Sunday, April 30, 2017

Meeting the Stranger, Meeting Jesus: Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

Jesus and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Artist unknown.
Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41Psalm 116:1-3, 10-171 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

In our gospel story, two disciples—possibly Cleopas and his wife—are walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Resurrection Day. Their hearts are filled with a mixture of heaviness and hope, for they have heard strange tales, this third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, about Jesus being risen from the dead. But they dare not believe it.

Then suddenly, a stranger starts walking alongside them. The stranger asks what they are discussing, and they pass along the story that they have heard about Jesus and the empty tomb. They obviously are completely bewildered if not a whole lot doubtful about the story they have been told. They believe that their hopes in Jesus have been dashed, regardless of the empty tomb. Possibly they heard the rumors spread by the authorities that Jesus’s body had been stolen away.

This stranger, after asking what they are talking about, then does a curious thing: he begins interpreting all that Jesus had done on earth to prove that he was the One whom scripture had foretold. You would think that, as small as the community of followers was, these two would wonder where a stranger would get so much information about Jesus.

Being hospitable and intrigued, they invite the stranger to stay with them as they have their evening meal. It is at the point that the stranger breaks the bread that suddenly, “their eyes are opened” to the truth—the one who has been walking and talking with them is doing what he has done countless times before. Jesus is breaking the bread—which to our Christian understanding echoes with Eucharistic meaning—and suddenly they know who he is. Just when that happens, though, he disappears once more. As the experience they have had begins to sink in, they realize that only Jesus could have made their “hearts burn within them.” It is when Jesus takes, breaks, blesses and gives the bread to them that he is fully known. It can be the same way with us.

Now, some of us respond to this story, and some of the other early resurrection stories, with wondering HOW the disciples could fail to recognize Jesus when they see him, especially given their natural longing as the word begins to get out that his body is no longer in the tomb.

How well do we know any other person, really? We are all mysteries to each other, no matter how much we are bound by common interests or memberships in groups, or language, or socio-economic class, or race, or vows, or birth, or anything else. And with Jesus, this mystery can be intensified—remember all the times throughout scripture that even Jesus’s closest friends fail to understand exactly who he is or what he is doing.

But there a few things we have to remember. The risen Jesus has been changed by the events of his Passion and Resurrection. He has come more fully into unity with God the Father, and his earthly life is changing--coming to an end as he has been known, becoming different. Jesus has been lifted up on the cross as a light for the whole world—not just for his disciples and friends. The scriptures we heard today said that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” We have the very same issue, as we were also reminded in the story last week about Thomas. We too hunger to know Jesus, but we are not sure what exactly we are looking for.

There is an important point here: these disciples got to meet Jesus when they welcomed the stranger, and insisted that this stranger stay with them and enter into fellowship with them. THIS is one of the other tangible ways we can meet Jesus. We can meet Jesus in the face not just of our friends, but when we look into the face of the stranger.

Once again this story reminds us that life according to the gospel is one of radical hospitality, and that flies in the face of almost everything we are often told about how we are supposed to react to strangers in our midst. We too easily fall into habits of trying to separate “us” from “them.” Whoever “them” ends up being, we are told to fear “them,” judge “them,” isolate “them.” We certainly are not taught to look for the face of Christ in the stranger. Yet that is where, over and over again throughout the witness of scripture, we end up encountering and finding God.

Each of may have our own Emmaus moment. As many of you may know, I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I was born and christened a United Methodist, then, when our pastor was moved when I was four, my mother began a decade-long journey through the nooks and crannies of Evangelical American Christendom, and we three kids bobbed along and followed in her wake like baby ducks following Mama Duck. It wasn’t until I was 12 that I first entered an Episcopal Church.

My teacher’s husband was being confirmed, and she invited me to come. Now, I had never been to any church like this in my life. Unfamiliar with the liturgical tradition of the Episcopal Church, I sat there in my dress, fake pearls, and hat (my mother mistakenly thought lady’s headgear was required). I fought off her attempt to put me in little lace gloves only with great tomboy vigor, but it was a struggle.

I sat at my friend’s confirmation and tried to take it all in without looking too stunned.
There was a bulletin, and it told you everything that was going to happen.
The people leading the service were dressed in special clothes, not three-piece suits.
There was one guy wearing a piece of pointy headgear that I knew from my chess set meant he was a bishop.

There were candles and a real pipe organ.
The sermon was filled with joy, and the only mention of hell was preceded by a “what the…” at the announcements.
Women were allowed to read the lessons.

In the middle there was a thing called “the peace,” in which I was hugged and kissed on the cheek and complimented on my hat by several older ladies who thought I was being knowingly retro in my garb rather than dressed to match a scene in The Quiet Man.

But the thing that really got me was when we knelt and heard the words that recounted God’s saving deeds throughout history. Invocations were said over the bread and wine, and then they were broken and offered to all of us. Now for the past 8 years, I had been raised in churches that rarely, if ever, celebrated communion. But here, we gathered around the altar, kneeling side by side. Unlike at other churches’ Lord’ Supper” remembrances which I had attended, even as a stranger I was welcomed.

And that’s where I really met Jesus. I met him in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.  
“Body of Christ; Bread of Heaven.”
“Blood of Christ; Cup of Salvation.”

That’s when my savior was made known to me in the bread, in the cup, in the blessing, in the fellowship of all those gathered together worshipping. This is when I learned what a sacrament truly can be—as Mother Pamela reminded us last week, “an outward and visible sign” – and the most miraculous, transformative part—“of an inward and spiritual grace.”

It was grace that opened the disciples’ hearts to hear Jesus interpret his significance throughout the history and scriptures of Israel. Their hearts had been stirred as he spoke, and we should be familiar with that. Our own worship service every Sunday begins with the liturgy of the Word, and then moves to the liturgy of the table.

It was grace that opened their eyes to who he really was then in the blessing, breaking, and sharing of the Eucharist. Every week we come here, hungry for the living Word, hoping to encounter Christ and to be equipped by that encounter for our own daily ministry as disciples. 

I would argue that we can know Jesus fully in the breaking of the bread. But that’s not all. Jesus seeks to work transformation in us, and the Eucharist is one of the ways that he does it. In the story, the moment Jesus breaks the bread, two things happen simultaneously: the two disciples become aware of who Jesus IS--NOT just who he was. Then he vanishes, so that they may know that he is not what he once was—he is MORE. Like them, we get to know the risen, living Christ in the breaking of the bread, and gain a new understanding that he is our living savior, who has brought us into himself, and by doing so, has united us also with each other, with all creation—and with God.

I am convinced that when we gather around this altar together, that’s when we fully come together, which in itself is a great mystery. Jesus is the bridge that brings us together and helps us to remember that we may not fully know each other, but through the love of God we can love each other and welcome each other—no exceptions.

It’s here that we are all reminded that we are one body, as well, and not just ANY body, but also the Body of Christ. It’s here we are reminded that we can all be signs to each other of God’s grace and mercy. And then we can embody that grace to the entire world, as each of us remembers that by our baptism we are all ministers in a Church that is called to minister to the world, the dark places as well as the light, as Christ’s own.

As a result of meeting the stranger on the road to Emmaus, we are called to live into who we are called to be: Body of Christ; Bread of Heaven. Bread for the World, Bread for ALL the world. As the Body of Christ, we are called to embody the Good News of God’s grace and love to a world that is hungry for it. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good. Let us gather around the table, where none are outcast, and all are fed and led to meet Jesus in both friend and stranger, and then, together, let us carry his love out into the world.

Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Town and Country, MO, on April 30, 2017.

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