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Easter 2011 message from the Methodist Church The Gambia

Apr 26, 2011, 2:56 PM | Article By: The Right Reverend Professor William Peter Stephens, Presiding Bishop

As presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church The Gambia, I bring you Easter greetings.  Ever since 1821 when our first Missionaries arrived we have been sharing the Easter message with the people of The Gambia – and it is my privilege to do that this year.

If I asked you, 'What are the gospels', you would probably say, 'Lives of Jesus'. That's true, but only half-true. Each gospel gives us the life of Jesus, but only a small part of his life. Mark gives us only three years of Jesus' life, not thirty three years! What is more, one third of Mark's gospel is given to just one week of the life of Jesus. Why do you think that is?

The reason is that the last week of Jesus’ life was a problem. Why? Because his life seemed to end in total failure. How could Jesus be the Son of God and yet be rejected by everyone? The religious leaders, such as Annas and Caiaphas, rejected him. The political leaders, such as Pilate and Herod, rejected him.  The ordinary people, who once thronged to hear him, rejected him. They chose freedom for Barabbas, a bandit, and called out for Jesus to be crucified. Even his followers, his disciples, rejected him. One of them, Judas, betrayed him, another Peter denied that he knew him, and the other ten disciples abandoned him.

But it was not just that all these people rejected Jesus. It seemed also as if God Himself had rejected him. For the Jews, the fact that Jesus had been crucified was a sign that God had rejected him.

For the bible tells us that someone who is hanged on a cross is cursed by God. Does that mean that Jesus, who the people thought was the Messiah, the one sent by God to save His people, was not sent by God at all, but was in fact rejected by God?  The writers of the gospels had to tell us the story of the last week in detail to help us see that Jesus really was the Messiah. What made these men, who had abandoned Jesus when he was arrested, realise that he was the Messiah?

What made them even risk death to tell people about him?  The decisive thing was what happened on the Sunday. It was something totally unexpected. They had thought that it was all over on the Friday, that he was dead and done for. Then on the Sunday they found that he was alive. He was raised from the dead.  Far from rejecting him, God had affirmed him, vindicated him.

That amazing event made them look again at the bible and at what Jesus had told them during the three years they were with him.

They began to see that centuries before the prophet Isaiah had spoken in a way that foreshadowed what happened to Jesus. Think of a passage such as Isaiah 53. It refers to the Servant of the Lord as 'despised and rejected of men'. He suffered not because of his sins, but because of our sins, and for our sake. As, Isaiah put it, 'he was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities', but 'by the stripes which he received we are healed'.

Isaiah even stated that we considered him as smitten and afflicted by God, but in God's eyes he bore the sins of many.

The disciples, being Jews, had been brought up to see that if they sacrificed a pure lamb they could approach the holy God. Now they came to see that Jesus was the Lamb of God whose death was a sacrifice for their sins and for the sins of the world.

Look at that last week in the life of Jesus – and see how he challenges you.

See him enter the temple. There he found the place where non-Jews could pray filled with people who had turned the temple into a place of trade, not of worship. He drove them out, telling them that God had said, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.'  He came for all people, not just for the Jews.

See him sharing the passover meal with the disciples. There was no one to wash their feet when they arrived. But while they were eating, Jesus himself rose, took a towel and a basin of water and stooped down and washed their feet. Jesus came to serve, not to be served.

See him go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He wanted to know whether it was God's will for him to die. He needed his disciples to pray with him, but they were too tired, so he had to pray alone. In praying he accepted God’s will even though it meant death. Suddenly there was the noise of soldiers who had come to arrest him, led  by Judas, the friend who betrayed him. He did not try to escape, but concerned for his companions he stepped towards the soldiers saying, 'I am the man you want. Let these men go.' Jesus was a man of courage and compassion.

See him on trial. He is falsely accused. He is treated like an exhibit. He is dressed up like a king, with a crown of thorns pushed unto his head. He is mocked. He is scourged. Nevertheless, as Peter wrote afterwards, 'When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten.' (1 Peter 3:23). Jesus was a man without malice or revenge.

See him carry his own cross to the place of execution. See him hang there in pain, while his opponents scoff, the people deride, and the soldiers throw dice to see who will get his fine robe. Rejected as he is, he does not abandon the people whom he had come to serve, but incredibly he says, 'Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.' Jesus was a man of love and forgiveness. Indeed the Roman soldier who was there on duty exclaimed, 'Truly this man was the Son of God.'

You cannot read the story of Jesus' life, above all of the last week of his life, without being challenged. He shows us the astonishing love and forgiveness of God. Then when we reach Easter Day, we realise that Jesus is alive and still present today.

From this week, this holy week, we learn a lot about God.

We learn that the All-mighty God who created the universe is not far off. He has drawn near to us in Jesus.

We learn that the Holy God who is too holy to look on evil is also merciful. He has provided in Jesus a sacrifice through which unholy men and women, like you and me, can enter His presence.

We learn that the Just God who is the Judge of all the earth  will judge everyone, including you and me. But he is also the Forgiving God, who in the death of Jesus offers forgiveness to you and me.

We learn that the Eternal God who is God of this world is also God of the next world. In the resurrection of Jesus, he offers us eternal life that does not end in death.

On Sunday Christians across the world, as they meet to worship God, will hear the words, 'Christ is risen!' and will respond, 'He is risen indeed'. May you know Christ's love and risen presence this Easter.

May you be able to say with Thomas who had doubted, 'My Lord and my God.'

In the name of the Methodist Church I wish you a happy Easter.  "Christ is risen."  "He is risen indeed."