ON THE ROAD
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 23 April 2023 Easter 3; Year A Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
What is the resurrection of Jesus about? Moreover, what difference does it make to our lives and the life of the world? Throughout theses 50 days of Easter, these are the questions (in one form or another) that I want continually to raise with you, given these two, contextual points: One, that resurrection is not something that happened just to Jesus a long time ago; Two, that what we see in the Risen One is the life that the Creator God seeks to see in all of us. So, again, what is resurrection; and what does it take for us to receive this resurrection life now? In this sermon and in the briefest terms, let me give you some of my responses to these questions. First, what the resurrection is not: Resurrection is not proof that there is life after death; Second, resurrection is not a proof that Jesus was divine. Nor is resurrection about getting to heaven when we die. Rather, the meaning of the word itself reveals the significance of Christ’s rising. As a word. “resurrection” means “to awaken to” – “to awaken to” life with God and to life on God’s terms. Specifically, Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that with God fear and death are not the definers of life, that God’s faithfulness and love are stronger than all death. One insight into what it takes to be able to receive resurrection life (that is, take it seriously) emerges in today’s gospel story of what happened on the road to Emmaus. As you heard, two of Jesus’ followers were walking from Jerusalem to their home village of Emmaus, which is about seven miles southwest of the Holy City. Luke identifies one of the peripatetics as “Cleopas”, but his companion’s identity remains unnamed. In the history of biblical interpretation, speculation about who this “disciple” is runs rampant. Nonetheless, I think that there is a good case to be made that this other figure walking with Cleopas is his wife: the one mentioned in John’s gospel [19:25], which says that “the wife of Cleophas” was one of the Marys present at Jesus’ cross. Yet, in terms of the identity of the two Emmaus figures, I would hasten to add that given that this Emmaus scene is regarded as St. Luke’s finest narrative rendition, he may have intentionally left this second figure unnamed as an artful invitation for us readers to see ourselves in this famous incident. In fact, I think this identification is essential, if we are to put ourselves in a position of being resurrection people. For like Cleopas and his companion traveler (I will refer to this figure as his “wife”, Mary), we are all in the same boat in terms of living in a post-resurrection reality. Like these two followers of Jesus, we also live in a confused and perplexing faith situation that is challenged by a culture that is not only fundamentally ignorant of Easter’s reality but also becoming more and more hostile to its consideration. And I think the most direct way for us to get to the heart of the importance of the Emmaus’ story is to ask one question: What were the two disciples talking about on the road? More to the point, as contemporary followers of Jesus are we prepared and willing to have such a serious conversation about our Easter faith? The answer to the question about what Cleopas and Mary his wife were talking about comes from Luke’s story. Walking home from Jerusalem and the resurrection’s ground-zero, Cleopas and “Mary” were hashing through the last three days’ amazing and upsetting information about Jesus. Evidently, they were doing so with a good deal of public animation because their intense and audible conversation drew the attention of a stranger, who quietly siddled up to them, as if to ease-drop. Unannounced and (as Luke is careful to inform us) unrecognized, the stranger rather boldly barges in and asks what news has these two in such an obvious tizzy. Jaws dropping at such an inquiry and long- faced, as if they had lost a dear friend, Cleopas speaks up, “Have you been in a news blackout these last few days and are you the only clueless one who hasn’t heard what has happened?” “What news?” the stranger matter of factly replies, which then led to the floodgates opening up with Cleopas and Mary speaking deeply about their understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. Above all else, Jesus’ death, the swirling reports of his resurrection, coupled with their own confusion and perplexity, underscored their heart-breaking and bitter disappointment. And in terms of the narrative, it is their disappointment and disillusionment that is there to hook us. After bringing the stranger up to speed on the news about Jesus, the real and nagging issue surfaced. “And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel.” [Message, 24:21] In other words, Cleopas and Mary had hoped that Jesus was the true Messiah, the One who would finally fulfill all of God’s promises to Israel. But every faithful Jew understood – or at least expected – that Messiahs don’t die ignobly at the hands of the foes. And in spite of the stories that Jesus was alive, not dead, Cleopas and Mary share in the common uncertainty among Jesus’ followers: “Since things have not worked out as we expected, what now?” Well, you know what happened next. The stranger (whom we knew from the start was the risen Jesus responds by combing through the Law and the Prophets, in effect to make the point that Cleopas and Mary (and by extension, you and I) have the wrong story in mind, when it comes to God’s Messiah, the Holy One’s Christ. What had become a deeply held and commonly understood expectation was that the Messiah would be like any worldly conqueror, save for the fact that the Christ would always serve God, not the goals of empire. When Jesus was executed on the cross, within these heroic expectations, he appeared to have been another Hebrew failure, evoking the all-too-familiar echoes of exile’s loss. Even if the resurrection reports were true, how could someone's death lead Israel to its glory? If you want to sense what this expectation was like and how it affected Israel’s outlook and sense of purposeful hope, I do not think it a stretch to see the situation of Cleopas and Mary in terms of the contemporary expression known as “Christian Nationalism”. The content of the Christ story – then and now -- risks distortion in order to meet frustrated expectations of power and success. Throughout Hebrew history, there was always a nationalistic bent to the promises of God. In fact, Jesus repeatedly warned against the orientation of what the New Testament refers to as “zealots”. These militia Jews saw their purpose and goal in terms of overthrowing Rome’s oppression and thereby creating a concrete fulfillment of the Covenanted promise. But it was, as Jesus pointed out, a doomed and distorted perception, one that in the year 70 C.E. resulted in a failed Jewish revolt and in the complete destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, with the executions of Jews by Rome . So it was that Cleopas and Mary talked vigorously about the stories and reports about Jesus. The expected him to be the “One”, but Jesus was not that one! He did not offer what a superhero was expected to offer. However, what he did offer was the unconquerability of God’s life and love. He died and rose again to “awaken” the world to this gift, to this new freedom and life: God’s life. I think that this is what the three talked about as they entered the village of Emmaus. Jesus spoke of how God, rather than immunizing us from death, showed us how to overcome our ancient foe. Nonetheless, it was getting dark, and the stranger indicated that he was going to continue on into the night; but Cleopas and Mary were so deeply intrigued by the stranger and what he had to say that they did not want this conversation to stop. In the darkening of the day, they insisted that this man stay the night with them and share the hospitality of their home, which the stranger readily accepted. Sitting down to the evening meal, the stranger unexpectedly and tellingly assumed the role of table host. He took the bread, he blessed it, broke it, and then shared the loaf’s pieces, at which point Cleopas and Mary did more than see the stranger; they recognized him as the risen Jesus. At the moment of recognition, Jesus vanished from their sight. What is this all about? An answer comes unexpectedly. In terms of the “medium being the message”, scholars have pointed out that this gospel account is the eighth meal-scene in Luke’s gospel. The meal in the Upper Room is the seventh. The literary medium conveys the unexpected message that the “Last Supper” (Luke’s 7 th meal scene) was the completion of the first week of creation and that the Emmaus meal, the 8 th meal with Jesus, therefore, was the beginning of a new week in the new creation, of which Jesus’ resurrection was the threshold.1 As today’s Eucharistic Prayer expresses it, To fulfill your purposes he gave himself up to death; and rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.2 From the example of Cleopas and Mary, we can place our own experience of following Jesus in the Easter context and reflect on what are our expectations of being in relationship with God and with the Holy One’s Christ. More specifically, to what ironic extent might our expectations keep us from recognizing what God is actually doing among us and with us and for us? Lots of questions, to be sure. Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread – and in one another’s faces. Amen. 1 N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus. p. 164. 2 BCP., p. 374.