Easter Sunday 2018
Pastor Marty Raths
Last week I talked about the image of the road, and especially the road that Jesus took to the cross. I talked about how that road appeared to be a dead end road at first, with nowhere to go beyond Jesus’ death. But then . . . with the coming of Easter Morn it became a new road with the discovery of the empty tomb.
But this discovery was only a beginning, just a first step on that new road. The empty tomb was a very uncertain experience for everyone, for the political authorities, for the religious leaders, for the followers of Jesus. What did it mean? Everyone’s first thought was that someone had taken Jesus body? The authorities suspected the disciples. Mary the authorities.
But from that uncertain beginning the road began to open up to the followers of Jesus, becoming the road to Easter faith. And there were a lot of important moments along the way, Easter moments I call them. And one of the ways that we know that we are on this road is that it changes us. It took Mary from sorrow to joy. Thomas from doubt to faith. Peter from guilt to forgiveness. And it took two other disciples from despair to hope as they walked on the road to Emmaus.
Now that road was an actual road, leading to a small village outside of Jerusalem. But, as Luke tells it, it becomes a symbolic road as well. It is the way of discipleship unfolding in an afternoon, one biblical scholar has said of it, because on that road we see an Easter faith being born in these two disciples of Jesus.
They had experienced the dead end road of the cross. So they are on their way back home, back to their old lives, the lives that they had once known before they had decided to follow Jesus. Peter went back home as well, back to his fishing nets in Galilee. No doubt other followers of Jesus did the same. It is a normal human reaction, to fall back upon what is familiar when we are feeling overwhelmed./
But Jesus comes to them on the road, and we may wonder why they were unable to recognize him at first, but then how often do we recognize Jesus at the time? Often it is only in hindsight that we come to see that he really was with us in a certain experience. Augustine wrote an entire book, his Confessions, looking back upon his life finding signs of the grace of God at work there, even though he was unaware of it at the time. John Wesley called this the prevenient grace of God, God at work in us without our even knowing it. And that in and of itself can be an Easter moment, just knowing that God can work apart from us, given our lack of understanding at times, not to mention our weaknesses and faults and failings.
I also believe that their lack of hope had something to do with their inability to recognize Jesus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say. We had hoped. Past tense. You see hope means being able to imagine the possible. But Jesus risen, Jesus alive, Jesus walking with them on the road, that was not within the realm of possibility for these two disciples, not after the crucifixion. They had seen him die, so they simply could not imagine him being alive. Not yet anyway. And if we cannot imagine a possibility in our minds, then it will be all but impossible for us to see it with our eyes, even if it is standing right there in front of us, or walking right there beside us.
There is a story about a young man. He lived in a part of the world torn by conflict. And one day his wife and young daughter were captured by enemy soldiers. He was devastated, and as the days passed, he despaired of ever seeing them again. He gave up on them for lost.
But in fact they were only being held captive, and some years later, his wife and daughter managed to escape from their captors, and eventually they were able to make it back home. It was dark when they arrived home, and seeing the house they ran to the door only to find it locked, and they began to pound upon the door.
Startled from his sleep, the man came to the door and asked, “Who’s there?”
“It’s us,” they cried.
“Us. Your wife and daughter.”
“It cannot be,” the man said. “They died years ago.”
“No, no, no. It is us. We have escaped and come home.”
“No, it cannot be,” the man said. And he would not open the door because he had long since lost hope, and he knew that there was no possibility of his ever seeing his wife and daughter again.
Hope makes for open doors, but often in life we keep the doors closed, like the man in the story, because we cannot or will not imagine another possibility. This happens all the time in life. We give up hope, rule out even the possibility that things could be different, and then we seemed surprised when nothing really changes. But the truth is that we become blind to the possibilities, even when they present themselves to us, because we are not even looking for them. Not without some hope in our hearts.
When Jesus first speaks to them, he calls them “slow of heart.” Now this is a very curious expression. The scriptures talk about our having heavy hearts and unclean hearts and hardened hearts, but not slow hearts. I looked it up. This is the only place in the whole of the New Testament where someone is described as being slow of heart, and I believe that this was Jesus speaking to their lack of hope.
And this is a common affliction in our world. Many of us experience a heart condition that is best described as slowness of heart. We feel overwhelmed by life, and we do not really see any hope of change, any hope that things can be different, any hope that life might be better. We need our hope restored, and this is what Jesus begins to do with these two followers.
First, by talking with them, giving them the gift of what might be called holy conversation. It is not small talking, talk about the weather, or the local sports teams. It is deep talking and listening, heart talking really. And blessed are we if we have someone we can talk to like that, heart to heart, because God can, and often does, speak to us through those who listen and speak to our hearts. And it is a gift that we can give to one another, and these holy conversations can be Easter moments too./
Then Jesus begins to talk about the scriptures, helping these two disciples to see what had happened in light of their faith. Jesus built on the faith that they already had, strengthening it through the words of scripture. And few things in the faith can restore hope more than a deep encounter with the scriptures. You see the scriptures are meant to be a meeting place between us and God, and between us and the call of Christ. But we do need to show up for the meeting, hearing the words of scripture and then taking them to heart. And when we do, Easter moments can happen./
Now as the three of them near the village, Jesus is going to go on ahead, but the two disciples urge him not to go. Though he is still a stranger to them, they show him hospitality. “Come, stay with us,” they say. How hospitable are we to the presence of Christ in our lives? Do we see opportunities in life for what they may be, God trying to get our attention, God trying to open the door of our lives, God trying to enlist us into service to the work of the kingdom? Or are we too hurried, too distracted, too whatever, to give such opportunities even a moment’s notice? How many times has Christ been there beside us, and we failed to ask him to stay, letting him go on ahead instead? You see Christ will not force himself into our lives. That is not his way. At some point we must ask him to be a part of our lives.
And these two disciples do not miss the opportunity. They ask Jesus to stay. And as they sit at table together, Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. And in that moment, their eyes are opened, and they recognize Jesus. All those means of grace that they had practiced on the road – holy conversation, taking the scriptures to heart, the offering of hospitality – had begun to restore their hope, so much so that they are able to recognize Jesus in the practice of another means of grace, in the breaking of the bread.
But once again Jesus surprises them. In the very moment that Jesus is revealed to them, he vanishes from their sight. Hope is always a blend of God’s doing and ours. All along the road Jesus had done for these two disciples, helping to restore their hope, but the moment they come to realize that Jesus is alive, he leaves them because now it is up to then to respond./
And they undergo a change, another Easter moment. At first they were consumed by the question, “Why had Jesus been put death? Why? That is a Good Friday question. And there are times when life forces that upon us, when we cannot help but ask why, just as these disciples did. And God hears us, takes to heart our whys. Even if God cannot always answer them in ways that we can fully understand. And we can remain a long time in the world of Good Friday, asking why, until an Easter moment begins to dawn in us, and our whys begin to be changed into what nows.
For the two disciples that happened in an afternoon with Jesus. For us it usually takes longer, sometimes a lot longer. But then it happens, coming as unexpectedly to us as it did to the women when they discovered the empty tomb that first Easter Morn. From deep in our hearts it comes, “What now, God? What now? What are you calling me, or us, to do? Now that is an Easter question, and an Easter moment, and one filled with hope, and the possibility of new life.
I am reminded of an incident from the life of the Russian writer, Alexander Solzinitsyn. He had been sent to the Gulag for his outspoken views against the government, and there he was subjected to a life of imprisonment and hard labor. It was easy in such a difficult circumstance to fall into despair, and many did. And one day despair overwhelmed Solzinitsyn as well. One day he just threw his shovel down, and slumped to the ground. “What’s the use,” he thought to himself. “No one cares. Not even God. I’m never going to get out of here alive, so why go on.” (There it is, the Good Friday question why?) And as he sat there, he waited for one of the guards to shoot him.
But at that very moment he felt a presence beside him, and when he looked up, he saw a man whom he had never seen before, nor would he ever see again. And the man stood there for a moment, and then he knelt down beside Solzinitsyn, and in the sand in front of him, the man drew a cross. And then he walked away without saying a word. And Solzinitsyn stared at that cross in the sand, until he got up, and picked up his shovel, and went back to work. A year later he was released from his imprisonment.
That man gave him an Easter moment, changing his why to what now, and it saved Solzinitsyn’s life. Sometimes we may wonder, where are there signs of the resurrection? Well, this is one, and it may seem like a small step. But to go from why to what now is one of the longest stretches of road that we may ever have to walk in life because it is the road that leads from the cross to the empty tomb and from the empty tomb to an Easter faith.
When we ask, what now, the pull of the future becomes stronger than the weight of the past or the difficulties of the present. So that same hour the two disciples got up and headed back to Jerusalem. Now they must have been weary from their walk to Emmaus. But there was now a stronger pull in their life, the pull of hope. At the beginning of the day they were walking away from the community of faith, but by the end they were going back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened to them on the road, and how Jesus had revealed himself to them. Now they knew that Jesus was alive, and with them, always. And that made all the difference for them. And this is the question I want to leave with all of us. What about for us? What difference is it going to make for us, today and in the days to come, knowing that Jesus is alive? In other words, what now?