Sunday, April 10, 2005

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 1017 (Psalm 116:1-4,12-19 NRSV)
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him.

In the closing scenes of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Indiana is faced with a difficult decision. His father has just been shot and the only way to save his life is the Holy Grail for which they had been searching many years. After surviving a gauntlet by following the clues, Indiana has made his way into a cave where an ancient knight is protecting the grail. On the shelf are a hundred cups – some are extremely ornate and others quite simple. The bad guy follow’s Indiana into the cave and goes directly to the cups. He demanded to know which one, but the knight responded, “You have to choose.” A wrong choice meant certain death.

He turned to a woman who had also followed Indiana and gave her the responsibility. She chose a large gold vessel covered with precious jewels. It was a cup fit for a king. The man agreed and took the cup to pool of cool clean water. He drank and immediately began to age. He not only died but his entire body decomposed and disintegrated before our eyes. The knight said, “He chose poorly.” Indiana looked over the shelf of cups and chose a most humble vessel. “This is the cup of a carpenter’s son.” Indeed, it was the cup that gave life. He took it to his father and the wound was healed by the water poured from the cup.

Every generation since Christ has searched for the Holy Grail. There are claims from all over the world about the location of the cup of Christ. There are legends that revolve around its history. Even modern authors are fascinated by the possibility of the existence of that one simple cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, as if it offered something special to anyone who possessed it. Yet, we need not look so far to discover the Holy Grail. We don’t need to go on dangerous adventures to hidden rooms with ancient knights to know the life giving liquid of Christ’s cup.

Our Gospel story for this day is from Luke – the story of Christ revealing Himself to two of His disciples. It was the day of the resurrection and the disciples were on the road to Emmaus. Perhaps they were going home, unable to deal with the emotions of their loss. Perhaps they were afraid to stay in Jerusalem. Whatever the purpose of their journey, they talked as they walked about everything that had happened.

A man joined them on their journey. “What communications are these that ye have one with another, as ye walk?” They stopped and looked sad. One of the men responded to his question with surprise. “Haven’t you heard?” They began to tell him everything that happened to Jesus. From the way this story is written, it sounds as if the crucifixion of Jesus was the big event of the day. No one could be near Jerusalem without having heard about it.

We know what that is like. It takes only moments for a big news story to make it to the airwaves. We can know instantly what is happening on the other side of the world. If it is an important story, every news program will give us twenty-four hour coverage. They give the facts, discuss every aspect of the story, invite in commentators to give their opinions about what is happening and how it will affect our world. It can get rather frustrating to watch because in the quest to be the first to tell the news, the reporters often get it wrong.

Though they did not have televisions in Jesus’ day, they had the marketplace and the street corners. Since Jesus touched so many people – Jews and Gentiles – it is not surprising that so many people knew what was happening. It is more surprising that there was someone who had not heard.

The man who joined the disciples knew everything that had happened because it was Jesus Himself. However, the disciples were kept from recognizing Him. We saw this phenomenon in previous stories of His appearances. Mary thought He was a gardener, the disciples in the upper room thought He was a ghost. They did not expect to see Him alive and well. Perhaps there was also something about Jesus’ appearance that was different. Whatever it was, the scriptures tell us that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were kept blind, for a moment.

They told Jesus about everything that had happened. They told him about how Jesus was crucified and how some of the others had seen Him alive. Jesus answered their query with a lesson in Old Testament scriptures. “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Behooved it not the Christ to suffer these things, and to enter into his glory?” Then He opened up the scriptures to them so that they might see that what happened to Jesus was just as God had planned.

We might wonder why Jesus did not just say, “Hey friends, here I am!” Yet, can you imagine the impact His appearance would have had on these men? They still did not fully understand how everything fit into the plan of God. Jesus needed to put all the pieces into the puzzle, but it would have been very difficult to do so if they knew that it was Jesus walking beside them. They listened intently, growing in knowledge about the story as Jesus revealed the words of Moses and the Prophets foretelling of Jesus’ life, ministry and suffering. He also showed them how He was to be raised.

When they arrived at their destination, Jesus tried to keep going but the disciples invited him inside. It was late and they were probably very curious about this man they met on the road. He had so much knowledge of things they should have known but didn’t. They wanted to learn more. I am sure they found comfort in His word. They sat down to eat and Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it for them. At that moment, they saw Jesus.

In this story we see a pattern of Christian fellowship as the disciples gather around the word and the sacrament to see the risen Christ. We follow this same pattern in our worship today. We listen to the word as it is read and preached and then we gather around the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine. Notice that it is not only in the word that Christ was revealed to them, but that it was in the sacrament that they could see Him.

The Christians in early American faced a difficult situation. There were not very many pastors, some of who traveled many miles between congregations. For some of these traveling preachers only made it to a church once every few weeks. Though the congregations might have gathered together weekly for Christian fellowship and the reading of God’s Word, they only received the sacrament when an ordained pastor visited. Even as more pastors were trained, some congregations kept that same pattern of worship – limiting the sacraments to occasional services. There are still many congregations that only serve the Eucharist once or twice a month, some do it even less.

When asked about this practice, many will answer that weekly communion only cheapens the sacrament. They want it to be something special and they are concerned that doing it too often will make it ritualistic and heartless. Perhaps we need to better understand what it is that happens at the table. It is in that cup – our Holy Grail – that we see the risen Lord and receive His gift of eternal life through the forgiveness of our sins.

I think, perhaps, we have lost touch with the purpose of communion and that’s why it is set aside for other forms of worship. Peter writes, “…knowing that ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ…” The cup bears the very blood of Christ which was offered for our sake on the cross. “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” Christ did this for you. And there at the table, whether once a year or every day, Jesus Christ is revealed in that cup. We are made new every time we receive that gift, forgiven, transformed and purified by His Word so that we can go forth another day to trust in God and live in love.

Remembering that in the communion we receive the forgiveness of sins helps us to look differently at our reasons for approaching. The Psalmist writes, “The cords of death compassed me, And the pains of Sheol gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of Jehovah: O Jehovah, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.” We approach God, recognizing our need for His mercy and grace. Each time we gather around the table, we are calling out to the Lord for salvation. We find life in His answer as we remember the cross of Christ. His love is revealed in that breaking of bread. There we see Jesus revealed for us. The Psalmist continues, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of Jehovah. I will pay my vows unto Jehovah, Yea, in the presence of all his people.” As we approach the altar of grace and receive the cup of forgiveness, we are witnesses of and for the living Christ.

When we read the lesson from Acts this day we are amazed at the work of God in the early church. Three thousand people were saved one day. I can’t imagine what we would do if we had that many people tell us they wanted to become Christians at one time. Even in the places where Christianity is growing and flourishing, I doubt that anyone would claim such large numbers. We can’t even credit Peter with incredible preaching – he uses the same old sermon several times throughout the book of Acts. Yet, when they heard the word, they asked “What should we do?”

Peter answered, “And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” To become a Christian we need to recognize our sin and seek God’s forgiveness. It is already done. He has already completed the work. We need not worry that the work we do is not enough to accomplish what Christ has already finished. Yet, the scriptures are clear that there is a need for repentance – recognizing our need for God. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We don’t seek forgiveness for that which we do not think we have done wrong.

Many of today’s preachers, particularly those who have gained huge followings, have a commanding presence. When they speak, you listen. They draw you in and make you want to absorb every word. They seem to ooze an anointing. You can’t help but believe these preachers must be from God because they are so gifted and charismatic. Yet, as you listen to their message, it is filled with another sort of Gospel. There is no word of salvation or of forgiveness. There is no call for repentance. And while these preachers might claim incredible growth like that found in Acts, I haven’t heard any confirmed stories of three thousand new Christians being added to our numbers when they speak.

The message that we are sent to take into the world is that message of forgiveness. We first receive that gift at the waters of Baptism and then continue to receive it in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We need the word of God read and preached, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, so that we will understand the work of God in Christ Jesus. But it is through the sacraments that He is revealed to us. We do not need a new baptism each time we sin, for Christ’s work is complete. However, we constantly need to know the forgiveness He has given through His body and blood. This is why it is important for us to receive the gift as often as it is presented.

When the disciples recognized Jesus, He vanished from their sight. They did not sit around waiting for something special to come. Fed and renewed, they ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the other disciples. “The Lord has risen indeed!” So too should we, strengthened by our Lord Jesus Christ, go out into the world to proclaim the good news of salvation found in His cup, our Holy Grail. It is not something made of precious gold or silver, but rather a humble vessel filled with the real presence of Christ. Thanks be to God.

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