Sunday, April 26, 2020

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-14
1 Peter 1:17-25
Luke 24:13-35

They rose up that very hour, returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and those who were with them, saying, ‘The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ They related the things that happened along the way, and how he was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.

Bruce and I like to go to a cabin in the country for restful weekends away from our lives in the city. We take a TV with us, but we use it to watch movies. We usually take some fun work with us: I do crafts of some sort, Bruce reads. We take hikes, and we enjoy the sunsets. The last time we went, we took a couple puzzles, thinking that forty-eight hours would give us time to do more than one. Unfortunately, we chose a very hard puzzle, though it looked relatively easy.

We were about three quarters finished and some pieces just did not fit. We didn’t understand. We had the outside complete, but none of the inner pieces seemed to be right, almost to the point we thought that they gave us the wrong pieces. We finally realized that though they looked right, some of the outside pieces were out of place. We took it apart piece by piece, checking for errors, and we finally made it right. Then the rest of the pieces fit together and we were able to finish the puzzle.

There is a story about a father wanted to give his child something to do. He took a map of the U.S. out of the newspaper and tore it into pieces to see if his child could put the map back together. A few minutes later the child returned with it all taped back together. The father was amazed. “How did you do that so fast?” The child turned the page over. One the back was a picture of Jesus. “I just put Jesus together and everything fit into place.”

Jesus is always the answer. Ask any youth minister and they will tell you that. It doesn’t matter what question you ask, the kids will always say “Jesus.” And they are right. Jesus is the answer. The problem is that sometimes we don’t know how to put all the pieces together.

That’s what was happening to the disciples in those moments following the crucifixion and the resurrection. The encounter in today’s Gospel lesson took place on the first Easter Day. Some of the disciples stayed in Jerusalem, hiding in the Upper Room. Others left; even Thomas was missing in action. In this story, two disciples were walking home to Emmaus. These disciples had been with Jesus and learned from Him for some time, possibly most of His three years of ministry. They did not understand how everything fit together. The crucifixion of Jesus did not fit their expectation. The witness of the women that Jesus had risen confused them. They could not make the puzzle fit together because there was something wrong with some of the pieces.

Today’s Gospel story is one of my favorites, perhaps because we see how truly human the disciples really were. We often think of them as special and extraordinary, but they were just like you and I. We wonder how they did not recognize Jesus, but then we realize that we are sometimes so overwhelmed by our circumstances that we do not see the obvious. Jesus was probably in a form that made him appear different and their eyes were kept from recognizing Him. However, they were also distracted by their thoughts and emotions. What had happened? What were they going to do? Who was this Jesus, really?

We don’t always recognize the presence of God in our ordinary circumstances. Jesus said that we would see Him in the faces of those we serve, but how often do we really do so? Do we see Jesus in that neighbor who needs a helping hand or the hungry man at the food bank? Do we see Jesus in the politician that needs our prayers or the teacher that is overwhelmed by her work? Do we recognize Jesus in the person behind the wheel of the car that just cut us off or the friend that has forgotten to answer an email?

God does not always come to us in dramatic and forceful ways. Sometimes He comes to us slowly at first, carefully laying out His story so that when He is fully revealed we will recognize him. Though some Christians have extraordinary experiences of Jesus, like Paul on the road to Damascus, most of us learn about Jesus through Sunday school teachers and our parents. Slowly, but surely, we hear the stories until one day we finally see Him and understand. Even then we wonder how we could have not seen, just like the disciples. In the stories of God’s grace we see that we are just like those who were there at the beginning, learning and growing in grace each day.

Today’s Gospel lesson tells of two disciples who were walking back to Emmaus on the evening after the Resurrection. One of them was named Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but it is thought that it was Mary, his wife, who was at the foot of the cross and possibly at the tomb that morning. They were discussing the events surrounding Jesus’ death when a stranger joined them. They did not recognize Him because their eyes were blinded. In all the stories of Jesus’ appearances, He had full control. When He asked what they were discussing, the disciples were shocked to hear that He did not know what had happened. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things which have happened there in these days?”

It must have seemed impossible that someone could have been in Jerusalem and not heard about Jesus. They told Him the story as they knew and understood it, how Jesus was crucified and how some of the others had seen Him alive. Their story was laced with sadness and confusion. They had heard He was raised but were uncertain. “Foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” Jesus answered by opening the scriptures for them, sharing Old Testament passages and explaining how they related to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They began to see and understand more clearly, although Jesus was not yet fully revealed to them.

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 disciples? They still did not fully understand how everything fit into the plan of God. Jesus needed to put all the pieces into the puzzle in the right way, 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. They were amazed, not just that Jesus was alive, but that they didn’t recognize Him. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?”Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the sharing of the word and of the bread.

Jesus not only taught the disciples about the Kingdom of God as found in the Law and the Prophets, but He gave them His flesh to eat. As we hear the scriptures read and preached, we learn about the Jesus who came to do all this for us. It is in the breaking of bread that we join in the fellowship of His people, receiving His body and blood together with every Christian in all time and space. We are made new every time we receive this gift: forgiven, transformed and purified by His grace so that we can go forth another day to trust God and live in love.

In this story we see how Jesus established the pattern of worship for our lives of faith. He is revealed in word and bread. We experience Christ in body and in spirit. Our faith is founded on both reason and mystery. What does it all mean? Where are we going? What do we do with this faith we have been given? It was not until the bread was broken that the disciples could see Him clearly. Then they knew it was Jesus and they were amazed. They ran back to Jerusalem to share the Good News with the other disciples. It was just as they were reporting their encounter that Jesus visited the disciples in the Upper Room for the first time (last week’s story.)

The Gospel message demands a response. It is not enough to believe. It is not enough to simply accept Jesus is the Messiah. He died so that you might live and live abundantly. This Good News calls us to turn around, to go back into the city, to tell others that Jesus is not dead. He is alive, and He’s calling His people into a relationship of love. In faith we live forever, no longer condemned to death.

The lesson from Acts comes seven weeks after the first appearances of Jesus. In that time He continued to teach and reveal Himself to His disciples. They gained in wisdom and courage so that on the day when Jesus returned to His Father, they would be ready to do the work He was calling them to do.

The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest. These festivals were celebrated throughout the year as a constant reminder of God’s presence among His people. The celebrations also remembered the history of God’s people; they thanked God for His daily care and for His goodness to them throughout the ages. Passover occurred first and was a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley was given at the Temple as a wave offering. The priest literally waved the sheaf toward God so that He might accept it and bless it. No one was allowed to eat any of the barley wheat before the wave offering. This was also called the Feast of First Fruits.

Another feast was called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This festival occurred for a week in the fall and it celebrated the harvest. During this festival the people remembered the journey from Egypt to Canaan and thanked God for the productivity of the fields of Canaan. The religious life of God’s people went from Passover to Sukkot, just as the agricultural calendar went from planting to harvest. The people identified God’s deliverance and His provision by celebrating the harvest of their daily bread and the remembrance of their past.

Between those two festivals was another. The people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the early harvest by giving offerings from the first fruit of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain; they remember this by traveling to Jerusalem fifty days after the Passover to thank God and to hear once again the words given to them on Sinai. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.

The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.

The text from Acts is from Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost. The crowds thought that the disciples were drunk with new wine when they began speaking in tongues, but Peter told them that it was the power of God. Imagine if you were in the crowd on that day, hearing the strange words coming out of the disciples’ mouths. They must have heard to story of Jesus, after all rumors would have been all over the city. Everyone was still wondering what happened to Jesus’ body. Only fifty days had passed since that first Easter morning. Some might have agreed with the Roman claim that the body was stolen by the disciples.

It could not have been easy for Peter to give his first sermon to those Pentecost pilgrims. It was bold and courageous. He was offering them a new promise, a different promise. As they heard his words, the people were “pricked in their heart” or “cut to the heart” and they wondered what they should do. Peter told them to repent, not only of their sins, but also of the way they worshipped God and lived their lives of faith. Peter told them to be baptized so that they would be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. He said many other things, testifying to convince them of the truth. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day. The Word had already been planted in their hearts with the rumors around Jerusalem; Peter simply watered the seed.

We don’t know much about the crowd, but I wonder how many of them may have been there on the day of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Were they among the crowds who once waved palm branches? Were they also among the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion just days later? Imagine the confusion and frustration! It is so hard to know what to believe. Faith is something we can’t achieve on our own. It takes the hand of God. That’s what happened on that Pentecost Day. God took the seeds that were planted, He brought order into their confusion, and He set their hearts on fire with faith so that they could believe.

Those people who heard Peter’s sermon had good reason to be confused. It is hard to discern the difference between truth and rumor sometimes. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus for a long time were scared and frustrated in the early days. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. The disciples didn’t believe the witness of the women who met Jesus in the garden. Some ran away. How can we expect that the crowds in Jerusalem to believe when they had nothing but rumors?

We are so much like them. We are rattled by so many ideas. It has been said, “Ask twelve theologians the meaning of a biblical text and you’ll get thirteen answers.” The bookstores are filled with commentaries and devotionals that will give the seeker seemingly contradictory advice. I can understand why so many non-Christians are confused. It doesn’t make sense if you can’t put it all together. Jesus meets us along the way, as He did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and opens the Word for us. The Holy Spirit helps us to believe and understand.

“Turn around, don’t drown” is an often heard phrase around here when extreme rain hits. The normally dry creek beds quickly fill with rushing water and cover the low lying roads. It doesn’t look bad; many drivers are certain that they can get through, but they quickly realize that it doesn’t take much to send a car floating down the creek. It is incredibly difficult to escape; we are reminded to turn around so that we do not drown. Too many people lose their lives because they think they know better than those who put up the barricades.

Today’s scriptures all call for us to turn around so that we don’t drown under the weight of sin and death. Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, spoke to the Pentecost crowds and told them to turn around, to repent, so that they might be saved. Peter continued the call of repentance in his letter, pointing to the incorruptible precious blood of Jesus Christ, the perfect lamb and the enduring Word of God as the source of our redemption. The psalmist gives us an example of repentance, crying out to God in his moment of great need.

We know we need to turn around, but like the driver that thinks they can get through the rushing water, we try to save ourselves. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of times when we waited until it was almost too late to deal with a problem. We try to deal with it ourselves. We try to hide our pain and suffering and confusion, sure that we can overcome alone. We become frustrated and exhausted doing so, until we reach the end of our rope and then we finally ask for help. This is true not only in those mundane problems of life, but also in the eternal problems of our spirits.

I don’t doubt that most of my readers are people of prayer. I imagine that you pray daily and that you seek God’s help for those you love, for the people who ask you to pray, for the world and everything in it. Yet, all too often when it comes to our own needs especially that of our spirits, we tend to try to deal with it on our own. Are you embarrassed to take your problems to God? Do you think that your problems are inconsequential compared to those of our neighbors? After all, why worry about a little doubt when our neighbor has rejected God altogether?

The psalmist understood this human tendency to go it alone. It was not until he was overwhelmed with trouble that he cried out for God’s help. “The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol[a] got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow.” He had reached the end of his rope; he could not deal with it alone. But even though he waited so long to seek God’s hand, God was ready to answer. “Then I called on Yahweh’s name: ‘Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.’” Turn around, don’t drown; God has given you a better way to go. Repent and be saved.

We are human and despite the graciousness of God, we still have a nature that is wrapped up with sin. We still fail to live as God created and intended us to live. We still make mistakes that hurt others. We still ignore God. We still reject Him when we think we can do it better. We go our own way and forget that God is ready to help us whenever we need it. It is only when we reach the end of our rope, when there is nothing left that we can do, that we turn to Him. And though we’ve ignored Him all along, He is there and ready to respond to our cries.

He comes to us.

Jesus revealed Himself to the Emmaus disciples in a pattern of Christian fellowship that we continue to follow today, around the word and sacrament. There we see the risen Christ. 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; it was in the sacrament that they could see Him. It is in the cup that we receive His forgiveness that leads to gift eternal life.

I think, perhaps, we have lost touch with the reason for communion; in many churches it is not the center of the worship. It is an occasional practice, an imposition on the altar guild and worship planners who have to work it into the program. Some people would rather not have communion on a weekly or even monthly basis. “It takes too much time.” “It is not as special if we have it too often.” “Visitors won’t understand and they’ll be turned off if we don’t give them plenty of entertainment and music.”

Peter writes, “...knowing that you were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish or spot, 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 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. Why would we want to diminish the place this has in our experience of God?

We forget how much we need God. We try to go our own way. We think we know better than God how to get through our problems. It isn’t until we reach the end that we finally accept that we are lost and need His help; it is then we finally turn to Him, 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 sings, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call on Yahweh’s name. I will pay my vows to Yahweh, yes, in the presence of all his people.”

When we finally cry out to God, He is right there to do for us all that He has promised. How much better is it that we approach the throne of grace even before we need God’s help, seeing His salvation in that which He has already given for us? The answer is always Jesus. He puts the puzzle pieces together so that we can see more clearly. He is revealed anew each time we gather for the Word and the Sacraments. We are amazed, and this Good News demands a response, so we are called to go and tell others so that they, too might believe and be saved. It might be scary, but like Peter and the disciples on Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, to give us courage, to fill our mouths with the words that others will hear. He will put the pieces together for them, too.

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