets of the Old Testament to pit their lives against their society and their culture? How can we explain what drove Jesus to the cross? If we understand that Jesus loved us as His Father loved Him, then we can explain it. We can explain and tell others that we come to the tomb this morning because of love. Yes, we come because we mourn the death of Jesus; we come out of emptiness in our lives; we come because we are faithful. We come to the tomb to be there.

But when we get there we find that there is nothing there. There is no reason to feel empty; there is no reason to be in mourning. There certainly is no reason to be sad. What we find is that love is there, a love that transcends anything we can possibly know. We find a love that is capable of defeating the darkest spirits and rising from the dead. The darkness of Good Friday is replaced by the brightness of Easter morning; the mourning of death is replaced by the celebration of victory of death.

We also find that we have no time to linger in this moment. We have no way to hold on to or hoard this moment. It is a moment that must be shared; it is a moment that must go beyond the boundaries of our own souls. It is a moment that brings us back to the words we heard in Matthew 10: 27 – "What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops."

So, this morning, as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, of God’s defeat of sin and death, what will you say? I hope you will carry the words of our hymn of invitation with you out into the world this week.

“The First Easter”

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.

That Morning

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:

(1) http://www.12apostlesofthecatholicchurch.com/bartholomew.html

(2) http://www.aumethodists.org/sermons/sermon030119.html

(3) http://www.abbotjohneudes.org/h5jan02.htm

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!