Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Third Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter on April 26, 2020.

The Third Sunday of Easter


• Acts 2.14a,36-41
• 1 Peter 1.17-23 
• Luke 24.13-35

Today’s Gospel reading is the famous account of the ‘Journey to Emmaus’.  Two disciples of Jesus are walking to Emmaus, a village 60 stadia from Jerusalem.  This is about 7 miles.  The phrase ‘30 stadia’ was a way of saying an hour’s journey by foot.  This would mean that the village is about two hours from Jerusalem.  Also possible is that the village is a 60 stadia round trip, that is, 30 stadia each way.  We don’t know because we don’t know where Emmaus actually was!  We are only told the village’s name.
We are also only told the name of one of the disciples, Cleopas, but not the name of his companion.  Not that knowing his or her name would help much.  In the same way that we don’t much about Emmaus, we don’t much about these two disciples.  Other than that they were disciples from Emmaus and that one of them was called Cleopas, we know nothing more about them and who they were.

We do know, however, what they were talking about. 

As they walk and talk a Stranger also walks up beside them.  They are kept from recognizing him.  He asks them what they are talking about.  What else is there to talk about?  Where has this Stranger been this weekend?  They tell him they are talking about what has taken place in the past few days.  The Stranger then asks them, ‘What things?’

They explain, as disciples of Jesus, all the hopes they had in him and how they had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel, that is, set her free from Roman rule and establish God’s Kingdom on earth.

This was a reasonable hope.  Jesus himself had taught his disciples to pray, whenever they prayed, for this very thing to happen.  But it hadn’t.  Instead, all their hopes had come to nothing when he had been crucified just three days ago.  Clearly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t the One after all.  He was definitely a prophet, they still believe that, but, equally definitely, not the Messiah.  You can sense the disappointment in their voice, even from so greater a distance in time as this.

Cleopas and his companion go on to relate how they had been told, just a few hours earlier in the day, by the women in their group, that Jesus’ body has now gone missing.  What is more, the women claim to have seen angels who told them Jesus was alive.  No wonder they thought the women mad.  To their disappointment, then, is added confusion.

The Stranger in response explains to them from the Scriptures what he feels they themselves should have known by reading them.  The Messiah had to suffer.  Rather than Jesus’s suffering and death proving he was not the Messiah, it suggests the exact opposite.  The Stranger then takes them through all the Scriptures explaining how they are about Jesus.

Eventually they reach Emmaus, and the Stranger goes to walk on.  They, however, want him to stay and prevail on him to do so.  And so, he goes into where they live.  They sit down, or rather recline as they did in those days, to eat a meal together. 

But there is something strange about this meal. 

Normally, the host, not the guest, would bless the bread, but the two disciples have let the Stranger take over and become himself the host.  Assuming this role, the Stranger blesses the bread and breaks it, and as he does so their eyes are opened, and they recognize who the Stranger is.  At which point, he vanishes from their sight.

They comment to one another on how their hearts had been burning on the road as he had explained the Scriptures to them.  There is now only one thing to do, they must get back to Jerusalem and tell the others.  When they get there, they discover that the others already know and that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter.

The two disciples, not to be out done, tell their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognized the Lord in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

Well, it is a great story.  We would love to know more.  More about the two disciples who are as strange to us as the Lord was to them.  More about what they did next.  Why the Lord singled them out for such an amazing experience.  We would at the very least like to know where Emmaus is.

Last week, we saw how St Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas’, as he is generally known, is regarded by many today as their patron saint; one who not only comforts us in our doubts but encourages us to doubt.  We like also to see this journey to Emmaus as a parable.  We only come to know the Lord, we claim, by walking with him.  Faith, we are encouraged to think, is a journey and not a destination.

There is a pattern here.  We want doubt, not certainty; questions, not answers.  The exact opposite, in fact, of what Jesus actually says.  Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting and to believe.  And these two disciples he calls foolish and slow for needing him to explain what he thinks should have been obvious to them all along.

Was Jesus being a bit hard on them?  From the point of view of Christians like us who are encouraged to doubt rather than believe, and always to ask questions rather than to discover answers, it may seem that way.  We can at least take comfort from the fact that they were as foolish as we are, if being fools together is a comforting thought.

Whether it is or not, Jesus didn’t want Thomas to doubt and he didn’t want the two disciples to ask questions without getting answers.  That’s why he appeared to them on the road to Emmaus in the first place.  He didn’t praise them for asking good questions, he told them they shouldn’t have needed to ask them in the first place!

So apart from reprimanding us too for our foolishness and slowness to believe, what else does the Lord want to say to us through this story?  There are three things, in particular, that I think he would say to us:

1. Jesus is revealed in the Scriptures.

The Risen Lord wanted to reveal himself to the two disciples.  He wanted them to see him for who he really was and is.  But strangely, he didn’t reveal himself to them directly at first.  The easiest thing for Risen Lord to have done would have been simply to appear to them as they walked and talked.  They would have seen beyond all doubt that he was alive and realized that he was the Messiah after all.

Instead, the Risen Lord goes through this drawn out procedure of appearing in disguise, and then carefully showing them how what has happened is all in fulfilment of the Scriptures.

Now, we could argue, that for a variety of reasons personal to them, this was something that these two disciples needed.  But no.  When Jesus later appears to the other disciples still in Jerusalem, he repeats what he said to the two on the road to Emmaus about how the Messiah had to suffer and that it was in fulfilment of the Scriptures.  He says 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.’ (Luke 24:44)

And having told them that, he ‘opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’ just as he had done with Cleopas and his companion.  The Gospels and the New Testament writers are all sure of two things.  Firstly, that Jesus’ death and resurrection came as a complete surprise to everyone and, secondly, that it had been clearly predicted and explained in advance in the Scriptures.

The reason it was a surprise is not because God had not told anyone in advance that it was going to happen this way, but because none of his disciples before his death understood what Jesus himself had repeatedly tried to explain to them.

We may understand today that the Messiah had to suffer if for no other reason than he clearly did suffer.  We are not, however, so sure about why he had to suffer.  In the same way that Peter and the disciples didn’t like it when Jesus tried to explain it to them before his death, we are not so keen to hear the explanation now after his death.

We both don’t understand and we also don’t want to understand.  Yes, of course, we have doubts and questions, genuine doubts and questions.  But it is also true that we welcome and embrace both doubt and questions because we are not happy with what we are being asked to believe and the answers we are being given.

Our doubts are dealt with and our questions are answered in exactly the same place as the Risen Lord directed the first disciples to, that is, in the Scriptures.  The Bible is where we must go to find out about Christ and hear what God says in answer to our doubts and questions.  And what it says is what must be.  Everything written in the Scriptures, our Lord says, must be fulfilled.

The reason we don’t read the Bible is sometimes out of laziness and apathy; sometimes because we find it hard to understand; but often because we don’t like what it says.  The Risen Lord could have by-passed the Scriptures.  He didn’t, and nor should we.

2. Jesus is recognized in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

The Risen Lord wanted to reveal himself to the two disciples, but, again, he did not do so directly.  Not only did they have to first see him in the Scriptures, he only finally revealed his real identity in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

Many interpreters argue that this was just a standard evening meal and interpret what took place to mean that Jesus can reveal himself in the normal and ordinary events of everyday life such as a typical evening meal.  And that’s true.  But how would anyone read St Luke’s words and not think back three days to how Jesus had done precisely this same action in blessing and breaking the bread at the Last Supper?

St Luke tells us that the two disciples recognized Jesus in the ‘breaking of the bread’.  St Luke, when he relates how the two disciples reported what had happened to them to the other disciples, records again for emphasis specifically how they recognized Jesus in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

By the time St Luke wrote his account of our Lord’s life in the Gospel and his account of the early Church in the book of Acts, the ‘breaking of bread’ and the account of our Lord’s words and actions at the ‘Last Supper’ had become an essential and intrinsic part of the Church’s worship.  St Paul describes how such a meeting took place in Corinth in Greece just 20 years or so later.  God speaks to us in many ways, through many different means, but if we want to recognize him today, we too will find him in the breaking of the bread. 

The biggest deprivation for Jesus’ followers at the present time isn’t not being able to travel and go to public events.  It is not being able to participate together in the body and blood of Christ.  It is as we do so that our Lord is seen among us.

Our hope and prayer during these Broadcast Services is that even in this way our Lord might be recognized in the breaking of the bread.

3. Jesus is revealed to and recognized by those whose eyes have been opened.

What the two disciples wanted the Messiah to be was what prevented them from seeing the Messiah for who he was.  They passionately wanted Israel to be liberated.  Liberated so she could be free from political oppression, but liberated too so she could be spiritually free to serve God in the way he wanted.  They longed for the Messiah who would be the leader who would enable them to realize their hopes and longings.  Many, including Cleopas and his companion, had thought that Jesus was such a Messiah. 

A dead Messiah is, however, of no use to anyone.  How could he fulfil their hopes and dreams if dead?  Despite all the wonderful things Jesus had said and done, it seemed as if he was a false Messiah as had been so many before him and would be after him.

These two disciples still believed he had been special.  They describe him to the Stranger as: ‘a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people’ (Luke 24:19).

Now, however, they are disappointed.  They felt badly let down when Jesus failed to live up to their expectations.  (We saw this in the sermon for Palm Sunday.)  Jesus will disappoint us if we expect him to conform to our ideas of what he should be like.  We have to come to Jesus on his terms and, indeed, we can only come on his terms; he will not let us come on any others.

We have to see him as he is and as he wants to reveal himself to us.  Many today want him to be a ‘prophet in word and deed’.  Someone who can be enlisted to their ideology and cause.  Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, has been claimed by colonialist and communist; by capitalist and socialist; by chauvinist and feminist.  But he won’t be a prophet for our cause no matter how noble.

Cleopas asks the Stranger:

‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ (Luke 24:18)

The irony was that the Stranger was the only one in Jerusalem who really did know what had taken place there.  Everyone in Jerusalem saw what happened on Good Friday.  Everyone in Jerusalem had the Scriptures which said these things must happen.  Only one person in Jerusalem understood why they had happened and why they had to happen and that was the person whom they happened to.  Everyone else’s eyes, like the eyes of the two on the road to Emmaus, were prevented from seeing. 

As they are today. 

For the only way for us to see Jesus for who he is and the only way for us to understand what he has done is for him to explain it to us and for God to open our eyes.  And he will do that today, as he did it then, as we read the Scriptures and break the bread.

Which is why reading the Bible and participating in the Eucharist are not optional extras.

First of all, Jesus cannot explain the Scriptures to us if we don’t read them.  Many of you watching or listening to this will have heard me say previously that we, today, are the most privileged generation there has been when it comes reading and studying the Bible.  The resources available to us are resources that people historically couldn’t even dream of.  And yet the irony is that poor, illiterate peasants in the past, who could not read or write, knew more of the Scriptures than many in the Church do today.

It is no benefit having the resources that are now at our disposal if we don’t use them and it is no good using the resources unless we read the Bible itself.  The two disciples said to each other after Jesus had left:

‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32)

It is when our hearts burn within us that we know we are reading Gods’ word as it is meant to be read.

Secondly, though, Jesus doesn’t just want us to read about him, vital and exciting though that is.  He wants us to see him.  He wants to reveal himself now to us as the Crucified Christ who had to ‘suffer these things’ and as the Risen Lord who then entered ‘his glory’.  And now having suffered these things and entered his glory, he wants us to recognize him for who he is.

The Risen Lord in the book of Revelation says:

‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.’ (Revelation 3:20)

The Risen Lord wants to enter our lives as he entered the home of the two disciples from Emmaus.  He wants to come in and eat with us.

But we need to know this: he will not enter as a guest, but only as the host; not as a visitor to our lives, but as the owner.  That’s what acknowledging him as our Lord means.  It means surrendering ourselves to him.  Giving ourselves to him.  Having faith in him. Trusting him.  Obeying him.

And so now as the bread is broken in this our Broadcast Service, may our eyes be opened so that we, like Cleopas and his companion, may recognize and open the door of our lives to him that he may come in and eat with us and us with him.


No comments: