The Road to Emmaus … a Daily Call

This morning, Peter proclaims, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”[1]

Actually, this proclamation occurs not today but on Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter. This proclamation would not have been possible on the day of Resurrection because Peter and the other disciples were still hiding in fear behind locked doors. The disciples first had to be coaxed into unlocking and then opening the doors.

This coaxing begins in the Gospel according to Luke with the road to Emmaus story. In this story Jesus is incognito as he encounters two disciples who do a lot of things right. The story of the road to Emmaus can be seen as a story about how well-formed disciples function even in the midst of adversity and uncertainty.

On the day of the Resurrection, these two disciples are making their way to Emmaus. They are still grappling with all that has transpired in the previous three days, when they are joined on their journey by a stranger. What takes place among these three people is an exchange of stories. Some of the stories are heard second hand and at some distance removed from actual events; and other stories of insight or perspective are shared by the knowledgeable stranger. While there is no revelation or aha moment in this exchange itself, the groundwork is laid for what is to come.

What is worth noting about this exchange is the candor with which the disciples share with a stranger: they share what they know; what they had expected; and what confounds them. To my mind this is discipleship – the sharing of our experience with others, especially with those we think may not know or share our experience.

I think these two disciples are well trained. They’ve been taught to go out in pairs, and they do. They have been taught to share the news with strangers, and they do. They have been taught to tend to the stranger, and they do. For their efforts, they are richly rewarded as the stranger reveals the meaning of the scriptures to them.

But the highlight of this encounter comes when the disciples extend hospitality to the stranger, inviting him to stay with them as they arrive in Emmaus. It is in this hospitality that revelation takes place.

What is it about hospitality that makes a difference? Perhaps it’s because there is an intentionality and focus in hospitality. When we extend hospitality we set aside our reticence and we focus on preparation and the comfort of those we have invited. We want our guests to feel welcomed and wanted.

These disciples in the Emmaus story are well formed by Jesus before his crucifixion. They are taught how to go out into the world, how to share what they know, how to tend to the stranger. While they are on the road to Emmaus, it is as if Jesus is giving them a pop quiz to see if they have done their homework before he continues his lesson. Having shown they are good students, now it’s time to break bread together.

In this story it is the two disciples who extend hospitality to the stranger who is prepared to go on alone. If they did not invite the stranger to stay with them they may never have known it was Jesus. Their hospitality toward a stranger sets the stage for an eye-opening encounter – their encounter of Jesus in the stranger as “their eyes [are] opened, and they [recognize] him.”[2]

Jesus finds these disciples are capable; satisfied that they have integrated what he has taught them into their lives, Jesus reveals himself, in the midst of their hospitality, in the breaking of the bread – just as he will do for us at this table shortly.

This revelation is particularly noteworthy. While we have the ability to reveal Jesus to others, this story and some of our personal experiences remind us that Jesus is often revealed to us in the face of the stranger. These revelations continue to surprise and delight us, and drive our desire to throw the net of hospitality wider.

Remember that Jesus is always present for us to encounter as a stranger to be welcomed. He reminds us of this in the Gospel according to Matthew, where he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these …, you did it to me.”[3]

The formation of these two disciples – that is their ability to extend hospitality – makes possible the revelation of the risen Jesus to the other disciples. Their faithful attendance to their formation as disciples and their witness helps open the locked doors so that Peter and the others can also encounter the risen Christ, receive the Holy Spirit, and proclaim the good news.

The road to Emmaus is before us everyday. This opportunity to walk the road and share our story with others; this opportunity to extend hospitality is a daily call to us as disciples. The opportunity for us to encounter Jesus Christ in the presence of others is the fruit of this call.

Amid such open hospitality minds are changed and eyes opened to new perspectives. This is what church is about, and most specifically what this liturgy is about. This liturgy is a radical act of hospitality – intentional, planned and provided so that all can encounter Jesus Christ – so that eyes can be opened and hearts changed, as well as minds and lives.

As we are fed, let us in turn cast the net of hospitality widely. Invite others to join you in the presence of the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit. “For the promise [of the Holy Spirit] is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”[4]

[1] Acts 2:36

[2] Luke 24:31

[3] Matthew 25:40

[4] Acts 2:39

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The Doors were Locked for Fear

For the past two weeks, even amid the trepidation and bickering that has filled the news cycle, there has been a lot of resurrection to behold. It has been an awesome privilege to be present among it. It has been simultaneously joyous and challenging.

For me, the joy of it – seeing the Holy Spirit at work in it, and being aware of God’s presence in it – has been what has buoyed me through the week.

But even the challenges – though they have made me cranky at times – have been fruitful because it is here that I have to let go of my trepidation and just let the Holy Spirit have its way. I just have to throw open the doors and trust in the Holy Spirit for the best. And oh how the Holy Spirit has revealed itself in you as so many of you graciously stepped into our needs and made each service special in its own way.

But it is easy for me to trust in the Holy Spirit, I have the benefit of 2,000-plus years of hindsight, and a life-time of experience. What if, instead, I were still standing in the shadow – only three days removed – of the cross of crucifixion? What if I am not yet aware of the victory – the transformation – that has taken place that very morning?

This is where we find the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson: behind locked doors on the evening of that first day of a week full of trepidation. That very same day Jesus has revealed his resurrected self to Mary Magdalene.

What a contrast from early morning to the evening! That morning the tomb was open, and while Peter and the other disciple may not have yet appreciated what had happened, Mary had told them that she had “seen the Lord.”[1]

Now, in the evening of this very same day, in spite of having heard Mary’s news, the doors – unlike the tomb – are closed and locked as if the disciples have entombed themselves. The disciples – with the exception of Thomas the Twin – are hiding in fear. They are yet unable to embrace the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

I totally get this. Fear causes our brains to focus on the threat that we perceive; it makes it difficult to think imaginatively and to be open to the wonder of what someone has told us or that may be right before us. Jesus knows this too, so he appears among them, and the first words out of his mouth are intended to calm their fear, “Peace be with you.”[2]

Jesus knows that the words will not be enough, so he shows them the tangible proof of his wounds. It is only then that they can rejoice.

But Jesus isn’t done, he is about to give them serious work to do – work that will exceed their human capacity – he is about to commission them to continue his ministry. To refocus their joyously distracted attention, he tells them again, “Peace be with you.”[3] Then he lowers the boom, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”[4] What a daunting commission, but he immediately equips them with the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately for Thomas, he misses out on this second appearance of Jesus. His reticence to accept the other disciples’ professions of Jesus’ appearance earns him the moniker of “Doubting Thomas” within the church, which I think is a bum rap because his reticence is no different that that of the other disciples’ reluctance to accept Mary Magdalene’s witness.

But frankly, I think the whole doubting thing is a distraction from where John would have us focus our attention. One week after the Resurrection, the disciples are still gathered behind shut doors. Granted they are no longer locked out of fear. But why are the doors still shut? Why are the disciples still holed-up in the same house one week later? Especially as they received their commission to go out the week before.

Perhaps the peace has not fully taken hold yet. Perhaps their inability to sway Thomas is not an indication of his doubt so much as an indication that they are not yet ready for this ministry. Perhaps they are not yet fully capable of taking refuge in the Lord yet.

Perhaps this is why Jesus has to tell them a third time, “Peace be with you.”[5] Perhaps this is why Jesus does “many other signs in the presence of his disciples.”[6] Perhaps this is where we find ourselves one week into Eastertide; in need of many signs so that we can be prepared to, as the psalmist says, “take refuge in [the Lord].”[7]

Where are we slow or reticent to act on the news of the Resurrection in our lives or our community? What proof do we need to act – to throw open the closed doors of trepidation?

Remember that the psalmist goes on to profess, when the doors are thrown open and the Lord becomes our refuge, “[The Lord] will show [us] the path of life; in [his] presence there is fullness of joy, and … pleasures for evermore.”[8]

[1] John 20:18

[2] John 20:19

[3] John 20:21

[4] John 20:21

[5] John 20:26

[6] John 20:30

[7] Psalm 16:1 per the Book of Common Prayer

[8] Psalm 16:11 per the Book of Common Prayer

The Great Vigil of Easter

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Welcome to this night of nights! This is the night we gather as God’s people to hear the stories that matter most to us; the stories that teach us who we are. What we believe. What we long for. These stories teach us what our God is like.

For just a moment, close your eyes. Imagine that this Paschal candle is a campfire. Imagine we are God’s people, seeking light in the darkness, comfort in the wilderness. This is the night when we gather with God’s people from all over the world and tell once more the story of our deliverance.

Deliverance begins with a fire – a burning bush. As Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he hears God’s voice. God speaks to him and reveals her name: God says “I am.” In this encounter at the burning bush, God also reveals his character – God shows Moses, and us, what he cares about. She says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” God hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed. He answers their cries in ways that may surprise us.

Moses does as God asks. He journeys back to Egypt, to Pharaoh’s palace where he was brought up as an adopted prince of Egypt. As God instructs him, Moses confronts Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go.” Though Pharaoh says, “No”; God says, “Yes!” God stretches out her hand to save the Hebrews from Pharaoh. Even as things seem desperate, when there appears to be no way out, God makes a way. Standing between the armies of Egypt and the sea, Moses stretches out his hand, and leads the Hebrews through on dry land. God leads the way with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. God finds a way when there is no way. Even when we can’t see a way forward, God brings us new hope, helping us see in a new way. God leads us through the wilderness, guiding our way, day and night.

The Hebrew people – our ancestors in faith – finally make it out of the wilderness, into the good land that God promises. But the powers of this world do not stop trying to take away the freedom and abundance that God has given them. First, there will be Assyria. Then Babylon. And finally, Rome.

Tonight, this is where we find Jesus. He grows up under the oppression of Rome. He knows how Rome breaks the backs of the poor – those who are the focus of his ministry. It is to these that Jesus brings the Good News. God’s kingdom is at hand! In God’s kingdom, there is enough bread for every day. No one is hungry. God’s kingdom means justice for the poor.

We have just completed a journey through Lent with Jesus, watching him heal the sick and bring hope to the hopeless. We have seen his turn toward Jerusalem through this Holy Week: how he enters the city on Palm Sunday, to cries of Hosanna. Yet when Jesus enters Jerusalem, he goes to the Temple, where he overturns the tables of those who are buying and selling, confronting the people who have reduced access to God’s love and grace to an economic transaction. As Jesus teaches in Jerusalem the week before Passover, he keeps confronting the authorities, challenging the way they make life hard for the disadvantaged. The religious authorities seem to think they have a lock on God’s grace and forgiveness. These religious authorities also work with the secular authorities to impose taxes that keep the “poor” poor, and line the pockets of the comfortable. Jesus confronts both the religious and secular authorities, challenging them with his vision of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all will have enough and peace will prevail.

But Rome is quick to put down any sign of rebellion. Its justice is swift and brutal, and it usually keeps the provinces, like Palestine, in line. And so the authorities put this zealot named Jesus to death. They don’t like what he has to say, so they kill him, as they killed thousands of others, nailing him to a cross on the outskirts of the city, as a public example of what happens to those who cry out for justice.

Just as Pharaoh says, “No” to Moses’ call for freedom, Rome says, “No” to Jesus’ call for justice. But God again says, “Yes!” God continues to leads us from oppression to justice – from death to life.

Still, the authorities think they can silence Jesus by putting him to death. In their minds, killing Jesus is their final solution. But God will not allow anything on earth to silence the Good News. Not even death. So even though they murder Jesus, even though they nail him to a cross and try to forget about him; still he lives. Tonight, he lives. This is the night when Christ breaks the bonds of death and hell, and rises victorious from the tomb. This is the night that God leads us from death into life. Not even death can stop God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s abundance.

This very night, God’s kingdom is taking root in us. Tonight, Jesus lives in us. Every time we reach out in love to help someone in need, Jesus rises victorious again. Every time we share the abundance God has given us, God’s kingdom grows. And it will grow and grow until it reaches the ends of the earth.

This night, and every day, Jesus lives. He lives now in us.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

From Palms to Passion

Today, we hear the community of Jerusalem swing from “Hosanna to the Son of David!”[1] to “Let him be crucified!”[2] in less than a week. And we are asked to embrace this dramatic swing of sentiment in this one service of two liturgies as we move from the triumphal Liturgy of the Palms to the heart-rending Liturgy of the Passion.

We are subjected to this roller coaster of emotion today because of a cultural reality: not many of us will attend Holy Week services or the Good Friday liturgy before Easter Sunday. This is a shame because the pattern of this Holy Week forms our understanding of Easter, and it is on Good Friday that we traditionally hear the Passion Gospel. The Passion Gospel is heart breaking, but that is precisely why it is absolutely central and essential to our understanding of Easter. For this reason we get to hear of both Palms and Passion today.

In the Gospel lesson from the Liturgy of the Palms, Jesus, the disciples, and a large crowd of other pilgrims are descending on Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. There is a buoyant sense of festivity in the air among the pilgrims; but there is also an air of concern on the part of the occupying power – the Romans. You see, large crowds possess the potential for trouble; thus the Romans are keeping an eye out for troublemakers.

Jesus and his disciples are entering Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the city of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley. Because of the Valley, it is easy to observe the road that winds down the side of the Mount of Olives. In fact, from the Roman Garrison near the Temple, one has an unobstructed view.

Thus the Roman occupiers watch the raucous pilgrims, Jesus and his followers Hosanna-ing their way into town. Of course everyone else in the vicinity of the Temple has a pretty good view of this procession as well.

There is emerging, from below the surface of the festivity, a tenseness and anxiety: the whole city is in turmoil. It is because of this, the festival and concern about unrest among such large crowds, that Pilate is in town. He would normally be on the Mediterranean coast at his residence in Caesarea Maritima. But this week he has brought reinforcements to Jerusalem to keep an eye on things, and to make sure the lid doesn’t blow off.

This is the state of things in Jerusalem as Jesus enters the city – a city in turmoil. In the days to come, Jesus will challenge and confront the temple authorities; stirring up their anxiety. It is in between the Palm and Passion narratives we hear today that Jesus delivers his most pointed and direct teaching about authority and judgment. On his first day in town, Jesus adds to the turmoil by overturning tables in the temple and driving out the vendors. The next day he confronts religious leadership through a series of parables. He spars with the religious authorities making them appear foolish; then he out-and-out denounces them.

The timing of Jesus’ diatribes gives the authorities just the foil they are seeking against him: evidence that he will incite Passover pilgrims into riot. Thus by the time we encounter the Passion Gospel, the authorities have mapped their strategy for bringing down Jesus. It is a heart-breaking outcome: the murder of Jesus, our expected messiah. We are crushed with grief and understandably want to hold someone accountable. It is convenient – and perhaps preferable – to place the blame on Judas; after all we’ve just heard it is he who betrays Jesus. And perhaps Peter too because his resolve fails him in the face of danger. But such scapegoating is a dodge to avoid recognizing ourselves in the crowd.

Yes, Judas makes Jesus’ arrest possible, but as we’ve just heard, it is the “crowd” that turns on Jesus. Judas, whose motivation is not entirely clear, does after all repent before killing himself. However, the crowd is never presented as repentant – as acknowledging its role in scapegoating Jesus for the sake of keeping things the way they are.

In the end, it is only the Roman centurion and his compatriots – not the crowd – that acknowledge, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” It is those at the edge of the crowd – the women, the Roman centurion, and Joseph of Arimathea who have the strength to stand in that awful place and know who Jesus is. Even the disciples, who flee, will not know until later.

But the point is not how Jesus is set up by religious authorities, or who is to blame for his murder on a cross. The point of this swing from praise to pillory is for us to be transported to a place of self-recognition. To recognize our inner Judas, our inner Peter; to be borne to our place of deepest sorrows. The intent is for us to be shocked and saddened to the point of reflection upon and recognition of our own betrayal and denial of our Savior, and our need for him. It is in our deepest sorrows – those dark places and low points in our lives – where our most profound encounters with Christ occur. It is also in the deepest sorrows of others that we have the opportunity to be Christ amid the pain of others.

Our self-recognition and our encounters with Christ in these dark places unbind us – they set us free so that we can keep watch with him during this Holy Week of Passiontide.

[1] Matthew 21:9

[2] Matthew 27:22