On the Road Again

(sermon 4/15/18)

road-to-emmaus

Luke 24:13-49

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

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This is one of my favorite stories in the entire New Testament. And because it’s a favorite of mine, I talk about it often, so I hope it’s one of your favorites too, and you don’t get bored when I tell it again. This wonderful story about Jesus and his appearance to those disciples on their way to Emmaus, and the story that we heard following it, the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples later that same day. Every one of these post-resurrection stories that we have of Jesus, these accounts of Jesus appearing to people, and doing things with his followers, all really stitch together to tell one overarching story. Each one is maybe a chapter in one larger story that tells us different things. Each one teases out some particular theological point that the writer of the particular gospel wants to tell us. Think about some of the things that happened in these appearances. You just heard these two, and certainly last week, you heard about a very similar situation with Thomas; touch my body, put your finger in my wound; and then certainly, the week before that, the resurrection itself. Each one of these things is telling us something specific, theologically, about Jesus. A number of these stories are intended to make certain points to us, to answer questions about Jesus that people had in the early days of the church, and that we still ask today. Several of these stories go to the issue of people saying, “You know, I have trouble with this whole ‘Jesus rising from the dead’ thing. So maybe Jesus wasn’t anything supernatural or special; maybe he was just a great man, a human being like the rest of us – and maybe when he was on the cross, he didn’t really die. Maybe he just ‘swooned,’ he was unconscious, they thought he was dead, they took him down from the cross and put him in the tomb, and then at some later time in the coolness of the tomb, he revived and reappeared to people.” So some of these post-resurrection stories go to the issue of saying no, that is not what happened at all. There is indeed something supernatural going on with Jesus and resurrection. That Jesus isn’t only a human being, but he is also something divine, something supernatural. So we get these stories of Jesus sort of popping into and out of scenes; Jesus appearing and disappearing and reappearing, and somehow manipulating space and time to get from one place to another. The stories show that there is something unique going on here. Jesus isn’t just a human being. But then, by the same token, you get these other stories that go to the other side, where people think “Well, Jesus was never really a human being, it was just God appearing to look like a human being; Jesus was just this spiritual being, so there was never any real human suffering or anything like that in Jesus’ life, and certainly in his seeming death.” So some of these post-resurrection stories go in that direction, addressing that concern, making the point that no, Jesus was just as human as you or me, so you hear that coming through in these other stories; touch my hands, touch my feet. Is there anything to eat here? In several of these stories, Jesus eats food in the presence of others. And I have to be a little irreverent, because as I think about the point that these stories are making, about the real physicality of Jesus, it reminds me of an old, silly joke that’s stuck with me – a skeleton walks into a bar and says “Bartender, give me a beer and a mop!” Some of those stories about Jesus are meant to show that this isn’t the case with Jesus – we aren’t talking about a ghost, or some ethereal spirit; we’re talking about a person with real substance and material presence. Jesus has a risen body; the fish isn’t going to just drop on the floor. Jesus is truly a risen person, but these other stories are showing us that he’s more than just a person. Jesu has a body but somehow, it can change. Somehow, now someone who knew Jesus intimately for several years may not always recognize him when he’s standing right in front of them. Mary at the tomb; these disciples on the road to Emmaus. So there are a lot of important theological things going on in these post-resurrection accounts, and they’re important. And we hear these things reflected in the traditional creeds and confessions of the church, and in our Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, that Jesus is fully divine and yet fully human. This unique melding of divinity and humanity that we find in Jesus.

There is a lot of important theological points in these stories. But I think what is at least as important in this particular story that we hear today, of Jesus walking with those disciples, is the power of the story itself. I don’t mean this in a denigrating or dismissive way, that this is “only” a story. What I mean is that good stories have the power to tell great truths. And the gospels are full of amazing, wonderful stories that teach us eternal truth. What’s the sign of a good story? There are a number of things, I suppose, but one of those signs is that it makes you imagine yourself within the story. You’re right in the middle of it. You’re walking on that road right along with those disciples. You can feel the dew of the morning, the coolness of the morning air. You have lived, at some point or another, that despair of having lost someone; someone who meant so much to you in your life. Your grief is almost more than you can bear. You don’t know how you’re going to get along without this person that you love so deeply. That’s the despair that you hear in this story, and it comes alive again to us as we hear it. How many times have you been in that state of grief, and mourning, and you say “I just have to go out for a walk and clear my head.” And you go out, and you’re around nature. You hear the birds chirping. Leaves rustling in the trees. You hear your feet crunching the crushed stone along the path that you’re walking along. Somehow, you encounter God at some point, or at least a little bit of balm for what it is that you’re feeling, and you get that just by talking that walk. So now we have this story that we hear this morning, of those disciples walking on that path, and Jesus appears to them. Imagine this – imagine that you yourself are one of these disciples. You’re walking, and you’re grieving, and you’re mourning, and Jesus appears. And even though you’ve lived and loved this man for years, you’ve experienced life through thick and thin with this man, and somehow you don’t recognize this person. How is that? How can this be? And then this person speaks to your heart. Then this person opens up things within you that you didn’t even know were there. This person opens faith up to you; this person opens hope and assurance to you, that yes, there is grief, there is mourning, but a new day will come, indeed has come. The hope that we have in Christ Jesus. And he opens this truth up to them on this walk. He changes their lives. He stirs their hearts. It’s truly miraculous.

We live within this story. And that’s why I do that sort of pretend walk to Emmaus when we have Communion, and retell this story, because it is so important to us. Why? Certainly because of all the theological points that we can think about. But, I think, more than even that, more important to us on a day-to-day basis, is this reality that as you and I walk through our lives, we will be walking in the presence of the Lord. We will do so, time and time and time again, without even being aware of it. Elsewhere in the scriptures, it talks about entertaining angels unaware; we entertain not only angels, but the risen Christ; we entertain God’s very self. Think about your lives – how many times have you experienced something that was so unique, something that was so different, that just as with those disciples, your hearts were warmed, your lives were stirred, and it was only looking back on it, that you knew it was a “God moment.” “I didn’t recognize God in the moment then, all I recognized is that there was something special about this, but now that I think back on it, I recognize that I was in the very presence of God.”

God is present with us. God does walk with us, through good days, and through days of grief. Maybe that’s the most important part of this story – the reassurance that everywhere we go, we will be in the presence of our risen Lord; we will be in the presence of God.

Hold that in your hearts. Hold that within you, every time you hear, and you think about this particular story in the gospels. And again, I don’t use the term “story” in a negative sense; Jesus taught in parables, in stories. Stories are what have the power to change our hearts, and mold our lives. Not only is this an amazing story because it means that we have been in the presence of God, initially unawares, but there’s also the “so now what?” aspect of that truth. This is the part of the call that Jesus gave to the disciples when he appeared to them in the second part of the story that we heard today. You’ve heard my words, he tells them. You are now to proclaim this repentance, this forgiveness from God; you are to proclaim this to all the nations, beginning here in Jerusalem and going out beyond. You be the face of Christ. You be God that a person doesn’t recognize in the moment, but only recognizes after the fact. In this story, we have both the proclamation of the gospel, that God has forgiven us, and walks with us every single day; as well as the call. Recognize God’s presence in your lives; now get out there and share it with someone else. Those two things are what the entire Church of Jesus Christ is all about. And it’s all summed up in this one story.

Thanks be to God.

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Rabbit Season (sermon 4/19/15)

rabbits

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  –  Luke 24:13-35

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While I was up in Toronto last weekend, we went to worship at the Bloor Street United Church. Most of the Presbyterians in Canada merged with a couple of other Canadian denominations in the 1920s to form the United Church of Canada, so they’re kind of our sister denomination up in the Great White North. And during the service, I noticed that their children’s message was based on a children’s and youth curriculum called “Echo the Story,” which reinforces the overarching message of the Bible through story-based building blocks – each week, adding a new story, a new nugget, and focusing on its significance in terms of the whole arc of the story. But before the storytelling adds the new piece for the week, the whole story up to that point is briefly rewound and retold (a sample video of this curriculum can be seen here). I suppose each time the story rewinds and starts again, some people’s eyes might roll at the repetition, but really, it’s a brilliant idea. Because too many people don’t have any internalization of the Bible, and a lot more have only internalized little bits and unconnected pieces, but they don’t understand how it’s all meant to fit together as one gradually unfolding story. This rewinding and retelling the story from the beginning helps many of the kids – and honestly, many adults, too – to internalize the story, and to understand that we’re all part of a community that’s identified and given meaning by this story.

Watching this unfold in that service last week made me think of another instance of the same kind of thing. The same process shows up the 1970s novel Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have read it? How many of you threw up your hands before getting through all 500 pages and just read the Cliff’s Notes or an online summary of it for a book report?

Well, if you’ve done either of those things, you know that it’s an allegorical novel about a community of rabbits. At the beginning of the story, the rabbits are living together in a community that’s more or less stable and peaceful. It’s a community run by a relatively benevolent dictator rabbit, supported by a group of strong fighters. And while things overall aren’t terrible, things are still pretty tough for the weaker rabbits, or the ones who disagree with the head rabbit, or who are unusual or different from the norm. So when one of the rabbits sees a billboard posted near their warren and warns that something bad is coming their way, and he proposes that they make a change, that they should move their warren somewhere else, the head rabbit and his inner circle aren’t very impressed or amused with him or his ideas.

But still, a small group of rabbits thinks he might be right, and since they’re all outsiders and marginalized members of the warren, they figure they don’t have much to lose if they followed this rabbit with the discomforting message and left the warren behind.

As the story plays out, this group faces all kinds of experiences and threats. And they get through these challenges for two specific reasons. The first reason is that they spend a lot of time together as a community. They do pretty much everything together, as a community. Since they’re always in community with each other, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they learn how to work together and complement one another other for the common good. They learn that every member of the group – even the weakest, most unusual member, has something important and valuable to contribute to the community, and to the lives of each of the rabbits individually, too.

And a big part of what holds them together to continually retell their communal stories. These stories tell about the exploits of their common hero, a rabbit whose rabbit-name translates into English as “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies.” These stories focus on how the hero outwits and defeats his enemies, which give them all a common ground for their own actions and moral behavior whenever they face dangers themselves.

The stories aren’t new; the rabbits have all heard these stories a thousand times. If anything, the familiarity of the stories are actually a part of the feeling of community that the rabbits share. And even though they’re very familiar, they end up being retold in new situations and end up having new applications as the rabbits go through new things they’d never experienced or considered before.

This is an important thing for us, too. As Christians, we’re called to be a distinct, identifiable community defined by and centered around our own common story. And this shows up in the stories we have of Jesus after his resurrection, including the one we heard today. I think it’s important to notice that with only one exception, all of the post-resurrection stories about Jesus involve groups – whether it’s just three people, as in today’s story, or the larger group of followers in the locked room in Jerusalem that Jesus appears to, or according to the apostle Paul, at least one time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people. If there were any doubt before Jesus’ crucifixion, his post-resurrection appearances make it clear that to be a follower of Jesus means that we can’t do it solely as individuals on our own. Jesus’ intentional message of being in community is the same thing the rabbits all had to learn: that we have to be together in the faith, as a community. And a big part of what holds us together, and solidifies our common identity, is the telling and retelling of our story, and instilling it into our hearts and minds.

Jesus understood the importance of the common story. Did you notice that, in this passage from Luke that we heard today? Jesus is walking together with these two disciples, he does the same thing that happened in that children’s message in Toronto. He retells them all their old, familiar stories – rewinding all the way back to the earliest stories in the Torah, and moving through the prophets – but putting them all in the context of their new reality, the reality of Jesus himself and their new experience, their new understanding and application of the old stories. This idea, that we’re an identifiable as a community centered around a common story, is an old familiar story itself. But it’s an important one to really think about this season of Eastertide, for it to be a season when we focus on the same lessons learned by the rabbits in that story.

Even in a general sense, there’s power in community that no individual can ever have. In particular, in order to be a Christian, we simply can’t go it alone, without ties to the larger community. Our own faith is nurtured and deepened, and the community of faith is, too, through sharing the common life together – working together, playing together, eating together, laughing and crying together; really getting to know one another. Complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Valuing one another, even the weakest or most unusual among us, just as it was with the rabbits in the novel. Being gracious about the shortcomings in other members of the community, just as we hope others will extend grace to us when our own shortcomings show up. In short, learning to truly love one another. For us as Christians, the common life begins with the common story.

Our common story is the very same one that Jesus retold to his friends as they were going for a walk together. Have you ever wished you had a time machine, where you could go back in time and experience some great moment in history? If I had one, this walk to Emmaus would be one of the things I’d want to go back and peek in on. Just imagine how Jesus must have explained and told this story, our story. Oh, to have been a fly buzzing around the three of them, listening to the conversation. Or maybe a rabbit, eavesdropping from the grass along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.