Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter 2020
Acts 2:14a, 36-41 Psalms 116: 1-3, 10-17 I Peter 1:17-23 Luke 24:13-35
A farmer goes on a journey, he asks his neighbor to keep and eye on his aging mother. After three weeks of travel, he calls home. The Farmer asks, “How are things?” “Well, I have some good news and some bad news,” replies the neighbor. “What’s the bad news?”
“Well, I’m afraid your barn burned down.”
“Oh, that’s a pity. What a pain. What was the cause?”
“Well, they think a spark leapt from the main house.”
“Excuse me, you mean the main house was burning. This is more serious. What on earth happened?”
“Well, we suspect it was one of the candles.”
“A candle, why were you using candles? We have had electricity for decades. What on earth happened?”
“Ah, we needed the candles for the wake.”
“Excuse me, a wake. Has someone died?”
“Ah yes, I am afraid your mother died. So we had a wake.”
“Oh goodness, my mother has died, my house and my barn are up in flames. So what’s the good news?”
“Well, thanks to all that heat, the petunias are out three-weeks early and they look wonderful.”
The disciples are on a journey just like the farmer. As the story unfolds, the disciples start with tragedy and discover grace. The miracle of the resurrection is a moment of unsurprising grace. The petunias, on the other hand, do not compensate for the tragedies in the farmer’s life. While the farmer has to live with his hurt, the disciples are invited into a new realm of resurrected life.
In Luke, we have one chapter of the Resurrection appearances; it starts with the empty tomb, then we have this story – the two disciples walking to Emmaus; this is followed by an appearance to the disciples, which clarifies the nature of the Resurrection; and then it culminates with the Ascension. So much happens in one chapter.
Luke combines a physical resurrection with a celebration of the Eucharist. And this is where the two are combined. Two disciples are making the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. This is a journey when precious insights are learned. The disciples are sad, confused, and puzzled. Jesus, in the narrative, is the teacher who can unpack recent events. At the Eucharist, the disciples suddenly see. The gift of faith is that, as we sit with the teacher, Jesus, we see what really is going on. What at first sight just looks tragic can, with the help of the teacher, become grace.
Memories of Jesus’ teaching prompt Peter to make sense of it all. It is the final section of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, where he encourages those who hear him to repent, be baptized, and receive the gift of God’s Spirit. The lesson from I Peter looks at salvation in retrospect, as something already experienced. It reminds us of what is already ours in Christ and how we should behave.
The Gospel lesson records the familiar story of Jesus’ encounter with the two men on the way to Emmaus. Here we see faith in the risen Lord arising from nothing: they first encounter Jesus as someone unknown, but eventually their hearts are opened to the true reality of his presence. The reading from psalms is the final section of a psalm of thanksgiving, where the psalmist reflects on an experience of divine deliverance and offers himself in thankful praise to the God who delivered him. In one way or another, the readings today develop the theme of salvation – as something offered, experienced, and discovered. We are to respond with thanksgiving.
The gospel reading begins at midday on the road with two sorrowful disciples. They have bet their lives on the wrong savior. They are headed in the wrong direction – back to their fishing nets, tax offices, missed appointments and merciful routine. They are on the road to return to their lives. They, at first missed the significance of history’s greatest event because they were too focused on their own disappointments and problems. In fact, they don’t recognize Jesus when he is walking right beside them. To compound the problem, they were walking away from the fellowship of believers in Jerusalem. They are walking away from community – something we want to be a part of these days. We are likely to miss Jesus and to withdraw from the strength found in our faith community when we become preoccupied with our dashed hopes and frustrated plans, or fear of the Corona virus. Only when we are looking for Jesus in our midst will we experience the power and help he can bring.
The news about Jesus’ crucifixion had spread throughout Jerusalem. Because this was Passover week, Jewish pilgrims visiting the city from all over the Roman Empire had heard about Jesus’ death. This was not a small insignificant event affecting only the disciples, but this was big news, the whole nation was interested.
The disciples from Emmaus were counting on Jesus to redeem Israel – to rescue the nation from its enemies. Most Jews believed that the Old Testament prophecies pointed to a military and political Messiah. They didn’t realize that the Messiah had come to redeem people from sin. They didn’t understand that Jesus’ death offered the greatest hope possible.
These disciples knew that the tomb was empty, but didn’t understand that Jesus had risen, and they were filled with sadness. Despite Mary’s witness, which was verified by other disciples and despite the Biblical prophecies of this very event, they still didn’t believe. Even today, believing in the resurrection is still a struggle for some. For these disciples, it took the living, breathing Jesus in their midst. For many people today, it takes the presence of living, breathing Christians, in their midst to see Jesus – it takes our being Jesus for others. I have a wooden tree cutout with Zacchaeus by my back door. It reminds me that some days I am Zacchaeus and I am looking for Jesus. Other days I am the tree holding someone up for them to see Jesus. It is a good reminder for me – to be God-centered instead of self-centered as I start each day.
Why did Jesus call these disciples foolish? Even though they knew the Biblical prophecies, they failed to understand that Christ’s suffering was his path to glory. They could not understand why God did not intervene to save Jesus from the cross. They were so caught up in the world’s admiration of political power and military might that they were unprepared for the reversal of values in God’s Kingdom – that the last shall be first, and that life grows out of death. The world has not changed its values – a suffering servant is no more popular today than over 2000 years ago.
After the two disciples had explained their sadness and confusion, Jesus responded by going to scripture and applying it to his ministry. When we are puzzled by questions or problems, we too can use Jesus’ example and go to scripture for answers. Jesus reintroduced the disciples to the Old Testament, Christ is the thread woven through all the scriptures, the central theme that binds them together.
Frederick Buechner reminds us, that Jesus is apt to come into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable moments. Not only in a blaze of unearthly light, not only in the midst of a sermon, not only in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but also..…at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the common element of all of the stories of Christ’s return – Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning to see someone she thought to be the gardener standing there; all the disciples except Thomas hiding in a locked house and Jesus coming and standing in their midst; and later, when Thomas was with them, Jesus’ coming again and standing among them; Peter taking his boat out to sea in the night and waiting on the shore beside the fire, a familiar figure asking, “Children, have you any fish?”; and here the two men at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of the bread. Jesus never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of the people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks.
Adam Hamilton reminds us that we all have had or will have our own Road to Emmaus experiences. They may come when we receive discouraging diagnosis, lose our job, or to have a loved one die. We may lose sight of Jesus and God’s plan for our lives, not because we don’t care, but because we get distracted by life itself. Jesus met the disciples as a stranger, but was revealed to them in his own time. Jesus was going on, but their hospitality caused him to stay. It seems he was waiting to see their response to his teachings of the importance of hospitality. Welcoming a stranger is a valuable lesson in the Hebrew tradition and one for all of us to learn.
Hamilton tells the story of Vicki and George. They had lost their son a year earlier in a car accident. The morning of the anniversary of his death, friends and neighbors had covered their front porch with red geraniums and notes and poems sharing their loss. They said that they had felt God’s love and the hope of the Resurrection through their friends and neighbors who remembered their son’s death and showered them with love. Christ came to George and Vicki on their Emmaus journey. We have seen other examples of Christ’s presence through the kindness shown to others during this pandemic.
When Cleopas and his unnamed companion set out for Emmaus their hearts and minds are filled with disappointment and despair. Turned in on themselves, they try to figure out the meaning of all that has happened. Deep in earnest conversation, their eyes are kept from recognizing Jesus when he comes beside them. The travelers don’t realize that it is Jesus, and they accuse him of not knowing what has happened. They have given up their cherished hopes that Jesus would redeem Israel. The irony is that this is who they are talking to. They knew that Jesus was a prophet, but they had not remembered or understood what he had taught. Nor did they see the fulfillment of his teachings in him.
Cleopas and his companion had heard that Jesus had been raised. But they didn’t believe and their focus remained on his death. A death understood in the only way they knew, as a public failure for all in Jerusalem to see. God could not work like this. How foolish you are, Jesus tells them. You may know the scriptures, but you fail to see what they really say to us.
On the road, Jesus walks with his disciples and teaches them the scriptures. But only at the table do they find themselves, but they find understanding in the breaking of the bread. Dom Gregory Dix talks about the four-fold action of the Eucharist. The bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. Much like Jesus was taken as God’s son, blessed with divinity, broken in the crucifixion and given to the world to save us from ourselves. We too, are taken as Christ’s own, blessed with many gifts, broken so there is more room for God and given out into the world so that we may live and thrive in community. Taken, blessed, broken, given…
I heard a story about a group of men in prison. They are political prisoners. It was Sunday and they wanted to celebrate communion, but they had no bread, no wine, no cup, no priest. “We have no bread, not even water to use as wine,” their leader said to them. “But we will act as though we do,” And so he began to lead them in the communion service that he had memorized from the Book of Common Prayers, after so many years of attending church. When he got to the words of Jesus that are said during the Eucharistic prayer, he turned to the man standing next to him, held out his empty hands and said, “This is my body, given for you.” And so they went around the circle, one by one, each man turning to the next one, opening their palms and saying, “This is my body, given for you.” They realized that the giving of themselves was the only way to survive and stay a community of faith. We can embrace that here today, in our current situation.
That is what Cleopas and his friend learned, that is what we learn when we pay attention.Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread.We find each other in the breaking of the bread.We find community as we kneel shoulder to shoulder at the altar rail.We will share communion again when it is safe for all.But, we can find community when we check on our Grace family members and offer help and hope.We need community.We need each other – for accountability, for prayers, for love, for support.We need each other to help us define ourselves.Lord Jesus Christ, be known to us in this community of faith.…Amen.