Seeing through Doubt, Easter 3(A) – April 30, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

The walk to Emmaus is a lovely story, filled with nostalgia and pathos, and graced with details. It has attracted great artists because only art can do it some justice. The evangelist Luke was an artist with words, and the painters who were inspired by him have only added to the beauty of the description. Instead of sermonizing on it, it’s better to relive the story.

It is early morning, on the first day of the week, after the dawn that was to change the world. Startling revelations have been shaking the disciples who are hiding in a certain home in Jerusalem. Women have been coming and going, some exclaiming that they have seen the Lord, others recounting the words of angels. Their eyes are so filled with light that those who see them almost shun them. John and Peter run to the tomb only to find it empty. All this was witnessed by the two people who start out on the walk to Emmaus and home.

It makes sense to think of them as husband and wife. One of them is named as Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but there is a reference to a woman disciple whose name was Maria Klopas, (in the Greek). Easy to miss a vowel in transcription. Several prominent writers/theologians—among them Bishop George Bell and Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in the nineteen-forties—believed that the second person was a woman: Mary Cleopas.

So let’s try to imagine the scene. The disciples, disheartened and depressed, had hidden in a home in Jerusalem, after the arrest and murder of their beloved teacher. Because the Zebedee family (James and John) were of a priestly lineage, it is possible that they had a family house in the city, in addition to their place in Galilee. So, we will assume that the women are looking after the mother of Jesus in that particular Jerusalem house, since Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, had entrusted her to his dear friend John. “This is now your mother,” he had told his friend.

Several younger women have gone in the dark to the tomb, to wash and anoint the body of the Beloved, only to find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene stays there but the rest run to tell the disciples and his mother. Confusion comes in and out of the house during the morning hours. Is it possible? Can we believe what these emotional women are telling us? If it is not true, can our hearts endure another hammer blow? A perfectly human reaction to extraordinary news from ordinary human folk.

Cleopas must have arrived at the house to escort his wife back home to Emmaus now that her task of mercy is done. Confused and heavy-hearted, they start on the trip downhill. Luke tells us that Emmaus was about sixty stadia (10-12 kilometers) from Jerusalem, and though the exact place has not been determined, we will take the writer at his word. It is a cool spring morning with birds singing and sheep moving nearby, but they are feeling sad with only occasional twinges of hope. Mary is telling her husband about the report of the other women, the wild hope that stirred in them, but also of the confusion that followed. Cleopas had talked to some of the men but they had not seen the Lord, so their depression had fallen upon him also. “None of them has seen him,” he repeats.

The sun is rising and they pause, put their bundles down, to drink a bit of water and rest. Afterward, as they bend down to pick up their belongings to continue the walk, someone else appears next to them, and they wonder why they had not heard or seen him before. He says to them, and there is amusement in his voice, “What have you been discussing? I saw you walking and talking earnestly.”

It’s their turn to be astounded. The greatest and saddest event of their lives had occurred in the last three days. How was it possible that there were people left in their world who didn’t know that they had lost the one they loved, the one who had made life worth living? When a beloved person dies, it is difficult to understand how the earth still spins and the sun still rises and life goes on. Their reaction is perfectly natural after such enormous grief. Cleopas asks the stranger: “Where have you been? Are you the only one who hasn’t heard what happened in the past three days? The best of men, a great prophet, one who did nothing but good, was killed. We had hoped he was our liberator.” The stranger is quiet, listening. The wife jumps in. “But something else happened earlier this morning. Friends of ours went to his tomb and found it empty.” She hesitates, both excited and doubtful. “The women saw a vision of angels. And the angels told them—he’s alive.” Her voice moves from excitement to bewilderment.

The stranger doesn’t pause but keeps walking and they follow, mystified. And then they hear his sigh and his words: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow your hearts are to believe all that the prophets have told you!” Husband and wife look at each other in amazement, but they don’t respond. And now they listen as the stranger tells them stories from their long history and tradition, from the Exodus to the prophets to their own time. They hear the references to God’s anointed and, little by little, they understand that he is talking about their beloved friend and teacher, and now everything falls into place: Jesus’ words about himself as he taught them and as he healed so many illnesses; Jesus’ continued references to his Father; Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. They understand that all this, even Jesus’ death, had been God’s plan from the beginning, and now hope fills them that not all is lost. In fact, everything is gained.

But look, time passes so quickly as they are listening to his words! They are almost at their village. They can see the walls of their home. The stranger offers his farewell and makes as if to continue but panic grips the couple. They don’t want him to go. The wife, practical and hospitable, says, “Look, sir, it will soon be night. Please, come and stay with us.” And the stranger does not refuse. In the manner of Middle Eastern people through the ages, they invite him to eat with them, and he agrees. There is a lamp burning on the table and a loaf of bread next to the water and wine. He reaches for the bread and, confronted by holiness, they watch as he prays, breaks the bread in two pieces and offers it to them. “Ah,” they cry out, “it is the Lord!” Recognition now fills them because of the familiar gesture of the Beloved, but now he is gone from their presence. His work is done but they are bereft. How is it that they had not recognized him all those hours he walked with them? They are ashamed. But that doesn’t last long. They have seen the Lord. They must share it with the others. Despite their tired legs, they return to Jerusalem.

They go to the same house where earlier they had left their fear-filled friends. But now they are all awake, rejoicing and sharing the good news with one another. “We have seen the Lord!” It becomes the most joyful refrain, whispered in amazement and then proclaimed in loud conviction. “We have seen the Lord!” Cleopas and his wife add to the chorus: “Yes, he was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

May he be known to us also in the breaking of the bread.

 

Katerina Whitley, a writer, biblical storyteller and retreat leader lives in Boone, NC. www.katerinawhitley.net

Download the sermon for Easter 3(A).

Recalling the Resurrected Jesus, 3 Easter (A) – 2014

 May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

It is hard to understand how two faithful disciples of Jesus could have traveled with him, side by side, without recognizing him. Maybe disappointment blinded their eyes and their hearts to the truth. In Jerusalem, they had learned the devastating news about Jesus’ death. Despite having heard about the women and other disciples reporting that Jesus was still alive, they continued to focus on his death. They had hoped he was the one to bring redemption to the oppressed and subjugated people of Israel. But Cleopas and his friend concluded that he was not the one. They did not understand how he could be alive or how the transformation of life Jesus had begun could continue. For them it was still Good Friday, and they left for home.

But their experience along the road and at dinner in Emmaus changed their disappointment to joy and hope. When the disciples heard Jesus blessing the bread for the meal and saw him break it and give it to them, they suddenly began to understand. They recalled the glory of Jesus in his last days. And they remembered how they had begun to gain new insight on the road, when Jesus had recalled for them the great stories of Israel’s past and compared them with himself. These actions provided a telling insight into the reality they had missed.

Though Jesus disappeared from them, they now knew they had experienced the presence of the resurrected Jesus. The context of living out their disappointments while somehow remaining open to what seemed impossible, allowed them to discover for themselves that what the women at the tomb had witnessed was true after all.

St. Luke’s story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus is very instructive for us. Like the disciples in this account, we, too, can miss the resurrected Jesus in our midst. But also like them, we can use our experience in recalling the deeper truths of scripture to transform our lives.

Our experiences on Sunday mornings and at other times in worship, for example, help us repeat again and again the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We recall the scriptures and place them in the extraordinary context of Jesus, our Christ. And we recall his powerful moment at the Last Supper, when he gave his closest followers bread and wine, his body and blood, to provide nourishment and meaning and direction for having a fulfilled life.

For us, in so recalling, we are there on the road with Cleopas and his friend. In so recalling, we are there with the disciples at the Last Supper. Such experience is a kind of reverse post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of trauma, though, we recall and relive the most glorious reality of knowing the resurrected Jesus and feeling that we are as much in the presence of God as were the disciples of old.

In worship, we experience both examples from today’s gospel account of reliving the resurrected Jesus. Both are critically important – word and sacrament – as we recall who and what we are as followers of Christ no less than the two men on the road to Emmaus. The church recognizes this in setting the Holy Eucharist into two equal parts in the prayer book: “The Word of God” and “The Holy Communion.” The font size for each of those two titles is the same in the Book of Common Prayer, revealing the fact that each is equally important and equally necessary for our spiritual health. We hear the scriptures and experience them interpreted for us. This sets a specific, weekly context for the communion in which we recall Jesus instituting the special meal, meant for each of us.

With the word of God still resonating in our minds, drawing out the meaningful contexts of our lives, we reach the altar rail and literally experience the reality of love and grace and the one-ness we have with God and each another. Everything is focused on the love that is God – that is the resurrected Jesus in our presence. Everything is as it should be as we recall in peace the moment that expresses all the values of God.

This experience regularly re-empowers us to walk with the resurrected Jesus throughout the rest of the week, at work and home, at school and play. On our journeys of faith, we find truth in action, in living out the daily reality of re-calling Jesus to our presence.

Again and again, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can overcome our discouragement, our sense of being lost, and go to where the re-birthed action lies. The resurrected Jesus can show us that the forces of evil and destruction will not prevail against the power of love.

Again and again, we recall that we are the body of Christ – and so in our lives, in our actions and in our words, we can reach others, helping them understand the presence of the resurrected Jesus. As Jesus did with the bread and wine, making it his body and blood, God in our midst empowers us to discover in the ordinary what is truly holy.

The encounter of two disciples with the resurrected Jesus came in the commonest, most familiar of ways. They came to know him walking and talking on a road, and sitting down with him to eat and pray. We encounter him, too, in common, familiar ways. The resurrected Jesus is with us, available to us, within us – always, as we live our daily lives.

When Cleopas and his companion began to realize that they had experienced the resurrected Jesus, they recognized that their hearts had been burning as he taught them on the road. They responded to their experience by going to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Can we, too, recognize the resurrected Jesus in the experiences of our lives? Will we, too, feel our hearts burning? Or will we miss the opportunity, ignoring it as minor indigestion? Can we open our hearts and our minds, the action of our lives; to the challenge of the resurrected Jesus in order to live out in our time what he lived and died to prove? Can we open ourselves to the possibility of using the life-giving force of renewal and newness – or will we just wonder what has upset us so?

When we encounter the resurrected Jesus in our midst, will we respond in joy and faith and commitment, as did the two men on the road to Emmaus? Will we respond by moving from where we are, renewed by the resurrected Jesus and ready to meet the world head on, ready to face the risk and change that his presence allows? Or will we do nothing and just add to the heap of escapism and apathy and negativity that characterize what Peter in today’s epistle called “a corrupt generation”?

The disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus that Jesus could be, and was, alive again, that God’s work begun in him could go on among his followers. Can we become like them? Will our hearts, too, burn with the desire to use the power of the resurrected Jesus? Will we use this burning as a light to recognize that God loves us? Will we use this burning to empower us to reveal God’s love to others, continuing his ministry through our acts of compassion and caring to help heal a broken world?

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Pay attention, 3 Easter (A) – 2011

May 8, 2011

Acts 2:14a,36-41Psalm 116:1-3, 10-171 Peter 1:17-23Luke 24:13-35

When we want to talk about something or someone we know truly or deeply, we often resort to the language of the heart. Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” In “Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare wrote, “Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” And Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, famously said, “The heart has reasons which the reason cannot understand.” When we try to express the way we know something truly or deeply or beautifully, we often turn to the metaphor and language of the heart.

We do this in our religious language as well. We don’t want just second-hand knowledge in religion. Abstract formulas and dusty dogmas won’t sustain us for very long. We want first-hand experience as well. We want to know these things in our hearts. The best and the most beautiful things in the world must be felt with the heart. We do need to know them with our minds. But we must also know them with our hearts.

Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s most important and creative theologians, often used the phrase “the sense of the heart” to talk about the way we truly know God. Edwards’ vision of God was primarily aesthetic; he talked about the beauty of God’s holiness. And our knowledge of God is also aesthetic. We know God through a sense of the heart. For Edwards, knowledge of God is not unreasonable. Our rational minds are engaged in religious knowledge. But it is more than rational because it includes our whole being, includes our heart as well as our head.

In Edwards’ “Personal Narrative,” he writes about his religious experience. He said:

“The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of my soul, that I know not how to express. … I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. … The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature. … I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.”

For Edwards, the sense of the heart is the key to true religion. There certainly is a rational knowledge of God. But without the sense of the heart, this knowledge is abstract and cold, what Edwards’ calls merely “notional” knowledge. The sense of the heart adds the experience of inward sweetness. Edwards says it’s like the difference between having an abstract, rational judgment that honey is sweet, and actually tasting its sweetness. True religion is not simply knowledge about God or divine things. True religion is the actual experience of the inward sweetness of God, a sense of the heart in which we know the true beauty and mercy of God. And isn’t that what we all really long for, even in a church that prides itself on its thoughtful approach to faith? Don’t we all long for more than abstract, notional knowledge of God? Don’t we all really want to truly know God, to experience God’s inner sweetness, to have a sense of the beauty and mercy of God in our hearts as well as in our minds? Don’t we all long for this sense of the heart?

I think this is why Edwards says that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” The affections are not simply the emotions or passions. They are, rather, what moves us, moves us from neutrality and indifference, and inclines our hearts to posses or to grasp something. Love, of course, is not only one of the affections, but the first and foremost of the affections, because love is the prime mover and motivator of the human heart. Holy affections are the means by which we not only know about God, but grasp the reality of God, and experience the inward sweetness of God.

“True religion … consists in holy affections.”

“The best and the most beautiful things in the world … must be felt with the heart.”

In the Emmaus story that we heard this morning, we hear a story about some early disciples’ hearts burning within them, a story about the sense of the heart. It’s a great story that we hear during Eastertide about the risen Lord who accompanies a couple of disciples who are walking along the road to a town named Emmaus. What’s interesting about the story is that they don’t immediately recognize Jesus. They are blathering on about the events of late in Jerusalem, about Jesus and the other disciples, and they are quite frankly a bit astonished at how ill-informed this stranger walking along with them is. As the story progresses, Jesus, still unrecognized by the disciples, explains to them the events that took place and the scriptures. When they finally get to Emmaus, they still haven’t recognized Jesus, but they invite him stay with them in town. At supper, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, and finally their eyes are opened and they recognize him for who he truly is. After Jesus leaves them, they turn to each other and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

“Were not our hearts burning within us?” The sense of the heart. The disciples really didn’t get it until they grasped it with their hearts. It’s not just knowing about the events that took place. It’s not even just knowing about the scriptures. It’s knowing about them in a way in which their hearts were burning within them. It’s this type of knowledge, this sense of the heart, that transforms them and allows them to perceive the reality of who this stranger truly is who was accompanying them along the road. It is the sense of the heart that allows them to recognize the Lord in their midst.

“True religion … consists in holy affections.”

“The best and the most beautiful things in the world … must be felt with the heart.”

This is true. We love our Episcopal Church, where we don’t have to leave our heads at the door. But the Episcopal Church is also a church attuned to beauty, to the beauty of God’s holiness. We shouldn’t have to check our hearts at the door either. And in actuality, let’s just get rid of the image of the door entirely. We need our heads and our hearts as we try to understand the totality of our human experience. Wherever we are, whether in church, or in our homes, or out in nature like Jonathan Edwards, we need to pay attention to our heads and our hearts. We need to pay attention to those human experiences that give rise to holy affections. Pay attention to those experiences that, as Edwards said, kindle up a sweet burning in our hearts; an ardor in our souls, where we get a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God.

Pay attention to those experiences when you feel your hearts burning within you. It is precisely in these moments that we become aware of the Lord, who is always with us, who is always accompanying us on our journey.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

3 Easter (A) – 2005

April 10, 2005

Acts 2:14a,36-41Psalm 116:1-3, 10-171 Peter 1:17-23Luke 24:13-35

Doubt and disillusionment, discouragement and despair: These are emotions that are common to all of us at some point in our lives. Loss of a job, loss of a loved one, divorce, illness, even the loss of a pet, any of these things and more can throw us into a tailspin and fill our hearts with anxiety and fear. We think that things will never be right again. Especially in the middle of the night, things seem at their very worst. We forget that there ever was a thing called hope, and all that we have learned about God’s saving grace is nowhere to be found. If ever we knew how to call upon God, it is now only a distant memory from a better and happier time; and even when we need God the most, we turn our backs on God and walk away.

That is exactly the situation in which we find Cleopas and his friend in today’s gospel. Followers of Jesus, they had believed in the new life he had promised them. Their hearts were filled with joy and anticipation as they looked forward to hearing more of his word and to being witnesses again and again to his good works, to his miracles. Fed in body, mind, and spirit by their fellowship with Jesus and with other believers, their lives had become filled with a new joy, and even all that they had to give up to follow him was as nothing compared to what they now had. They thought it would go on forever.

But that was then. Now all their hopes and dreams were as dead as Jesus. The events of the past few days, ending with the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, had beaten every last shred of hope from them. They thought there was nothing left to do but get out of Jerusalem and go to another place, perhaps to pick up the pieces of their former lives and begin again; to turn their backs on all that had seemed so expectant and hopeful, and walk the seven miles on the road to Emmaus.

So they started out, the two of them, talking as they went, and going over and over the same ground – as if saying it one more time would change the outcome. Don’t we all do that? If we’ve lost something, don’t we keep revisiting the same spot, thinking that if we go there often enough, the lost item will miraculously appear? As they do this, Cleopas and his friend, a stranger meets them on the road. It is Jesus, but their hearts are so full of defeat and so devoid of faith that they do not recognize him. What’s more, when this stranger asks what they are talking about, they cannot believe that he doesn’t know all that has happened. Where has he been? And so they tell it all once more. They even tell him about the empty tomb, how some women had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was not dead but alive. But still, they said to the stranger, no one had seen him, so perhaps the women had just heard what they wanted to hear.

When they had finished their side of the story, the stranger chided them. “Weren’t you listening when he told you how all of this must come to pass? Don’t you know how, from the beginning of time, the prophets had foretold exactly what has just happened, that the Messiah must suffer before he enters his glory?” As he recites Scripture to them, going all the way back to the time of Moses, they are so taken in by his words that when they reach Emmaus, they don’t want to let him go; they want to hear more, and so they invite him to stay with them. He agrees, and as they sit down to supper, the strangest thing happens. A guest in someone else’s home, Jesus becomes the host. He picks up the bread, he blesses it, he breaks it, and he gives it to them. And in that simple but so meaningful act, something they had seen him do time and time again, their eyes are opened and they know with certainty, not only who he is, not only that this is indeed Jesus, but they also know that all he had said to them was true. It was just like Mary and the tomb. Jesus had only to speak her name, to call out to her in the same way he always did, with the same familiar voice and inflection, and she knew immediately who he was. For Cleopas and his friend, their doubt and despair were instantly forgotten. They were so renewed in faith, so excited and happy that their feet grew wings, and they ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell others the Good News.

If Jesus was disappointed in the disciples and all the others who deserted him at the end, who, in the midst of their despair and disillusionment, chose to take the road to Emmaus rather than stick it out by his side, we never hear about it. One of the most wonderful things to come out of the resurrection is that we learn this about Jesus: no matter how bad things become for us, no matter where we go to hide ourselves when the world gets to be too much for us, even if we lose our faith for a time, he will come to be with us. He won’t ask us for explanations, we won’t have to justify our position, and there will be no recriminations. He will simply meet us as we walk, each of us along our own road to Emmaus. It may be in a shopping mall where, out of frustration, we are buying something we don’t really need, or it may be in a car that is taking us away from those things we can no longer endure; or it may actually be on a road as we try to walk off the results of that recent medical test that took us completely by surprise. Whatever route we take when we just can’t take it any more, Jesus will meet us there. Even though it is us who are going away, he is always faithful.

In the words of the noted preacher Barbara Taylor Brown:

“He comes to the disappointed, the doubtful, the disconsolate. He comes to those who do not know their Bibles, who do not recognize Him even when they are walking beside Him. He comes to those who have given up and are headed back home, which makes this whole story about the blessedness of being broken.”

This should not surprise us. Jesus’ entire ministry was centered on those who needed him the most: the poor, the sick, the blind. Wherever he could find them, he shared not only his love, but whatever else he had, until finally he shared his broken body as well. The wonderful truth of this story is that God uses everybody to proclaim God’s kingdom, and not only when we are being good and faithful and true, but even in our moments of waywardness and faithlessness as well. Just as he made himself known to the two men walking along the road, and then used them to make his story and the news of his resurrection known to the world, so he comes and stands beside us in our moments of despair, calling our name, waiting for us to recognize him, to realize again the truth of his words, to be renewed in faith so that he can use us again. In countless ways, Jesus comes among us, never demanding, but patiently waiting for us to open our eyes and see him. It may happen as we stretch forth our hands in prayer, it may happen in the reading of Scripture or in listening to a friend; it may come as we walk along a road or, like Cleopas and his friend, it may be in the breaking of the bread. He is there. We have only to be willing to have our eyes opened in faith so that we can see the Risen Christ for ourselves, so we can feel his presence and his peace as they surround us.

The gift of Emmaus awaits you. Wherever you are on that road, pray that when the Risen Lord comes to you, your eyes may be opened so you can behold him in all his glory; and then, renewed in faith, run to tell others the Good News.

 

— The Rev. Judith Carrick is a deacon in the Diocese of Long Island, currently serving at St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church in Shoreham, N.Y.