(Sermon from 2014-05-04 at Zion Lutheran Church, Boalsburg, PA)
Grace to you and peace from God our father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It seems apropos that I was asked to preach today. Not because of something inherent about me, but because of the reason I was asked. In case you slipped in late and weren’t already aware, Pastor Book, along with a sizable contingent from our congregation, are in Washington DC, participating in the Race for Hope, a charity walk and run for brain cancer as Team Zion, honoring the memory of our own Todd Miller who died of brain cancer by helping raise money to find a cure.
As today’s lesson begins, Jesus is risen, but at least in Luke’s account, hasn’t yet made a personal appearance to his disciples. Instead, the community of disciples and close followers is trying to understand the meaning of empty tombs, of prophecies, of angels. In fact, it’s important to hear the first part of the chapter to understand what is happening in the second, today’s gospel.
24:1 Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. 24:2 They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, 24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. 24:5 The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 24:6 He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 24:7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 24:8 Then the women remembered his words, 24:9 and when they returned from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 24:11 But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them. 24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent down and saw only the strips of linen cloth; then he went home, wondering what had happened. (NET)
Here we pick up today’s gospel:
24:13 Now that very day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 24:14 They were talking to each other about all the things that had happened. 24:15 While they were talking and debating these things, Jesus himself approached[.]
These men didn’t know whether to be in mourning or to dance. Mary said an angel had told her Jesus was risen, but all they could verify was that the tomb was empty. Having likely come to Jerusalem for the Passover and stayed over the Sabbath, these two disciples were now heading back to their hometowns.
[He] began to accompany them 24:16 (but their eyes were kept from recognizing him). 24:17 Then he said to them, “What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” And they stood still, looking sad. 24:18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” 24:19 He said to them, “What things?” “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied, “a man who, with his powerful deeds and words, proved to be a prophet before God and all the people; 24:20 and how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. Not only this, but it is now the third day since these things happened. 24:22 Furthermore, some women of our group amazed us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 24:23 and when they did not find his body, they came back and said they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24:24 Then 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.
When a people mourns a loss which is sense-less in the most literal sense of the word, we seek to find some purpose in it or at least decipher its meaning. This is true at the scale of family or friends (as here), congregation (like Zion, at the loss of Todd Miller, whom I regretfully was never able to meet but certainly have gotten to know through the witness of Zion), or even a nation or world (9/11, wars), we want to make sense from the senseless. Jesus (whom they only knew as a fellow Jewish traveler, probably also a pilgrim) must have astounded them with his response:
” 24:25 So he said to them, “You foolish people—how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 24:26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Now Jesus sounds like the Jesus that the writer of Mark portrayed, the Jesus who often responded to his disciple’s efforts at interpreting current events by saying (in the translation of Greek scholar James Boyce) “You Dundering Dodoheads!” But he followed up how? By continuing to walk with them and interpreting for them.
One of the most powerful songs I have encountered is written by a Christian musician named Ray Boltz. It tells the story of a father walking toward Jerusalem with his two sons to make sacrifice. As they’re walking toward the city, his boys want to know what they will see- so he “tells them of Moses and father Abraham” and then tells them to “watch the lamb” they were to sacrifice, to “make sure it doesn’t run away”. It becomes apparent when they reach the city that something is wrong- and they quickly discover that there is an uproar because the Romans are going to crucify three men, one of them Jesus. Having (unwittingly and unwillingly) witnessed the barbarism and having stood transfixed afterward, lost and decentered, the father feels the tiny hands of his sons holding on to him. Brought back into a sense of time and reality, he hears his sons say “Father please forgive us- the lamb ran away.” The pathos of that moment, the fact that I have not been able to sing that song for 8 years now (ever since I had children of my own), must have been what Jesus walked into here. And it is what the unsuspecting companion of the tragically departed inevitably stumbles upon.
How can we respond in that situation? One way is to do what Jesus does (not the name calling, which was probably more for posterity’s benefit than for those disciples):
24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.
The father in our song continues the same way- by returning to the past, and to God’s promises and most of all His provision. “So I told them of Moses and father Abraham, and then I said dear children, watch the lamb.” You see, in the face of an overwhelming present and an uncertain future, there is nowhere to turn but back to what is certain- the history of God’s work and his promises. Think about what you heard in the second lesson today- God helps us through as we continue on the journey. But it was not accidental that the disciples on the road here did not understand. God had “kept their eyes from recognizing” Jesus, for now. Because it often takes wrestling with the unreasonable, the unbelievable, the tragic, to be able to hear the good news for what it is. It takes understanding our brokenness, our sin, to recognize our need for forgiveness. It took death to achieve resurrection.
24:28 So they approached the village where they were going. He acted as though he wanted to go farther, 24:29 but they urged him, “Stay with us, because it is getting toward evening and the day is almost done.” So he went in to stay with them.
Here is the gift of hospitality- the other gift (along with listening and remembering) that can- and must- be offered in the midst of pain and loss. It was not unusual to invite a fellow traveler in this way, but it is evidence that they were listening and hadn’t just turned off their ears (as well as eyes) when Jesus accused them of slowness.
24:30 When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 24:31 At this point their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Then he vanished out of their sight. 24:32 They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he was speaking with us on the road, while he was explaining the scriptures to us?”
And here, in the simple bread, and the sacrament, Jesus was made known, and they understood and received what they had been hearing. Communion is hospitality, communion is the shared meal, and communion is the making known. What is learned on the road becomes real in the community, in the church, and in the sacraments. But it cannot be received without the law. Have you ever been “forgiven” by someone you didn’t think you had wronged? It doesn’t heal- because it is out of place.
Thinking again on our brothers and sisters in Washington today, the same thing is happening. Fellow travelers, many come from a distance, and many with stories of mourning to share with others, are coming together. They are ostensibly there to raise money and awareness to help stop brain cancer, but the experience will provide more. It will provide a context for shared identity and understanding between people traveling the same road- not only literally and figuratively. It will provide a context for grace. And it may even provide the impetus for something even greater. I have been a diabetes ally for years because when I was in high school, a nurse who belonged to our church was looking for more counselors for a Type I diabetes camp. I went in knowing nothing about diabetes and came out at least partially understanding their pain and the invisibility of their challenges to most people. So, just like the disciples on the road, and just like Team Miller and Team Zion, I “got up that very hour”, “returned to [my] Jerusalem” and “told what had happened on the road”, how I had seen suffering, forgiveness, and ultimately grace, and how I too “recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”
May we all- those here, those traveling, those sick and in pain, every person touched by Zion and Christ’s church throughout the world- may we all have our eyes opened to Jesus in our fellow travelers on our road this week, and may we also be Jesus to our fellow travelers this week who are “debating what has happened” because it is too much to understand. And when we feel lost and alone, may we find hope in Moses and the prophets, and in the grace of God revealed in an imperfect world and perfected through Jesus Christ.