Sunday, April 6, 2008

Three Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-36

And it came to pass, when he had sat down with them to meat, he took the bread and blessed; and breaking it he gave to them.

I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like for those first disciples. 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. That morning the women had reported that Jesus was missing from the tomb. They had met some men who told them that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. Luke’s account does not tell of an appearance to the women, but according to Mark and John, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. The women took the news to the disciples who were left wondering what was happening.

Some of the disciples left the room where they were staying. The two in our story may have run out of fear or had some responsibility that took them out of the city. 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. “Dost thou alone sojourn in Jerusalem and not know the things which are come to pass there in these days?”

We have experiences some terrifying storms since we have lived here in Texas. The thunder is loud, the lightning frightening and the wind howls like I’ve never heard before. One night there was a slight chance of tornadic activity. I woke to the sound of thunder and got up to look out the window. I knew the wind was blowing, but was still surprised when I saw a child’s plastic pool blowing down the ditch behind our house. It was at least twenty feet above the ground, having been picked up by a gust and carried away. I was concerned for the safety of my family, so I turned on the television to check out the weather report. The storm was severe, but not dangerous in our neighborhood. Even though I was nervous, I let everyone stay in bed. The storm had not disturbed their peace.

The next day I wondered whether anyone had heard the storm. They did not. I did not understand how they could have missed the loud thunder and the bright lightening, but I was glad they were not disturbed by the storm. As I went through my day a few people mentioned the storm, but many had not even heard it in the night. Some of them had heard about the storm on the news, but did not hear the thunder or see the lightening themselves. I just shook my head in wonderment. “How could you have been here and not heard?”

That’s how these two disciples must have felt when Jesus asked them what had happened. There are some who have suggested that the story was not as important to most of the citizens of Jerusalem as it is to us today. They think that Jesus’ death and resurrection was probably only reported among the Jews or those close to the event. The crowds described in the trial may have been only a small group of people, the crowds in the streets on Palm Sunday only a handful of faithful followers. However, the remark from this disciple, “Dost thou alone sojourn in Jerusalem and not know the things which are come to pass there in these days?” seems to indicate that Jesus was the headline of the day. Though they did not have CNN, they did have the marketplace and the city gates, both of which were places of gossip and news. In three days the story of Jesus must have spread. Perhaps that is why the disciples were running from Jerusalem. Word of Jesus’ resurrection would have brought concern from the leaders.

Jesus asked, but He knew everything that had happened. He wanted to hear what they had to say. How would His disciples, who had been there from the beginning, tell the story? He had warned them of His death and promised them that He would be raised but they never really heard what He said. They never really understood the plan. So they shared the story with the stranger, the story about Jesus’ incredible ministry, His trial and death, the third day and the rumors of His empty tomb.

Jesus got His answer and said, “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 laid it out for them from the scriptures, from Moses and through the Prophets.

When they came to the village, Jesus kept walking. I’m not sure that He was testing them, but He certainly did not force Himself on the disciples. He merely gave them the opportunity to invite Him in to a longer, more meaningful relationship. They were fascinated by all that He had to say and asked Him to join them for a meal. “Abide with us; for it is toward evening, and the day is now far spent.” The two disciples saw Jesus clearly when He broke the bread with them.

In this story we see that God does not necessarily 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 laid out before us until one day we finally see Him and understand. Even then we wonder how we could have not seen, just like the disciples. “Was not our heart 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.

We won’t see Jesus walking along the path with us, like those first disciples. But 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?

Their story was laced with sadness and confusion. They had heard He was raised but were uncertain. Jesus answered by opening the scriptures for them, sharing 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. When they invited Him to stay with them and He broke the bread, they finally saw Him revealed.

They thought to themselves, “Was not our heart burning within us, while he spake to us in the way, while he opened to us the scriptures?” But hearing the word was not enough. The revelation of Christ comes in both word and sacrament. Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the sharing of the word and of the bread. They belong together. Jesus not only made the scriptures clear to the disciples, but He gave His flesh for their sake.

In this story we see how Jesus established the pattern of worship for our lives of faith. For the early church, gathering together meant hearing the scriptures read and breaking bread. 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.

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. Then they were able to go out and share the Good News with others.

In our lectionary we fast forward fifty days. The passage from Acts takes place fifty days after they discovered the empty tomb of Jesus. It is Pentecost and earlier that day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples.

The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest. These celebrations also had historical remembrances attached, so they were celebrations in thanksgiving to God for His daily care for His people as well as His goodness to their people throughout the ages. Passover occurs first, and is a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley is 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.

The third 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 to thank God for the productivity 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. Fifty days after Passover, the people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest by giving offerings from the first fruits of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too do the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for the blessings He has already given and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly remembrance of God’s mercy. 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.

It could not have been easy for Peter to stand in front of those pilgrims who were in Jerusalem to hear the reading of God’s Law to speak this first sermon before the crowds. 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 with this new story. Peter told them to repent—not only of the sins they had committed, but also of the way they were doing worship and living their lives of faith. He 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 of what he was saying. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day.

The psalmist sings, “Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.” The Lord God is gracious and merciful. He hears the cries of His people and He answers their prayers. Our psalm was used as part of the liturgy for the religious festivals throughout the Jewish year. It is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for God’s deliverance from death. The worship of God was tied up in many aspects of their lives. Each festival had significance at several levels. They were times of remembrance and looking ahead, times of feasting and fasting, times of joy and sacrifice. They worshipped God with their hearts, their minds and their resources, bringing Him into their ordinary world.

That’s why our New Covenant experiences include the sacraments. God did not simply speak to us; He gave us ordinances that were connected to very real, very tangible things of this earth. In Baptism the word is joined with water, reminding us of all those times when God used the water to make the world clean while cleansing us for the future. In the Eucharist the word is tied to the bread and wine, reminding us of the last supper, Christ’s death on the cross while also giving us a foretaste of the feast to come. In this way God’s story has woven together the ordinary with the extraordinary, reason with mystery, the past with the future, the grace of God with our response.

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…” Jesus Christ died, His blood was shed, to give God’s people new life. There is some disagreement about who Peter was referencing—the Jewish forefathers or the pagan ancestors. Since Christianity is for all people, not just one race or another, it is likely that God intends for us all to look at our past and consider how He has brought us out of it into something new. What have we been ransomed from? What is it about our life that God wants to transform?

We inherit from our past so many things: health, tradition, culture, finances, property, business, personality, habits, politics, biases, debts, feuds, religion and interests. Some of these things can be good and are worth continuing into another generation. However, some of the things we inherit from our past have no value and can actually be harmful; there are things that we have to set aside to become the person we are meant to be. Jesus made it possible, redeeming us from the failures of our past. The sacrificial system had little value because it was not lasting. Jesus, as the perfect Lamb of God finished for all time the need for atoning sacrifice. In His grace, we are called to trust in God and love one another.

The message we are given and sent into the world to share is a message of forgiveness. We first receive that message 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 fully revealed to us.

When the disciples recognized Jesus, He vanished from their sight. This might have been a time to again wonder and hide, but the two disciples responded in a much different way. Though it was late in the day, they made the seven mile trek back to Jerusalem to share the Good News with the other disciples. Then, as they were still speaking, Jesus appeared to them all, confirming everything they already knew. He gave them the command to take forgiveness to the world. Fed and renewed, they began to take the Gospel into the world. “The Lord has risen indeed!” they said.

So, too, should we, strengthened by our Lord Jesus, go out into the world to proclaim the good news of salvation found in Jesus Christ. He is the Word made flesh, the Law made free, the Lamb given for our sake.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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