April 26, 2020
Third Sunday of Easter
Two followers of Jesus – we know one is a man but the other could have been a woman, and if so, probably his wife — were walking on Easter day from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. In Luke’s gospel the distance is about 11 kilometers or 7 miles. They were talking about what happened during Holy Week. With that distance, they had more than two hours of walking to think about and talk over how their hopes had died with Jesus’ death. They had thought, they had KNOWN, that Jesus was the Messiah they had longed for, the one who would get rid of the Romans, bring justice to the people, bring an end to the pain and suffering that was everywhere, would usher in a new golden age of prosperity and God’s blessing. And then Jesus had been killed, crucified as a rebel to the Roman Empire, and with that all their hopes had died, crushed. They would have to wait some more. There would be no political independence for Jews, continued oppression, injustice, pain, and suffering, no sign of God’s blessing. But the danger remained: maybe the Romans were now looking for them.
We’ve had great hopes for our own world. Remember when we thought that the Internet was going to bring peace and harmony to the world through communication? When the election of Barak Obama as President would be the beginning to the end to bigotry and racism? When Hilary Clinton would be the first woman elected U.S. President? When deadly diseases would be no more? Now our hopes have shrunk to wanting an end to the worldwide uncertainty, worldwide uneasiness, economic disruption, and in many places in the world, fear.
We have had more than a month of worshipping and meeting in mission groups through technology. Have we used the time to acknowledge our loss of hope, face our deepest fears, admit that sometimes we doubt that God cares for us individually and in totality? If not, then our faith is merely optimistic, pretending that things weren’t that bad, aren’t that bad, won’t be that bad. As our reflection paragraph for worship reminds us, such a pretending faith is not the Christian faith.
In Erica’s sermon on John’s gospel last week she raised the possibility that the post-Easter Christ told the disciples he was giving them peace as a companion, and not as an inner state that they were supposed to achieve. That possibility came as a breath of fresh air to me – I confess that in this time of the coronavirus I am not at peace. Her words made me wonder about today’s gospel. Could Jesus have been an invisible presence with these two followers from the beginning of their walk to Emmaus? As Christians, we believe that God is always with us, even in the most hellish parts of our lives, when we have lost all hope. Was Christ Jesus already with them, listening to them, feeling compassion deep in his body, as he had so many times before?
The two disciples are trudging along, sharing their loss of hope, their depth of disappointment, their fear of the future, and their thoughts about this amazing report that Jesus’ tomb was empty, that he was alive. Should they believe it? How does what the women reported today make sense with what had occurred Friday? What does it mean? Has the general resurrection begun?
Two millennia later resurrection retains its mystery. What do we make of the news of Jesus’ resurrection? In Marjory’s class on resurrection we have been sharing our individual responses to the varied New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Each of our responses has been different. I am so thankful that everyone in the class accepts this variety, that we do not force each other into some uniform belief about resurrection, that we are allowed to understand resurrection differently within the varied contexts of our lives.
As they are walking along, Jesus joins these two followers, but they don’t recognize him. Maybe they were blinded by their hopelessness and fear. Has Jesus ever appeared to you, but you didn’t recognize him? If so, that’s okay! You’ve got company! I can only wonder how many times in my life Christ has appeared to me in the guise of another person – maybe one of you — bringing God’s words or spirit to me in that moment and I didn’t recognize Christ in that moment.
We’ve all had experiences where we’ve been talking with someone and another person has joined us. Sometimes I’ve invited the newcomer into the conversation right away but other times I’ve waited until we finished before inviting him or her to join our conversation. I’m sure there are times when I’ve felt anxious because our original conversation was confidential. I’d like to believe I politely asked the newcomer to wait for just a minute, but I’m not confident I did. I wonder, if I had known the person joining us was Jesus, would I have invited him or her to join our conversation right away?
As they are walking toward Emmaus Jesus asks them what they are talking about. They still didn’t recognize him, but they stopped, and Luke’s gospel tells us that their faces were gloomy. One of them, Cleopas, gives Jesus a Cliff notes version of the events of Holy Week and that morning. Cleopas is a Greek name, related to Cleopatra. It means “proclaimer of God” or “proclaimer of his/her father.” The name derives from Clio, the muse of history, whose name means to recount, to make famous, and to celebrate. Cleopas recounts who and what they thought Jesus was – the prophet who would be the redeemer of Israel. In doing so he has proclaimed Jesus as Messiah even though his hopes had been crushed, even though he didn’t understand the type of Messiah Jesus was or recognize him now. In chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel Simeon and Anna had proclaimed the newborn Jesus as the salvation and Messiah of Israel. Cleopas’ words here are a post-resurrection equivalent to Simeon and Anna’s professions of faith.
Last Sunday Erica pointed out that in John’s gospel Jesus doesn’t criticize the disciple Thomas for not believing in the resurrection until he saw the wounds of crucifixion. In Luke’s gospel Jesus doesn’t criticize the two disciples for having hoped for a Messiah but he does lash out at them for still not understanding that the Messiah’s passion and death had been foretold by the prophets. Jesus had predicted his passion, death, and resurrection several times to his disciples and they had never understood or believed it. He explains it once again; you’d think that these two if you were there you would recognize him now. But these two don’t. Jesus goes on to state that the Messiah had now entered his glory, but they still don’t recognize that it is Jesus and that he is talking about himself. Their loss of hope, their fear, and their confusion are still too strong. Does knowing that Jesus’ death and resurrection was foretold resurrect our hope? Does it calm our fears? Does it help us to recognize him? Or do we need something more?
They finally reach Emmaus, the end of the disciples’ journey. Jesus is preparing to continue further down the road, but evening is coming. Following the standard rules of hospitality, the two invite him to stay overnight with them and when he is still ready to go on, they urge him to stay. He does and it is only then, when he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them that their eyes are opened, and they recognize him. There is something in the way Jesus does this that triggers their memories of their table fellowship with him, his feeding the multitudes, his last supper with them. They recognize him as resurrected — and then he disappears!
Several weeks ago, we celebrated our monthly sharing of bread and cup in worship only this time we did it remotely on Zoom. We didn’t hear the familiar sounds of chairs scraping the floor, papers rustling, and footsteps, as we usually do when we stand to form our circle. We didn’t receive and pass the plates of bread and trays of cups to each other and we didn’t sing the familiar unison chants. But as we looked at each other’s faces in separate screens the familiar words of our communion liturgy were never truer: in the sharing of this broken bread and poured out cup together we were “broken and whole, all at once.” I felt deeply that we were truly the Body of Christ, that in those moments Christ was there with us and in us and of us. I recognized Christ, broken and whole all at once, as we were. After the benediction we lingered, waving to each other and greeting each other online in a way that was more meaningful to me than when we pass the peace when we worship together in person. As we eventually signed off, it seemed to me that our familiar sense of being the Body of Christ had now been resurrected into this very strange world of social distancing and connection through technology. I felt my hope renewed even as your faces disappeared.
Having recognized Jesus, Cleopas and the other follower can now admit to each other that Jesus’ explanation of the scriptures while they were walking had made their hearts burn. And now these two, so gloomy and hopeless as they trudged along that afternoon, change their plan to spend the night in Emmaus. They drop everything and immediately return at once to Jerusalem! In the dark! Risking arrest by Roman soldiers! Joyously and full of hope.
They had been resurrected from the hell of hopelessness and fear! Now they are witnesses to hope! When they get to Jerusalem and go to where the rest of the disciples were staying, they are greeted with the news, “It is true! Jesus has risen and appeared to Simon Peter!” To Peter, the first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and the first to give in to disappointment and fear, denying three times that he even knew Jesus. Peter is now a witness to hope! The two of them relate their own experience with Jesus’ appearance to the eleven disciples. Joy permeates the room.
In a column of the December 4 issue of The Christian Century, Debie Thomas shared that her 17-year-old son has been out of school for two years after a bicycle accident, unable to be out of bed for more than four or five hours at a time, with excruciating headaches and nausea. She writes that the only biblical stories of hope that resonate with her the ones with people waiting “in the long haul and the long darkness…Hope finds and names God in the world’s most desolate places. Hope kneels on hard ground and yearns without shame…Hope sits in the darkness—outwaiting torture, humiliation, crucifixion, and death—until finally a would-be gardener shows up at dawn and calls us by name.”
When we recognize Christ in another or present among us we become witnesses to hope also, and then we can proclaim that we bear the defiant hope that God is still writing the story, “that despite darkness a light shines and that God can redeem our crap…” That hope gives us faith, and with faith we can live fully despite our fears, for we know that as Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
May it be so.