Easter is upon us and the season of God’s gift to us, through Christ, is in our thoughts and minds. May we always be diligent as we seek and strive to share this message of hope, salvation and God’s abundant love with others. Let us hold onto this most holy of holy in our hearts and minds, as the road ahead has many twist and turns. It is because we use these blessed opportunities to renew our understanding of God’s faithfulness that we are able to weather the storms of life as they come our way. Remember always, God love us, and this is why he sent Jesus to live among us, now and forever more.
In the same way the cycle of life is present in our church as well. We have new members who have joined our faith community as-well-as new visitors whom come to worship with us every Sunday. At the same time, we have members who move on in their lives and thus move to other locations throughout the state and some to other locations in these United States of America. We wish them well as we welcome in those that have newly arrived in our midst. This is the cyclical cycle of church life. The ebb and flow of life is prevalent here and in all churches of all denominations.
The passing of the seasons reminds us that all things have their seasons as the ebb and flow of life ever continues. April in Florida is the beginning of the end of the season for many of our visitors from the north and also our ‘dual’ residents. We pray for their safe travels and we look forward to their return in the fall as the seasons again shift. Also, April has many opportunities for us, as individuals and as a church, as we continue to change and respond to life’s changes. We must not forget, God’s love, unlike the seasons, does not ebb and flow; God’s love is with us throughout the year, rain or snow; sunny or cloudy. So, let us always bear in mind, God’s love surrounds us and upholds us, now and forever more.
“Hear now the words of scripture as contained in the Gospel According to John, chapter 20, verses 19 thru 31.”
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
“Having heard this ancient account of how the Disciples experienced the Risen Christ, let us consider its essence and meaning for us who long for the same experience in our lives today.”
“Peace be With You”
“The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” /John 20:19/ Jesus had been executed and buried in a grave which was found empty on that first Easter morning. The women had seen angels and even the appearance of the Risen Christ, yet the Disciples were locked behind closed doors out of fear! Perhaps they were waiting for the next terrible thing to occur! They were afraid for their lives for they had been very close to Jesus and the authorities knew this. Perhaps they would be next! Fear is what filled their hearts, even after the resurrection of Christ! Fear was what they were worshipping that day! Fear! Perhaps they were waiting for the other shoe to drop! Of course, we, you and I, we are living in a different time-period! The religious leaders of the churches who think our understanding of the Bible is incorrect – surely, they would not try to persecute us! Surely, our government would never push us aside or persecute us by taking away our rights. Thank God… we are not in danger! Therefore, there is nothing to fear!
The harsh truth is: we are as human as those early Disciples were! Our response to today’s challenges and tasks, with fear, stunts our ability to fully live into our responsibilities! Surely, fear had gripped the gathered Disciples after Jesus’ death on the cross. The empty tomb had not resolved their fears. The witnessing, by the women, of having seen the Risen Christ and the angelic angels did not resolve their conflict. Many of us suffer from this type of disabling fear. The man Jesus died over two millennia ago. Yet, yet, we all know the truth. Bad things still happen to good people. As this is indeed the case, how are we to move forward? Surely, we have some doubts about this resurrection stuff. We are only human. This Easter happening, clearly is mystical and beyond rational human reasoning. Many of us are suffering from fear fueled by distrust and disbelief in the transforming power of God’s grace and mercy. Clearly, miracles of this nature do not occur in the Twenty- First Century! Surely, Christ shall not appear through the walls of our fortified homes or our churches!
Yes, it is true, there are a lot of ‘Doubting Thomas’s within Christianity! This is sadly – very true. Yet, I cannot, and I shall not tell you which shoe you are holding in your hand. Neither can I tell you when it shall drop to the ground and what the consequences shall be! Nor shall I tell you how to respond, other than to suggest to you that it is necessary for us as individuals to pray for stronger faith – faith ‘in the midst’ of our personal doubts and fears! Furthermore, let us each respond and act based on our personal integrity as like-minded Christians. It is up to us as individuals to put our trust in God and the teachings of Christ. It is up to us as individuals to speak up for what we believe and take a risk, now and then. I know that is asking a lot. Yet, sometimes we must. Furthermore, the time may come when it will be up to you or to me, or no one will speak out and stand up for our beliefs!
As practicing Christians and followers of Christ, we are called to speak out and risk making our voices count in the skirmishes for the truth to prevail in our society, and in our form of government, which the forefathers of this great nation believed in! Christ has offered us release from our fears. The Disciples have testified to the ‘peace’ which Christ brought to them that day in the upper room. It is up to us to choose to have faith, based on faith alone; alone, yet with the ‘peace’ and the ‘breath’ of Christ’s Living Spirit upon us and with us everywhere we go, everywhere we are! No, the Spirit of Christ does not appear to have resolved the political division within our nation. Yet, let us pray God’s Spirit has given us hope which shall help us to continue to move forward in our day-to-day life activities. And the ‘breath’ of Christ is upon us and shall give us the courage and the tenacity to respond when it is necessary!
What about Jesus? I mean how would Jesus respond to our fears? Essentially, our scripture gives us the answer. After Jesus mystically enters the locked upper room where the disciples huddled in fear, Jesus says: “Peace be with you!” Wow! Like Wow! If Jesus would only say that to us! “Peace be with you, and you and you!” Isn’t that what we doubters always say? If only Jesus were here now. Then maybe, I could believe, I could have the faith. Then maybe I would find the courage to follow in his footsteps. Then maybe… is a phrase that effectively means – we shall never ever do what we are speaking of! Jesus was most definitely speaking to you and me when he was speaking to Doubting Thomas! “Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”” /John 20:29/ No, Jesus was not overjoyed with Thomas’s doubts. Which raises the question “Why did they record this rebuff from Jesus toward Thomas that day? Isn’t it obvious? Jesus was speaking to all of us whom he knew were not there and would not be able to be there! This is where faith comes in. We are asked to believe and trust without seeing the Risen Christ as the early Disciples did! It is that simple and for many of us, it is that hard!
Let’s take a moment to step back from this amazing encounter for a moment. Let us take a more innocent and fresh view at this scripture lesson. The week after Easter, before I entered Seminary, the Associate Pastor of my home church had arranged for me to preach the sermon. Apparently, she had convinced the Senior pastor, whom would be away on a well-deserved Easter break. She had convinced him that I had the call to ministry and she wanted to get me into the pulpit. In the weeks prior to this she had gotten me to start working on what would be my first true sermon. Now, bear in mind I had no seminary training nor any certified understanding of how to formally interpret scripture. Being untrained and naive about scripture etc. I saw the power of Jesus’ breath, Jesus’ Spirit upon the disciples as a precursor and forerunner to Pentecost. In fact, I didn’t even realize that the celebration of Pentecost was not to be celebrated until sometime in May. And the truth is, I didn’t know that most Christians don’t believe that the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the Disciples until later-on and spoken of only in the Acts of the Apostles in Acts chapter two! Therefore, I simply read this passage and I believed the writing to be literally true, which it may be. No one knows for absolute sure! Therefore, when I read verse twenty-two, I took it as the gospel truth! “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”” /John 20:22/ As I recall, I linked this with the experiences I had hiking up Mount Washington in New Hampshire. I certainly understood the exhilarating feeling of the breath of God being upon me when I reached the peak of that mountain. Breathless and exhausted from the strenuous hike and climb over those last boulders and rocks above the tree line, I felt the Living Spirit of God as I saw the majesty and splendor of Creation from that mountaintop. Surely, I believed, this ought to have been enough for Thomas that day!
Turning our attention to present day realities I saw on the news, this past week, the reminder of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination and death. Now there was a man filled with the breath and Spirit of Christ. Christ’s peace may have been in his heart, but the fire of the Holy Spirit propelled his message, his ministry ever forward! There walked a man of faith! He had the courage and the tenacity to speak out, when no one else would! I doubt that he was naïve about the risks he was taking as he proclaimed his understanding of the truth. He seemed to understand and be driven by his trust in God to not shy away from being that ‘one voice’ that stood out from the crowd. He was not there when Jesus appear to the Disciples in the Upper Room! Nevertheless, he believed with all his being in the power of God in is life. Someone mused that he would not be taken as seriously if he were here with us in this time in history. Clearly, the writer was suggesting our time is more toxic to his message than it was back in the 60’s. If only he were here among us today, at least we would have his strong voice in the midst the storm that now rages in these United States! May his legacy never be forgotten!
Today, we have received into our active membership list, seven new members. What a glorious day! Praise God! Three have been active friends of this church for a number of years… we are so please you have formalized your relationship and commitment to this your church. Four of our newest members have been with us but a number of months…. Wow! What a leap of faith! We need your kind of faith in our fellowship! Praise God! We thank God for your presence among us today. May the Peace of Christ be upon you all! May the breath of Christ bless you this day with the Spirit of Christ.
“Here is the Good News. Despite the locked doors, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.'” /Andrew Prior/ Then Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit! Amen.
“On this Easter morning, let us hear the accounting of the witnesses whom were there on that first Easter morning. From the gospel account according to John, chapter twenty, verses one thru eighteen.
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
“May the Spirit of Easter, the Living Spirit of the risen Christ, fill our hearts and open our minds to the meaning of our Easter in the here and the now.”
“Let us also listen to the words contained in the Acts of the Apostles as written in chapter ten, verses thirty-four thru forty-three.”
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
“Having now heard both the gospel account of Easter morning, and the words of the Apostle Peter of what had occurred that day and what he came to believe it meant, let us consider how we shall respond; both in thought and reflection as-well-as in action and in words.”
“Life after Death?”
Are you able to see who Jesus truly was? Are you able to truly appreciate what Mary saw as she looked at her son, as she gazed with her heart at her beloved son? Are we able to understand and appreciate, seeing what Mary Madeline, a woman who repeatedly appears in the story of Jesus and was among the first to testify to the Risen Christ, are we able to see through her eyes whom Jesus was? What did she see when she looked into the eyes of the man Jesus, whom inspired her and uplifted her spirit and healed her, after seeing and fully loving her for who she truly was? And then there is Peter, who Jesus mentored and trained. Jesus called Peter from the common life of a fisherman, and filled his heart with inspired teachings, and opened up the wonders of God’s mystical powers for him and the other Disciples to see and witness. Peter, once called ‘Satan’ by Jesus when he could not see the divine message of Jesus’ call to give of himself for humankind. The same Peter, who denied he knew Jesus three times while Jesus was being cross examined and persecuted. Who did Peter believe Jesus was when he was told by the Master that he would become the ‘Rock’ upon which Jesus would build the new church order. When was it that Peter finally saw clearly who Jesus was? And how did the other Disciples and followers understand Jesus? Judas was clearly lost and did not grasp whom Jesus was until after he received his thirty pieces of silver to betray him. Judas represents the doubters, the cynics and those whom are afraid to live with faith. We are called to minister to the Judases of the world, just as Jesus did for those he healed.
You and I, we must open our hearts, so we can know who Jesus was. We must become as uncluttered as a young child and simply open ourselves to the gift of love, compassion, and mercy which is offered to us! We must open our spirits and let the Spirit of Christ in, if we are to know the Risen Christ. There is no room in the words ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ for fact checking and scientific reasoning. Leave those discussions for a Bible study class or for theologians to debate as they struggle to be as authentic as they can be! No, Easter is for those who have come to know the Love of God through Christ. Easter is our opportunity to share our faith, share our belief with a world which desperately needs something to believe in!
Whenever I think of Jesus… I think of his tears for his friend Lazarus. Having heard his friend was ill Jesus traveled to where he was. But, Jesus was too late and when he learned of the death of his friend, he broke down and cried. Jesus, he wept real tears like you and I do! His response was what opens my heart to understanding, more fully, the fulness of Jesus’ love. For our benefit, so that we would come to believe who he was, Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave. He did this, the Divine essence of God, did this as Jesus wanted all of humankind to come to fully see and understand how much God loves each one of us.
When I am feeling low I feel the warmth of Christ’s love enfold me as the Spirit of Christ holds me in his loving arms. Sometimes, when my emotions begin to boil because I hear an untruth, or see an injustice, I hear Jesus’ voice telling me to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” I often need to let the steam in my soul cool down a bit before I respond.
It is the Spirt of God which gives me the tenacity and the strength to speak the truth as I know the truth. It is often not easy. My humanness often holds me back. Yet, on a day like today, a day in which our tradition as Christians has called us to be reminded, the crucifixion of the man Jesus did not stop the essence of God to rise from the grave to be with us, this gives me renewed strength and courage. Let the love of Christ strengthen your resolve and persistence, to propel you forward as you tackle that next moment when you too, must speak from your heart, even when your nerves tremble and quiver.
The sound of a crying baby reminds me of how Jesus said: “Bring the children to me so that I might hold them and bless them.” On yet another occasion Jesus said, “Let the children come to me for to them belongs the kingdom of Heaven.” Easter is for the children in our midst. It is right that we allow the ‘child within us’ to flourish on a day such as this! “Nothing about Easter is routine or predictable.” /Matt Skinner/ Only if we allow ourselves to embrace a child’s free nature can we allow ourselves the ‘pureness’ of this day. Even when I know not what to say, especially when I am with the children on Sunday mornings, I can feel their untarnished natures pull the simple message of God’s love from my heart. With their uncorrupted simplicity, as my guide, we are often able to pick the fruit of an untarnished message to explore together. Prayerfully, an occasional seed of God’s abundant love appears in the midst, in the core of the awkward stumbling of our words together.
Some of the most inspiring words which Jesus is quoted as sharing were in his ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ Remember how he said the inspiring words we know as the Beatitudes. “And seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when Jesus was seated his disciples came to him. Then Jesus opened his mouth and taught them, saying: blessed are they…” /Matthew 5: 1-12/ Eight inspiring and uplifting “Blessed are they” phrases that have been lifted-up ever since Jesus uttered the words. Their meaning is often discussed, and many powerful messages are displayed for the heart of a believer to embrace and enjoy. These words speak to the core and the very nature of every man, woman and child whom has ever experienced any type of human emotion or feeling. Including every joy or sorrow, every unexpressed sentiment and response to life itself. They rejuvenate the essence of our humanness in the midst-of our emotional highs and lows. Jesus, hit a home run with these inspirational words. Study groups gather around the countryside’s of our great nation and possibly throughout the world to discuss various author’s understandings of how to apply these words to our daily human lives. Yes, the teachings of Jesus are alive and have risen-up from the grave, living on and on.
When Jesus saw the Samaritan women at the well, surely you remember the passage, instantly Jesus knew her and went and talked with her, despite the prejudice of the Jews against Samaritans. In John’s gospel we hear how the woman and Jesus talked with each other, despite the social pressures not to. Jesus’ compassion quickly knocked down that ‘wall’ of ignorance and bias. Together, they talked and through God’s love and Jesus’ efforts the woman became a believer in who Jesus was, even as he helped her to see him ‘more-clearly’. Easter is an opportunity for us to carry on the living ministry of Christ to others; others whom have been pushed aside by ignorance, by prejudice, and bias, as-well-as narrow-mindedness, discrimination and fear, which has turned into hatred, injustice and violence even here in our own culture. Let us each strive to lift-up the teachings of Christ, keeping them alive in our church, our community and especially in our families and own circles of friends and acquaintances. We honor those whom came before us by remembering their good works; let us be sure we keep Christ alive in our lives… with the same respect we have given and shown our own ‘loved ones’ and friends!
“Beyond stereotypes, beyond deeply seeded religious segregation, Peter obeys his command, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. In a gesture of faith, a movement of complete trust, a posture of submission, Peter tells the story of Jesus, a story in which he knew very well.” (Thank you, Levi Holland, for these words.) Peter reminds us all, he reminds us of the responsibility we each have in sharing the good news of the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ! Perhaps we do not fully understand all of what we are called upon to believe as Christians. Yet, through faith, we can trust those things which we have come to know in our hearts. We have come to feel and know when the love of God is in the room. Perhaps only one of us brings God’s presence alive to a room heavy laden with the problems of the day. If this is you, then it is your responsibility to speak the truth you hold in your heart. This is the responsibility we each carry, no matter where we are on life’s journey. If we trust in the Living presence of the Spirit of Christ in our lives… we will find the courage and the tenacity to speak, even when it makes us uncomfortable. I can promise you that when you do this, you shall experience a sense of peace which shall feed your being with overwhelming joy… as you realize how you have made a difference, by bringing Christ into the room!
I have come to understand that some folks’ understandings of life are not mine. When I watch the news, I realize there are people whom have a definition of life which may not be the same as mine. Hatred, bigotry, prejudice and such don’t speak to me. Life has love, compassion and mercy at its center, and is surrounded by folks seeking to share some portion of what they have with those who have not! Life is about giving back out of gratitude for what we have received. If we do not agree about what life is about, we probably won’t agree about death, the afterlife.
I see Jesus when I open my eyes and greet a new day, grateful for the love of God’s promise of a new beginning. When I awoke on this Easter morning – I felt God’s generosity and love. When we look into our hearts, can we lift-up Jesus’ life, his love, and his teachings with gratitude and joy? Easter is about remembering those who came before us, keeping their spirits alive in our hearts. Easter is about life, new life! I fervently pray that today is a blessed Easter for everyone.