Sermon / April 30, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / Luke 24:13-35 /
Early last fall, right after I came to Grace, I went to Teresa’s early one Sunday morning to get something to eat before church. There weren’t many people there. As I ate breakfast, a man sitting nearby said to me, “Are you the new pastor at Grace?” When I replied that I was, we chatted about the neighborhood for a few minutes, and then he told me that in the past, he had been a churchgoer. For many years. Then, he stopped going. The last time he went, it was in the Easter season, when the gospel reading had been about one of Jesus’s resurrection appearances.
“I really listened to it,” he told me, “and then suddenly, after all those years of church-going, I realized that none of that stuff ever happened. It’s all just a fairy tale. I never went back.”
Now, the first thing I want to say is that that man’s failure of belief is not his fault. The story of Jesus is a very complicated story. Understanding it requires a lot of thought, a lot of patience, a lot of living. And the church (here I mean the church in general, not Grace Church in particular) has not always done a very good job helping people understand it. We’re pretty good at helping people understand the moral dimension of Jesus’s ministry, his teaching and preaching. We haven’t done as good a job at helping people understand the cross and resurrection. No wonder many people mistakenly think that Jesus was willing to be crucified to effect a transaction between a righteous God and a guilty humanity, which essentially monetizes the cross. And no wonder lots of people think of the resurrection as a way the so-called “unsophisticated” writers of Scripture, who did not understand the laws of science, tried to put a happy ending on the story.
I’m glad we have the incredibly wonderful story of Jesus’s resurrection appearance for our gospel today. Because if you look at it closely, you will see that it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a description of how God comes to us in the real world.
The story happens on Easter Day. In Luke’s gospel, all that’s happened so far that day is that the women disciples have been to the tomb and found it empty. They’ve talked with angels, but they haven’t seen Jesus. Peter goes to the tomb later. He doesn’t see anyone either.
Now it’s Easter afternoon. Two of the disciples are walking away from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus, probably because in the aftermath of the crucifixion, they fear that Jesus’s fate will soon be their own. So they are leaving Jerusalem, the sacred center, in fear. They are walking away from the holy. Notice that these two disciples are not the famous ones. They are not part of The Twelve. They are lesser disciples.. And that’s important. Because as lesser disciples, they represent us. So this is a story about them and then, but also about us, and now. That’s the first clue to what the story means. It’s a story about how we tend to walk away from the sacred when we’re scared or hopeless, often without even knowing we’re doing it.
The disciples are talking about what has happened in Jerusalem over the past few days. Jesus appears. And he asks them what they’re talking about. This is not Jesus playing dumb. This is Jesus coming to them from within their lives, and (to continue Jim’s metaphor from last week) touching their wounds, and asking them to tell him their story. Which is what God is always doing – coming into our lives from within, touching our wounds, engaging us. God doesn’t come from outside us, like a grand stage manager. God comes to us as a character in our own stories. And, like the disciples, we usually don’t recognize when this is happening because like them we are habituated to seeing suffering, disappointment, and death as the last, definitive word about life. This is what the Scripture means when it says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him”.
The gospel notes that the disciples were “looking sad”. I discovered something fascinating this week. The particular Greek verb that is translated as “looking sad” is a very rarely used verb in the Bible. But it’s the same Greek verb that’s used in the Greek translation of an Old Testament story about Joseph. Remember when Joseph was serving as overseer for the Pharaoh, and Pharaoh had imprisoned two of his employees (the chief baker and the chief cupbearer) who had not pleased him? The baker and the wine steward each had a dream that puzzled him. Joseph had a reputation as an excellent dream interpreter. When he encounters these two men in prison, he notices that they were “looking sad”. Same rare verb. And he goes on to interpret their dreams perfectly. So the readers of Luke, who would have been familiar with this Joseph story, are given another clue – that this story about Jesus and the disciples is also about interpretation, about having something incomprehensible explained.
And so the disciples tell Jesus their story. It’s a mix of grief and fear and confusion and failed expectations. What they thought was going to happen with Jesus did not happen. Everything they thought they understood was proven wrong. And they’ve lost hope.
And what does Jesus do? He re-tells them the story. He interprets what has happened in such a way that their hope is restored (or resurrected, you might say), and they look at their story in a different and life-giving way. This is what God is always doing.
By which I don’t mean that God helps us make lemonade out of lemons. I mean that, because of the constant, invisible, redeeming action of God, what we ordinarily view as failed and hopeless is never actually so, not foundationally. Because suffering is always, somehow, the ground from which life and love spring, if our eyes are not kept from recognizing it by our tendency to resist it. This means that the resurrection was simply the grandest example, the final victorious example, of what God is always doing, at all times and everywhere – bringing life out of death.
So, the resurrection is not a metaphor for the daffodils coming back in the spring. The daffodils coming back in the spring is a metaphor for the resurrection. It’s all resurrection, all the time, even when we can’t see it.
Now, notice that Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus said to the disciples. All Luke says is, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interprets to them all the things about himself in the scriptures.” If only Luke had told us the details – we would have it all spelled out for us. But he doesn’t. Why? Because there is no one interpretation that fits every human being. There is no “one size fits all” interpretation. Each of us has specific fears, specific histories, so we each have a specific way in which hope and salvation comes to us. That’s why I said earlier that understanding Jesus takes a lot of living. The way God saves you is going to fit your life. It’s going to resurrect your story from within.
The disciples don’t recognize Jesus until he eats with them. And the moment they recognize him, he vanishes. Just like us, the disciples get only glimpses of God. But that’s enough to change them. Notice what they do? Even though it’s late at night, they get right up and return to Jerusalem, the sacred center. A bare 6 weeks later, the church is born and spreads like wildfire.
The more I think about this story, the more I notice the movement in it. The disciples are defeated by their experience, which makes them walk on the road that leads away from the sacred center of Jerusalem, away from the holy. And I think we all walk that road. Life is so difficult, it’s such a struggle, that it can overcome us sometimes. When that happens, it can be really hard to hold faith in a credible God.
But God never gives up on us. The first thing Jesus does after his resurrection is to go after those disciples on the road. He pursues them!He’s not going to let them go. Even though he was wounded unto death and left without hope himself just a day before. Remember that about your own life, especially at those moments when you realize you’re walking on the road to Emmaus, when you’re walking the road of retreat and maybe even despair. Look within yourself. Look around. God will be there. God knows what you’re going through because God’s been through it himself. If you’re willing, God is going to take you by the shoulders. God is going to re-tell you your story and turn you around and send you right back to the sacred center. Remember, you are always waking. You are either walking away from the sacred or walking back toward the sacred. In your spiritual life, you are never standing still.
For us disciples, the sacred center isn’t Jerusalem. It’s Grace Church, it’s the Bible, it’s that altar, where in a few minutes we will break bread with each other and with the Lord. It’s our community. Every morning of every day, we have to learn again how to hope. This is what churches are for.
Our Book of Common Prayer has a prayer that I’d like to commend to you. It was drawn from the language of this gospel story, and it’s a wonderful prayer to say at dinnertime or at bedtime. We’ll make it part of our weekly e-blast this coming week, so you can use it at home if you’d like.
“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.”