Sunday, April 30, 2017

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

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

“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 once drawn away from the safety of the road, so 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, repent, so that they might be saved. Peter continues 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 do 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 go 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 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.

I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like for the disciples in those days following the crucifixion. Three years of ministry with Jesus was over in a heartbeat. They were afraid, confused and uncertain about the future. Jesus was dead and they were alone, not really understanding what had happened.

Luke tells us that on the day of the resurrection some of the disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. The appearance stories differ from one Gospel lesson to another, but we know that on that first Easter morning women, including Mary Magdalene, reported to the disciples that the tomb was empty. They were left wondering what was happening.

Last week we heard that Thomas was nowhere to be found, but he wasn’t the only one to leave the company of the disciples. Today’s Gospel lesson tells of two who were walking back to Emmaus. One of them was named Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but it is thought that it was, perhaps, the wife of Cleopas who may have been 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?”

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. “Foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Christ have 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 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, 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.

Jesus came to those disciples and opened the scriptures to them so that they would see and recognize Him.

Today’s 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 something that is, to others, obvious. Jesus was probably in a form that made him appear different than they remembered 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?

The two disciples saw Jesus clearly when He broke the bread with them. I would not like to admit how many times I saw the truth as I was on my knees receiving communion. Too often as I take the bread and wine I realize my own failures during the week, seeing His face in those that I failed to serve. I remember the opportunities I had to share the Good News but was so caught up in my own cares and concerns. But just like those disciples, I also see God’s grace in the breaking of the bread. I remember his forgiveness and receive the strength to go on into another week of trying to live as witnesses in this world.

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. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us?” we ask. But 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.

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 Christ.

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 relationships of love. In faith we live forever, no longer condemned to death.

The first lesson 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 Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost and they spoke the Gospel that was heard by men and women of many nations. The crowds thought that the disciples were drunk with new wine when they began speaking in tongues, but Peter told them 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. You surely had heard of what had happened during the Passover festival with Jesus. Rumors were all over the city about the lost body of Jesus. Some might have been in agreement with the Romans, who claimed that the body was stolen by the disciples. Only fifty days had passed since that first Easter morning.

It could not have been easy for Peter to give his first sermon to those pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. 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. He told them to be baptized for forgiveness and to 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. 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.

Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the sharing of the word but also in the breaking of bread. The word and bread belong together. Jesus not only made the scriptures clear to the disciples, but He gave His flesh for their sake. As we hear the scriptures 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.

Jesus established the pattern of worship for our lives of faith. He comes to us 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. Fed and renewed, they ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the other disciples. “The Lord has risen indeed!” Strengthened by the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ in our own lives, we are called to go out into the world to proclaim the Good News of salvation found in His blood, calling others to “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Then they, too, will turn around so that they won’t drown in sin and death, experiencing the life giving grace found in the blood of Christ.

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