Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH, Sunday, April 6, 2008.
If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.
What’s the Human Condition?
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson, Luke paints for us one of the most poignant scenes in all the Bible. Two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and his companion, are walking along the road to Emmaus and they are despondent. The most wonderful person they had ever known and in whom they had put their hopes and dreams had been crucified as a common criminal. He was indisputably dead and buried and now they felt quite alone. Not only were they grieving Jesus’ death, they were dealing with their own violated expectations. Instead of redeeming Israel in the way they expected—probably hoping he was going to free Israel from its bondage to Rome—Jesus had gotten himself crucified and they were devastated.
While they were sharing their hurt and brokenness with each other, Jesus “came near and went with them” but they did not recognize him. The verb Luke uses for recognize is “epiginoœskoœœ,” which means more than to just recognize someone by his or her physical appearance. Epiginoœskoœœ means to know something or someone fully, or to understand, the kind of knowledge that results from a deep and intimate relationship with someone. Luke does not tell us how they were prevented from recognizing Jesus but it does not stretch our imagination to believe that one of the reasons was because they were so self-absorbed in their own hurt and problems.
Jesus quickly got them to talk about what was on their hearts and minds and then Luke tells us just how fully the two misunderstood Jesus and the recent events surrounding him. Their faces downcast, the disciples told Jesus of their shattered hopes and dreams about him being a prophet and redeemer of Israel. That the two called Jesus a prophet is significant because in the biblical context a prophet was one who “speaks for God and interprets his will for [humankind]” (Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush, p. 221). This, of course, would have given anyone thought to be a prophet immense authority because he or she was speaking for God and could therefore be trusted to tell the truth. The prophet’s words would surely be believable but apparently Cleopas and his companion did not quite understand so that they could believe.
Then the two told Jesus an even more amazing story about an empty tomb and Jesus being alive that they had heard earlier in the day from women who had visited Jesus’ tomb. The verb Luke uses for amazed means literally to be driven out of one’s senses and we don’t have to try very hard to understand how a story like this, if really taken seriously, would drive us out of our senses. After all, how many people have we seen raised from the dead?
In telling the story up to this point, then, Luke hits a resonant note with us, doesn’t he? If we have lived long enough, we know all too well about shattered hopes and dreams and how they can make us and our eyes look downcast so that we feel quite alone in the world. Whatever the cause—a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, financial hardship, illness or unanswered prayer—we can relate all too well to Cleopas and his companion when they said, “We had hoped…but now…”
Where’s God’s Grace?
Yet it is to the glory of the God who loves us and gave himself for us that this is not the end of the story. God did not leave Cleopas and his companion as they were nor does he leave us the way we are. What did Jesus do to help his two despondent disciples? Luke tells us that Jesus admonished the two for being slow to understand and believe. But notice that even though Jesus admonished the two, he stayed with them and helped them understand so that later they recalled their hearts burned within them as he opened the scriptures to them. Luke seems to be reminding us here that Jesus is present in believers’ lives regardless of whether we are aware of that presence or even understand fully how he manifests himself to us. Jesus is with us when our hearts are on fire because we recognize his presence and even when we are feeling defeated and quite alone in the world.
Jesus then interpreted the scriptures for them so that they would finally understand that he was called to be a suffering Messiah. In other words, Jesus seemed to be saying to them (and us) that if we are going to make him the basis of our hope (and we should), then we must know what that basis is (the cross). He further reminds them (and us) that scripture is the most important way to help us understand Jesus as the basis of our hope and that if we are to really understand scripture, we must submit ourselves to its authority. Why? Because as Peter reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, the word of God is enduring and living; it has the power to give us life because it comes from God, the Source and Author of all life. We must not try to put scripture under our authority and make it say what we want it to say because we do not have life in us; and when we do, then we are attempting to put death over life and can never come to learn and recognize Jesus in our midst.
Last, it is noteworthy that Cleopas and his companion did not recognize Jesus until they were enjoying fellowship with him at table. This echoes Jesus’ promise in Matthew that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20) and here we see a gospel writer joining others in the NT in emphasizing the importance of table fellowship in knowing Jesus. It is from this passage, in part, that we Anglicans find the basis for our glorious way of worship each Sunday in Word and Sacrament.
Where’s the Application?
So what application does the Emmaus story have for us today? First, if we are to take seriously Paul’s admonition to grow to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), i.e., to be like Christ, then we must learn what is the mind and will of Christ so that we will better recognize him in our midst. In the process of becoming like Christ, our job is not to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but rather to ask, “What would Jesus have us do?” To learn the mind of Christ so that we can become like him, we must do what Jesus did for Cleopas and his companion—search and correctly interpret the scriptures—because he understood scripture to be the living and breathing word of God. Consequently, we need to read the Bible regularly because it is God’s word to us and it is essential for our Christian maturity. Simply put, it will help us better understand the mind of Christ so that we can be more like him and this understanding will help us better recognize his presence in our lives. We have seen in today’s gospel lesson that Jesus thought so and we have also seen in today’s epistle lesson that Peter believed God’s word to be living and enduring, able to produce the results God wants.
This leads us to our second lesson from the Emmaus story. If we are to read scripture regularly we must humble ourselves and expect God to speak to and work in us when we do. This was the mistake of Cleopas and his companion. They apparently tried to make scripture say what they wanted it to say rather than expecting to be transformed by reading it. Otherwise, why would Jesus have scolded them for being slow to believe what the prophets had declared about himself? In essence Jesus said to them, “Why are your eyes downcast in the midst of this joyous occasion? If you knew what the prophets said, those who spoke and interpreted God’s word, then you would have known this was going to happen and you would have expected my death and resurrection and would not now be sad,” i.e., “you would have joy even in the midst of your own personal sense of loss!”
We see this dynamic echoed in today’s NT lesson. Peter urged the Israelites to repent and be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit could help them do the things they needed to do to be saved from the corrupt generation in which they lived. These three voices in today’s lessons represent the consistent Voice we hear in the Bible: we cannot save ourselves; we are only saved by God’s grace and enduring presence in us by the power of his Word and Holy Spirit. Christianity is not a self-help religion; it is a God-empowered religion. Thanks be to God!
When you read God’s word, do you read it with a sense of anticipation that the Holy Spirit living in you is using it to help transform you into being like Christ each day and help you better recognize him in your midst? Or are you more like Cleopas and his companion, walking down the road of your life with your face and eyes downcast so that you cannot recognize the Risen Lord walking with you because you do not know who or what to look for? Early last week I was helped to understand this truth when Jesus enlightened me [personal testimony on calling Ron, my prep for Paul, and my reading of Wesley, mindset and mind set]. When you read scripture with the expectation that you will grow in your understanding of Jesus and his will for you, your hearts will burn within you because he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4).
Finally, the Emmaus story reminds us about the importance of being real in the midst of Christian fellowship. While they were on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion at least had the wherewithal, or perhaps the grace, to talk about their hurts and fears with each other; they didn’t try to tough it out on their own or pretend like nothing was wrong. They were also real enough to share their shattered hopes and dreams with a perfect stranger, and humble enough to listen to someone whom they instinctively knew had the authority and power to help them. Doing so allowed Jesus to help them gain a fuller understanding of scripture and himself so that their hearts burned within them.
What about you? Do you need help in reading the Bible daily or perhaps interpreting it so that you understand it better and be transformed by it? If you do, then the Emmaus story reminds us of the importance of joining a small group for purposeful Bible study and regular Christian fellowship. While it is true that God works in us through the Holy Spirit to help us gain a fuller understanding of his word and purposes for us, it is also true that God uses other humans to accomplish the same, just as Jesus helped the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. If you are having trouble in establishing good disciplinary habits like daily Bible reading, join a disciple group and ask its members to help you. If you are having difficulty interpreting scripture, ask a mature Christian friend or someone you trust in your group, or one of your pastors for some suggestions about a good Bible study or commentary, depending where you are in your journey. The more you are willing to access people and resources to help you in your daily Bible reading, the better you will understand. And the better you understand, the easier it will be for you to recognize the Risen Christ in your daily life. I do not know exactly how this all works but I know it does work because it is my testimony and the testimony of millions of Christians over time and across culture that it does.
Are you content to walk through life with your face and eyes downcast or do you want to have your hearts burn within you because you know that the Lord is risen and really present with you? The choice is yours. He stands ready to help you wherever you are in your journey. How do we know this? Because he has spoken to us through the law, the prophets, through scripture, and most importantly, he has taken on our flesh and given us this promise directly through Jesus, the Word. That’s good news now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.