Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s gracewith me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice...
Love Overflowing- Philippians 1:1-18a
Philippians is known as a letter of friendship. Paul's love of his friends in Philippi is evident from the very beginning. "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now." He was writing from prison, though we don't know if the prison is in Rome or Caesarea or Ephesus. We modern readers don't know why Paul is in jail. That is not recorded in this letter. But, we can remember from last week's sermon that, at this point in history, early Christian preachers were gaining a reputation for disturbing the peace. The book of Acts describes one of Paul's arrests as a mob scene. Local people who disagreed with him whipped up dissent and accosted him. Roman soldiers and centurions had to intervene to stop the mob. Paul was taken away, at least in part, to calm everyone down. Maybe something like that happened here. We're not sure. We just know that his imprisonment is connected to his preaching. And, prison was not a comfortable place to be.
According to at least once scholar I read this week, you really don't want to find yourself in a Roman prison. I mean, no prison sounds great. Some prisons sound particularly bad. Did you hear about that mentally ill prisoner, Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration last year in Milwaukee County Jail? His water was turned off for seven days while he was in solitary confinement and he wasn't given anything else to drink with his meals during that time. That's the kind of bad Paul might have been facing. Dr. Michael Joseph Brown, in a commentary on this passage, said that Roman prison cells were often barely more than pits in the ground. The state did not often provide even the most basic needs for those who were imprisoned. Many people relied on friends and family outside of prison to provide for their food while they were in prison. If they had no one to bring them food, they could starve.
There is a good chance that part of the reason Paul is thanking this congregation, beyond just being thankful for their relationship, is because they were helping him survive while he was imprisoned. In a portion of chapter 4 that we didn't read today, he thanks them for supporting him financially when no one else would. And, for a reason that is not clear in the letter, the church in Philippi has sent a member of the church, a man named Epaphroditus, to spend time with him. Maybe Epaphroditus was helping to care for him while he was imprisoned. Or, maybe Epaphroditus was just delivering a letter and decided to stick around for moral support. Regardless, Paul wanted to thank his friends afar for their support. It may literally be what is keeping him alive. No wonder he thanks God for them.
As I studied in preparation for this sermon, I repeatedly read that if you want to figure out what Paul is going to say later in the letter, you pay attention to what he writes in the beginning of the letter. Paul wrote many kinds of letters. Sometimes he mediates arguments (he even does a little of that in Philippians). Sometimes he offers correction when a congregation has forgotten how to love one another. Sometimes he even castigates teachers who he believes are corrupting the Gospel (he does a little of that here in chapter 3). But, those things aren't the true point of this letter. This letter is written to encourage his friends. They've been concerned for him and for Epaphroditus, who they had heard was ill. They've also been concerned about the stresses in their local church. Paul realizes that they could use a little reminder of just how beloved they are.
Paul was as someone who lived with chronic pain. I think this helped him understand that with any new movement in the body comes a stretch or a hitch as a body becomes accustomed to the change. He connected this deep understanding of struggle to his understanding of what it means to learn to live in new ways with Christ. He told his friends that they should expect tension. With change, there is always tension. Struggle and strain shouldn't be viewed as signs that they are definitely doing something wrong. They can be understood as a natural part of doing a new thing and of trying to change their lives, aligning them with God's purposes. Paul realizes that he needs to remind them that they have tools at hand to help them with the tension. So, Paul said he was praying for them, even as he himself was living in a pit-like prison. Paul knew that prayer is a strong foundation for doing the Gospel. He reminded them that he was praying for them and said he felt fortunate that they were praying for him.
What exactly was he praying for? It turns out, he wasn't praying for life to magically get easier for them. Instead, he was praying for them to be even more inspired to change. Paul told them, in the most beautiful turn of phrase, that he hopes they have love overflowing with knowledge and insight. Isn't that a wonderful way to think about our faith? Our heart and our brain working together, deeply interconnected, allowing us to serve the Gospel and our neighbors with our fullest selves. It reminds me of that song from the musical "The Wiz," where Dorothy, as played by Diana Ross, sings of home as a place with love overflowing, as a place that would benefit from the lessons she learned about love in Oz. Paul thinks of the church as a place with love overflowing: love from God, through Christ... love from one another to our siblings in Christ and to our neighbors. Paul stated his hope that Christian community be a place where we practice loving as Christ loved and living our whole lives proclaiming that love.
Paul knew Christ's overflowing love and knew that this love was what inspired him to proclaim the Gospel in every way that he could imagine. He was able to preach in and through his hardships. He hoped that the church in Philippi could continue preaching through theirs. He said do not let suffering lead you to giving up hope. Do not allow the tension to turn you away from your calling. God's over-flowing love can reach out well beyond what we can imagine, splashing into corners and cracks and crevices that seem beyond our reach, but only if we can work through our strain and stress of our growing and changing time, and press towards the kindom of justice and mercy that Christ has been calling us towards. Paul said God's presence is marked by abundance, a cup overflowing. We can rely on this abundance to carry us forward and to inspire us to continue on, even when things are at their hardest. Paul said that we can be certain that there is always more love. There is always more knowledge. There is always more insight and opportunity to live out the Gospel. We just have to pay attention to when the opportunity presents itself.
While our context is certainly different that the context of the ancient church, I think Paul's words to the Philippians hold no small amount of wisdom for us as well. Because, right now, in our country and in our towns and churches, we have found ourselves once again at a transition point... a time of stress and strain and struggle. While most of us aren't risking arrest for public disturbances, we have noticed that the place of the church in our culture has changed. On Sunday mornings, our church services compete for attention with baseball games, soccer practice, brunch, and intractable work schedules. Many of our once large churches struggle to fill our sanctuaries even on the holiest of holidays. People regularly question the relevance of an institutionalized faith. As we worship and serve together in increasingly small numbers, it can be tempting to be discouraged as we worry about how to steward this wonderful institution with which we have been entrusted.
If Paul was writing us a letter of friendship to comfort and inspire us today, what might he say? First, I think he'd offer to pray for us. That's always a good start. Then, I think Paul would remind us of our call to do the Gospel at all times, and encourage us to figure out how to do it in our new context. For example, he could figure out how to preach in jail, maybe we can figure out how to offer worship at times more amenable to modern schedules or how to identify the most pressing needs in our towns and help meet them. I think Paul would also remind us to cling to what is at the root of our faith, God's love and mercy, and learn to live it out in a new way, like he did. He would invite us to look at our current climate, and discern where the would could use a little more love and mercy and take it there. And, mostly, I think Paul would remind us that reinvention is always possible with God, if we're open to it. His own life is an example of the ways a person can change with God's help. I pray that we can hear Paul's exhortation to continue our worship and service, especially in times of great tension. There is still hope. May we find it, just like Paul did, and may we, too, pass it along.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Michael Joseph Brown: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1933
I love To Tell the Story Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=511
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Terrill Thomas: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/us/milwaukee-inmate-died-after-being-deprived-of-water-for-7-days.html?_r=0
And, just for fun, Diana Ross sings "Home": https://youtu.be/dslpHxTuA-w
1 Peter 2:2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner’,
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Stones for Building
As I read today's scriptures, I was reminded how Jesus' followers have been wrestling with some questions for a very long time. In our reading from 1st Peter, there is an important cluster of questions that the earliest Christians were navigating that also seems important for us to consider. You see, for a long time, we who follow Jesus have been trying to figure what it means to live out our faith within a context where all of our neighbors don't share the same beliefs we do. We understand that our faith in Christ affects our behavior, not because we need to act right to earn God's love but because we are invited to be reflectors of God's love into the world. We know that we are constantly being invited to align and realign our lives in accordance to God's orientation of love, justice, and mercy, changing our behaviors to reflect that realignment. What we have also learned that is occasionally this means that the behaviors we value as extensions of our faith can be in conflict with behaviors prized by our families, our ethnic communities, our neighbors, and our broader culture.
At best, the external response to our change in behavior is positive, inspiring healthy conversations, rich service, and curiosity about the faith that is powerful enough to get us to live life in a new way. At worst, in certain eras, in certain places, the change in behavior has made non-Christians, or differently practicing Christians, suspicious, with the suspicion leading to unhealthy conflict and, sometimes, persecution. The book of 1st Peter was written to help a group of churches through a time when they were being viewed with suspicion. It wouldn't have been easy for them to choose to be a part of a religious community that was understood to be problematic. This author wanted to provide them with comfort and inspiration to continue in the faith.
Traditionally, this letter has been credited to the disciple Peter. It's probably not actually written by him, but, it is probably written by an elder in the Roman church who followed Peter's teachings about Jesus. The believers in the churches who needed support were Gentiles living in five cities in Asia Minor. Many of us may be familiar with terrible stories of persecution of the early Christians in Rome (like the stories about lions eating Christians in the Colosseum); most of those atrocities happened well after the period in which this letter was written. However, at this point in history, life was getting harder for Christians, particularly since local Roman governors were permitted to severely punish rabble-rousers. According to at least one historian I read, at this point in history, Jesus' followers were getting reputations as rabble-rousers and disturbers of the peace. That is why people were getting suspicious of local Christian churches.
What exactly to historians mean by disturbing the peace? Well, sometimes they mean causing public disturbances with their preaching. The books of Acts and 1 Thessalonians record several such occasions. Some early Christians preached such contentious messages that the crowds who came to listen became angry mobs. Early Christians were also disrupting ideas about family. According to scholar Bart Ehrman, many of Jesus' earliest followers understood that following him could mean that they completely abandoned typical forms of family in order to more fully commit themselves to the church. Remember that part of Matthew where Jesus said, "I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother..." Well, people took that seriously. Threatening the stability of families certainly would have caused friction with the broader community.
If rejecting family values and angering mobs wasn't enough, Christians had also begun to reject Roman civil religion. In ancient Rome, it didn't matter what religion you followed as long as you also participated in required governmental religious rituals. Christians began to refuse to honor Roman gods, the gods who were presumed to protect the Empire. In leaving their families' local religions, the gods of whom protected the local communities, and refusing to honor the national gods of Rome, the gods who protected Rome, according to scholar Bart Ehrman, Christians might even be seen as repudiating the very empire in which they lived. It was not wise to get on the Empire's bad side.
This was the world these early Christians were living in. They were part of a religious community that was seen as anti-social, unpatriotic, and maybe even little seditious. They were feeling ostracized and targeted. They needed help figuring out how they could maintain their faith when following Jesus made them a target for suspicion. They needed help figuring out how could they stay safe and still follow Jesus. Here's how this author offers these churches assurance. First, he assures them that, even as their place in the wider community has come into question, even as they have left their old households, they have a new household in Christ. In today's reading, the author says that once they were not a people, but now they are God's people.
This new identification as people of God trumps all of their previous affiliations and stratifications. This is a stronger relationship than even the relationship between them and the families into which they were born. When times get hard, they can take solace that even as they lost some significant relationships in their lives, a great relationship has taken their place in the form of Christian community. So, rather than be tempted to pull away from Christian community in order to mitigate their frustration, this author encourages Christians to drink ever more deeply the spiritual milk offered in Christian relationships. This is where they will find the sustenance to survive.
This author goes on to use a beautiful metaphor of God's people as a stone building, with Jesus as the cornerstone. They could not stand up without him. The author also encouraged people to remember that Jesus, too, had suffered for his ministry. They should not understand suffering as a punishment meant to stop their good work. They should understand suffering as a consequence of doing what was right in an unrighteous world, just like Jesus did. If they follow Jesus' path, they may suffer like he did, but they also will become the stones with which God with build a spiritual house for all God's people.
In reminding people of Jesus' suffering, this author helped give the people a new way to understand their suffering, making the suffering and surviving the ostracism so much more manageable. In this country, when we look at the history of Africans who were enslaved, one way they often described being able to survive terrible oppression was by remembering that Jesus suffered, thereby identifying themselves with Christ, and not according to the racist standards meant to destroy them. This is not the only way to survive suffering, but it is one way. And, it seems to have helped these communities. It is as if they believed that if they could be adopted into God's royal priesthood, a priesthood that surpassed even Rome, than surely they could survive. Surely they could continue this journey with Christ.
Our modern context is drastically different than the one in which this letter was written. Today, at least on this continent, Christianity is not a struggling minority religion. Despite the waning importance of institutional religions as a whole, as well as regular shouts that Christianity is under attack by everything from marriage equality laws to calls for equal pay for equal work, in reality, there are very few negative consequences to publicly describing oneself as Christian. While I could cite several examples of the ways Christianity is privileged in our country, I'll just name one sticks out to me as someone who regularly wears signs of my faith in public. While some Muslim woman agonize over whether to go out in public in hijab, less they be harassed for wearing clothes that visibly mark their faith, most Sundays, I walk around town in my clerical collar, a symbol of my faith and Christian vocation. While I occasionally get a sideways glance from people unaccustomed to seeing women in clericals, no stranger has ever touched me to try to remove it or said anything threatening to me about it. Muslim women in hijab are regularly harassed in public, with people even ripping off their head coverings while claiming that the women are threat to religious freedom.
No, at least in this country, Christianity is not a tiny minority religion with a seditious, dangerous reputation. Christians are understood to be law-abiding citizens who respect their family obligations, as well as their civic obligations, and who typically don't stir up mob violence. No, in this country, all too often, we act like the people who once ostracized us. It's like we've forgotten what it means to not wield significant cultural power and we are not better Christians for it.So what do we do with a text like this one, one intended for people living outside of the good graces of their broader community? What lesson do we take when we aren't the minority anymore?
Perhaps it's enough to be reminded that we were once afraid. Maybe this will help us empathize with people who are afraid now. It's like the Jewish tradition that says they offer hospitality to immigrants and strangers because they were once strangers in a foreign land. Maybe, in remembering that we were once harassed, we learn to stop harassing others. Or, maybe, it's simply a reminder that Christ's mercy is our foundation and we are called to reflect the mercy we've received. Mercy always seems like a good place to start. How will you be merciful this week? How will you build, once again, Christ's house with God?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Jeannine K. Brown- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3254
Rod Boriack: https://www.workingpreacher.org/print_questions.aspx?lectionary_calendar_id=702
The Introduction to 1 Peter in the Oxford Annotated Bible
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
To Hear Your Name- John 10: 1-10 and Psalm 23
Today's scriptures, or the primary metaphors of these scriptures, are familiar to many people. "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want..." How many times have you heard these words? Even people who are actively involved in Jewish or Christian communities have heard these words and know that they are deeply rooted in how our traditions understand God. Even people who don't know anything about sheep or shepherding can hear the sweetness in this relationship: the shepherd makes the sheep lie down in green pastures and leads them by still waters. The good shepherd will lead them down righteous or right paths. In valleys where death is around every corner, the sheep can eat and sleep and drink peacefully, knowing that their shepherd will protect them. Food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection. What more could a sheep want?
While probably the most well known sheep and shepherd passage, this isn't the only scripture where God is a shepherd. In Psalm 78, God leads the people like a shepherd leads sheep and guides them through the dangerous wilderness. In Psalm 95, the author says that Israel is the people of God's pasture and the sheep of God's hand, and calls on Israel to listen to the voice of their shepherd. In the book of Genesis, when Jacob blesses his youngest son Joseph, a man who had been sold into slavery by his brothers as he watched Jacob's flocks, he reminds Joseph that God, too, is a shepherd and the Great Divine shepherd sustained him through all of his trials. Jacob asked that this great Shepherd continue to watch over this most blessed son.
When the prophet Isaiah needs to comfort Israel, it is with a reminder that God is a good shepherd who will feed the flock of Israel... who will carry their lambs like a babe in arms... who will gently lead the new mother sheep. And, when the prophet Ezekiel needs to call out the abusive kings of Israel, he says that God called them terrible, murderous shepherds who take advantage of them of the sheep. God will take God's sheep back from these feckless shepherds, and God will do what is expected of a true shepherd: strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strayed, or seeking the lost.
Just like in Psalm 23, food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection, are what come to mind when we hear in these scriptures that God is a shepherd. I bet these same things came to mind when Jesus' first followers heard stories about God being a shepherd. Like us, they probably remember green pastures and clean waters, healing and protection. It might not have surprised them to hear Jesus talk about God as a Shepherd because this language was part of thir religious tradition and daily lives. What the might not expected was Jesus describing his own ministry as that of a shepherd... well, first a gate and then a shepherd. They saw shepherds all the time? Why would Jesus need to compare himself to a shepherd at this moment in his story? What was going on at this point in the story that they needed to be reminded of what scholar Karoline Lewis called God's provision, protection, and presence in the Good Shepherd?
Lewis thinks we can best understand why Jesus began to use the good shepherd metaphor at this point in chapter 10 of John is to read the healing story in chapter 9. I find her interpretation compelling. You see, Jesus and the disciples had just had a powerful encounter with a man in chapter 9. Jesus needed to figure out how to explain to his disciples what happened in their encounter. He chose the Good Shepherd. I think it's worth it to take a few minutes to hear about the encounter that inspired Jesus.
Jesus and his friends were walking and saw a man who was blind. They knew that he had been blind from birth. This man had no way to get the basic necessities of life except for begging for money and mercy in the streets. Now, the disciples appear to think his blindness was a punishment from God for some sin, either his own or his parents. They were among the many people who think health and wealth are signs of God's love while illness and poverty were signs of God's punishment. They thought that if you lived right, you wouldn't have any pre-existing conditions. That is not how Jesus understands God. Jesus quickly tells them that his blindness is not a punishment from God. In fact, this man's life will come to be one of the clearest examples of God's love during Jesus' ministry.
In the story, Jesus spits... yes, spits on the ground (obviously he's never talked to Miss Manners) and takes the mud he created and wipes it on the man's eyes. Then, he tells the man to go to a particular pool in the city and wash his face. The mand made his way across the city, covered in spit and mud, and washed his face. Suddenly, he was able to see for the first time in his whole life. The people who had known him for years were shocked. They asked him what happened. He told them Jesus happened.
The people brought the Pharisees to see the man. They asked him what happened and he explained how Jesus had healed him. Some Pharisees, more concerned with the letter of the law that forbade acts of healing on the Sabbath than the spirit of the law that allowed for mercy at all times, immediately came to the conclusion that Jesus couldn't have been from God or he wouldn't have flaunted God's sabbath laws. Other Pharisees stood up for this man and for Jesus and said,"well, how could such a miracle be a sin?" They all then asked the man who was healed, "What do you say about Jesus? It was your eyes he opened." The man called Jesus a prophet.
The man is repeatedly interrogated, as is his mother, to see if he is telling the truth. He does not change his story. In fact, he only become more clear in his testimony. He said, "I don't know if Jesus is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." He said, "if this man (Jesus) were not from God, I don't think he could have healed me." Jesus' critics then doubled down on their understanding of illness as sin, and said this man had obviously been born in sin or he would not been blind. How dare he tell them who's a sinner and who's not. And, then they drive the healed man out of the synagogue.
That's where we begin today's story. Jesus needs to explain to the man, to his disciples, and to the Pharisees what was really happening in this miracle. I think he remembered their shared tradition of God the shepherd and realized that this was a metaphor they'd understand. So he talked about shepherds and pasture gates because he needed to explain to them what Sin was, what righteousness was, and what God wants for all people. Sin is turning away from God's ways. Righteousness is aligning your ways with God's ways. God's ways are the ways of the generous shepherd. Now, remember, what does a good shepherd do? Provide, protect, and be present with the sheep.
Like the shepherd in the Psalms and Isaiah, Jesus, in healing this man, was offering him access to good pastures, safe paths, and cool water, that is, food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection that he did not have ready access to when he was blind. Like the shepherd in Ezekiel, Jesus had sought out this lost and wounded sheep, and restored him to health while the bad shepherds blamed him (or his family) for his illness and cast him from their presence. Like the shepherd in Isaiah, Jesus brought him comfort and healing. Jesus made sure he had truly abundant life, that is, all the basic necessities that he needed to live so that he could begin to thrive. Jesus explains that his own ministry is righteous, aligned with God, because he looks for the lost, feeds the hungry, and tends to those who have been forgotten. He opens the gate to the good pasture and calls to the one's he loves.
We like the man who has been healed, have the opportunity to listen and respond to the shepherd's call. We can recognize righteousness as righteousness, align our ways with God's ways, and work with Christ to shepherd this world. Maybe, if Jesus can be a shepherd and a gate, we can be the sheep and the sheepdogs, tending to flock with our Good Shepherd while we are also part of the flock, making sure all have food and drink, safe journeys and physical protection. After all, Jesus said that he came that all might have life and have it abundantly. As Christ's body, we're part of that provision, too. Where are you hearing Christ calling your name? What do you need to be able to respond?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4873
Jaime Clark- Soles: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=67
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3244
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
If you are interested in reading some of the other scriptures that use the shepherd metaphor, please refer to this list as compiled in the New Oxford Annotated Bible:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 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.’Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 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; and he vanished from their sight.They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Meeting Jesus Again- Luke 24:13-35
You have seven miles to tell a stranger the story of what has happened in the last few days. You and your friend are walking, away from Jerusalem and all that pain, towards a small town called Emmaus. You are talking to one another, trying to sort out the events of the last week. You still don't quite understand what all happened or how you are supposed to go on after watching Jesus being killed. At least you have one another. You don't have to go through this alone. You are together and you know what you saw when you traveled alongside Jesus. Now, you will just have to work together to figure out how to live without him. In the middle of this intense, mournful conversation, a stranger appears at your side. Perhaps he noticed your sadness. Perhaps he's lonesome himself on this wilderness road. Who knows the reason... but he asks you what you're talking about. Overcome with a sadness that stops you in your tracks, you look at one another. Maybe you take a deep breath and nod to your companion, a sign to begin... to try to tell explain what your life has been like since you met Jesus... what he meant to you... what you will do now that he is gone. You have seven miles to tell a stranger what has happened in the last few days. You don't even know where to start. So, Cleopas begins.
If you were in their shoes and a stranger asked you about Jesus, what would you say? Wait... you can't talk about the resurrection yet, because you don't know that it happened. What would you say? The congregation said they'd talk about forgiveness and how he was a confidant and a good friend. They said "It's all about love" and ask "Did you know he died on a cross?" Some said they might ask if the other person had already heard about Jesus. Others said that they might simply ask, "Can I have a hug?"... Those are all great things. I bet these two disciples would have loved to have had you by their side to testify about Jesus. Here's what these two told the stranger who was walking with them. They said that he was: "a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people." Despite his good deeds and powerful words, the leaders of their religious community had grown fearful of him, perhaps threatened by his critique of the status quo. They turned him over to Rome and Rome killed him like a criminal, torturing him on a cross. In one of the saddest lines in the whole Gospel, these two disciples say that "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." They didn't understand how he could do that now if he was dead.
They tell the stranger that it has been three days since their hope died alongside Jesus. It's been hard on everyone who loved him. This morning, some of the women who also followed Jesus showed up telling a rubbish story about how they saw angels at his tomb who told them he was alive. They tell the stranger that some of our friends went to the tomb to see what they were talking about. They sure as heck didn't see any angels. They didn't see Jesus either. And, now, they're walking to Emmaus. There is no body. No Jesus. No plan. Can you imagine these two disciples' surprise when the stranger responds to their hopeless tale with something that sounds an awful lot like a rebuke. Maybe he's made because they didn't believe the story that the women told them. He calls them foolish and slow of heart. He said that they've misunderstood everything about the law. He said that there was more potential in this whole cosmic story and they had missed it, and, he started teaching them.
I think it's really interesting that they don't realize that this stranger is Jesus when he begins to teach them. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been teaching them. From his first public mission statement back in chapter 4 (you know the part where he said that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind) through the Sermon on the Plain in chapter 6 (Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mournful) through all the healings and exorcisms, through the prayers and parables, and long- lasting dinners, all the way up to the day of his arrest, he had been teaching them. If you had asked me where I would have guessed that they would have recognized Jesus, I would have said right here, when he began teaching. How could they not see the one they so loved traveling alongside them when they heard this words of wisdom come out of his mouth?
Yet again, we are shown that knowing stuff about Jesus isn't quite the same thing recognizing Jesus. Jesus has had seven miles to teach them, again, what the journey of his life was about, but they still couldn't recognize him for who he was. He seems to be ready to keep walking as they head into the village. He doesn't say anything about his identity, just keeps walking ahead, creating some distance between himself and the two tired disciples. Something interesting happens at this point. They don't let him leave. One of the scholars I read this weeks says that the Greek can be translated into something like, "They twisted his arm to get him to stay." They knew that it would be dangerous for him to travel during the night by himself. So they invited him in to stay with them, where it was safe. Huh... they invited a stranger into their home to keep him safe. Maybe they did actually learn something from Jesus after all. That sure seems like something he would have done.
Maybe that's why they were finally able to see him. You see, this is the point where they actually demonstrate that they had learned from him a baseline of welcome and concern for strangers. This is the moment when they demonstrate that his hospitality has become their instinct. Of course they'd urge a strange to stay with them and be safe. That's what Jesus would have done. Even if he is gone, they can still live out the lessons that he taught them. Even in their sadness, they could carry on his legacy. So, they sat down with the stranger and began a simple meal. And, their act of hospitality becomes his act of hospitality. They see familiar movements, a hand raised in blessing then reaching out towards them, bread broken and shared. They had been fed like this before. Could it be? Could it be him? Could the wild story the women shared with them be true? It was him! Jesus, who had taught them the value of welcoming the stranger... Jesus, who had shown them the power of hospitality to shift everyday perceptions. It was Jesus. He was alive and right in front of him. And, then, suddenly, he was gone.
Where has your heart burned with recognition of Christ before you? Where have you accidentally been living out your faith and suddenly stumbled upon Christ in your midst? When has hospitality brought you closer to God and what did you do about it? Here's what these two did about it... they ran those seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others. In the terrifying darkness, on the wilderness road, they ran back to make sure the rest of Jesus' followers would know the truth. They confirmed what they women had already told them... not even death could stop Jesus for long. Hospitality had helped them see him again. They had met him at the table, the place where they had come to know him most well all along.
And, here we are, hearing their testimony just like the other disciples back in Jerusalem. We, too, have a choice to make. We will believe them when they share their experience with the risen Christ? Will we begin to look for Christ at our table, too? Or will we forget the lessons we learned walking by his side and forgo the opportunity to offer the same kind of hospitality that he once showed us. They've had seven miles to figure out how to share this story with us so that we can believe. When Jesus shows up at our table, how much time will we need to understand that it's really him?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Pulpit Fiction podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/easter3a
Sarah Henrich: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3234
Marilyn Salman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1671
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.