Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 (3 Easter)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Nobody. Nobody follows a dead Messiah… and that’s just a fact. Jesus was not only one who claimed to be Israel’s Messiah. There were at least a dozen others; some before and some after. In every case, nobody followed them after their death. These two disciples on the Road to Emmaus are walking away from Jerusalem… they are walking away from a political disaster. They were doing what all the surviving followers of all the other dead Messiahs did… getting away from trouble, away from the scene of bitter disappointment, to get on with their lives. To understand how they might have felt, there is a back-story that might be helpful to understand.
As many of you know, the Hebrews of Judah were sent into exile in Babylon about 600 years before Christ, and they returned unexpectedly, about 60 years later when Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians. They returned full of promise and joy; exile was finally over! Things got rebuilt, including the Second Temple. But over time, there developed a sense among the Hebrews that in some way, the exile was not really over… the things promised in Isaiah didn’t seem to be happening. For example, Exodus tells how the Spirit of God filled the Tent of Meeting during Israel’s wondering in the desert… the very same thing happened when the First Temple in Jerusalem was dedicated by Solomon. But when the Second Temple was built after the return from Babylon, nothing like that happened. The Spirit of God did not fill the Second Temple. Why not? Maybe Israel was not yet forgiven; maybe the exile was not really over. And, there were political setbacks. Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, and his descendants continued to rule over the Hebrews. The Romans eventually conquered the region as well. Wasn’t Israel supposed to be the chosen people… the people through whom God would rule the world? About 200 years before Jesus, the book of Daniel suggested that the exile was NOT to be seventy years as told in Isaiah, but "seventy weeks of years"… that’s about 490 years. Oh. So by Jesus’ time, that term was coming to the end, and Jews had great expectations that God himself was going to come, liberate the Jewish people from the Romans, and install the Jews as rulers of the world. As many Jews saw it, this could only be a military action with God (or God’s Messiah) leading the charge. If you get the sense when you read the Gospels, that Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to "get" what Jesus is up to… this is part of the reason why. They had completely different expectations. They were looking for a military Messiah; one that was going to raise and Army and crush the Romans, but that’s not what they got with Jesus.
And look at the way these two disciples report what happened to the stranger who catches up to them on the road to Emmaus. It sounds like a news report… something you would read in the New London Day. "Well there was this guy… he did some great things and all our hopes were on him… but he was crucified… and then there was some weird things that happened this morning… so we’re out of there." It’s really, a very fact-based way of reporting the news to this stranger. It’s no wonder they didn’t recognize Jesus when they saw him… they didn’t know how to read him with their hearts or to read the times spiritually.
Jesus does three things that help these two travellers finally to see him for who he really was. First… he interprets the scripture to them spiritually, not literally. He "opened the scripture to them". He revealed the Word of God to their hearts and not just to their minds. And with this new understanding, the events of the past week were seen by them spiritually, and no longer like a news report. "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" If reading scripture, particularly with others, is not part of your discipleship, Luke is suggesting that it should be. The reading of scripture is itself a Force in the world. When you read scripture prayerfully and spiritually with your heart, it is a way for the Holy Spirit to read YOU. It is a way for the Spirit to reframe your life… to make it come alive in the context of your life today. It is not just reading ancient history, mythology, or poetry… it is about your heart burning within you as you come to see the recurring patterns and richness of God’s rescuing mission in the world today… here and now. This is Holy action… you are never reading scripture alone when you are reading scripture with your heart.
The second thing Jesus does to unlock his true identity, was to put these two disciples in a position to offer hospitality. He seems to walk ahead of them, as though to go further to some other destination. "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. Jesus is always out there ahead of us, and if we ask, he will stay with us. And notice what didn’t happen to these disciples. They didn’t found a hospital or a school… they didn’t solve global poverty or raise a million dollars. They enjoyed a simple meal with a stranger, as Jesus had done over and over and over throughout his ministry. If you are looking for a way to work for God’s mission in the world, you could start by simply sharing a cup of coffee with someone. I could imagine a Dunkin Donuts ad that says "The Kingdom of God runs on Dunkin Donuts." As a friend of mine put it1, the Holy Spirit calls us to rest into the little, intimate, mustard seed, cup-of-cold-water work of loving the people God has put in our path.
The third thing Jesus does is to make Eucharist with them, and Luke tells this part of the story in a surprising way that reminds us of others who have had their eyes opened. Way back in Genesis, the storyteller says "…when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…" On the Road to Emmaus, on this first day of the new creation, here at the first meal, Luke says: "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…." In the old creation, Adam and Eve saw only themselves, their desires, and their nakedness. In the new creation, we see that broken bread feeds us… that a body broken on the cross is true bread for the world. And in that, we see way beyond ourselves… we see Jesus.
These two disciples told the stranger "We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, but he was condemned to death and crucified". Now they were able to say "He IS the one who redeemed Israel, and he did it by being condemned to death and crucified. The Lord has risen indeed!" They were not following a dead Messiah but a risen one, and so are we. That is good news that NO ONE was expecting. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Read scripture spiritually with the heart, especially with others. Offer hospitality to strangers. In the Eucharist, see how self-giving love saves the world. With that, the eyes of our discipleship might be opened, and we might just recognize the risen Jesus in the most surprising places and in the most unexpected faces. May it be so for you and for all the world.
Will you pray with me? Gracious and loving God, creator of Heaven and Earth; build your Kingdom among us. Lord Jesus Christ, risen son of the living God; open our eyes to see your healing hands at work in the world around us. Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, who dwells within us; pour your gifts into our hearts, and send us to join in God’s reconciling mission. Amen.
- Beck, Richard. "Experimental Theology." Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 5, The Wisdom of the Kingdom. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2017/04/empathy-and-kingdom-part-5-wisdom-of.html.