Because I am Your Friend

Emmaus-Road - Copy*Sermon of Sunday, April 15, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the third Sunday in Easter.  I remain grateful to those who look for ways to help me as I seek to help others, as you will see in my note at end of this post, followed by a list of those resources I have quoted (credit where credit is due!).  -Vinson
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Gospel of Luke 24:36-48 (New Revised Standard Version)

3While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.  44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

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INTRODUCTION

The mile-high desert of volcanic ash and rock, at the center of the Big Island of Hawaii, was where I spent most of the two years I was a battalion chaplain with Marine artillery.  There we conducted live fire exercises in conjunction with infantry and close air support, and away from phones and email.  There is nothing like being in the field to get to know people, and it was there that I got to know the Operations Officer.

One night, Hank walked up to me in the dark twilight.  It sometimes frustrated him that I could call out his name, even in near pitch dark, just by hearing his footsteps and seeing in the distance the stride of the shadowy figure.  On one of those encounters, heavily engaged in conversation, and a bit frustrated, he suddenly asked: “Chaplain, why did you move next to me?”  It jarred me as I had not really been that aware, but apparently I had moved from standing face-to-face, to being beside him – repeatedly.  Surprised, I responded, saying: “Because I am your friend.”  What I meant was that instead of the posture of being face-to-face which is a position of challenge, I tended to stand beside him, gesturing and talking so we could share our perspectives – as a friend would stand.

It is those days which I remember when I read of two men retreating away from Jerusalem, joined by a stranger who interrupts their conversation, asking: “What are you discussing as you walk along together?”

It is a dusty road and it had been some long days and restless nights.

“You must be the only person who was in Jerusalem with no idea of what’s been going on!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jesus of Nazareth – that’s what!”

Walking beside each another, they begin to talk of a rabbi they admired so much, a prophet powerful in teaching and healing.  They could not grasp why their religious leaders would hand him over to a death sentence by the hated Roman authorities – and worse, for crimes he did not even commit.

They spoke of their certainty that he was the Messiah, the holy one who would lead Israel out of subjection.

They spoke of how some of the women followers had gone to his tomb in the Sabbath haste following the crucifixion.  The requirements to clean and scent his body had been postponed, but now they had found the tomb empty of Jesus, while also encountering angels telling them he was alive.

They spoke of how they discounted the women, something that sadly, women continue to deal with, and yet something HAD happened.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

All of this brings us to now, as it has been said, “Which of us has not, at least once, walked the road to Emmaus, full of uncertainty about Jesus; full of disappointed hopes for his Church?” [Endnote 1]  While the joy of Easter comes, there seems at times, a kind of spiritual dissonance that follows.  We hear that the Lord has risen, but look around expecting a magical transformation and it seems absent.

FOR INSTANCE

Perhaps, we are tempted to lose heart, for it has been noted, “We are undergoing the shock of the passing away in our society of a certain kind of thinking about God; Christ is, to all appearances, defeated; the Church and its liturgy seems irrelevant to the unbelieving masses of people fascinated (instead) by latter-day idols.” [Endnote 2].  A quick review of the past week’s news shows it full of salacious new details of those in governance, full of war, and full of faith leaders who have abandoned principle over power.  It can cause one to wonder if people of faith are actually making a difference, with scandal and hate-tinged rhetoric on the rise, even as churches have found too many of their disciples scattered to the four winds.

But it is precisely on the road to Emmaus, a journey from despondency to faith, taking us from retreat to pressing the good fight, where we meet the disguised companion, Jesus himself.  Then and now, Jesus takes his disciples where we are, while perhaps questioning us at length.  It is THIS Resurrection story which may seem so much closer to our lives – precisely because it does find us on the road, not in the Upper Room, walking back to ordinary life… “scared, dejected, perplexed.”  For here was “a walk of sadness and gloom, of frustration and doubt; a walk filled with deliberation and discussion, but without answer and understanding, and thereby, without comfort; going, but without a sense of mission and purpose” [Endnote 3].  As it has been succinctly put, here is where the disciples begin “to suspect that the whole thing had been a mistake, a worthy hope and one unlikely ever to be realized” [Endnote 4].

While Jesus calls them “foolish,” the context of that word in the New Testament Greek is best captured in “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke” [vs. 26-27], where Jesus said to them “O how dense you are, and how sluggish of minds in catching on to all that the prophets spoke?  Can’t you see how necessary it was for the Leader to suffer like this…” [Endnote 5]  Lifting up text after text, out of the some 140 references within the Old Testament that spell out the journey the Messiah must experience – the very one that led Jesus from Palm Sunday through Easter, with the heartbreaking stops at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – they converse mightily on that road.

Yet, even when Jesus expounds upon scripture to the two, they do not recognize him.  Like Cleopas and his companion, we ourselves may talk endlessly, and for all the many shelves filled in our church library, internet blogs we read, or religious TV channels we watch – talk does not always lift our sadness or low expectations of what God could or should do.

There is a tone of resignation in Luke’s story, maybe in our own lives.

But, then something happens.

They don’t go home, or at least not right away, deciding on stopping for the day at an inn.  Intrigued by the conversation, but not yet believing, warmed somehow with glimmers of understanding and perhaps a hint of hope that they have been wrong – the intensity of the verb used in the text means to “twist someone’s arm,” to compel them.

And so, they prevail upon Jesus to stop and eat with them, not realizing that it had been his plan all along.  Here things change – in the moment that the table the habits they formed as disciples, natural to them now in ways they didn’t realize, opens the table the stranger and the self-giving attitude of Jesus is taken up.  Remember, it was “in Jesus’ characteristic behavior of giving, of feeding, of caring for his sheep – whatever way you want to describe the blessing and distributing of bread – that they knew him.” In the feeding of others “at the right time and in receiving the bread broken for us with thanksgiving, we are given Jesus.”

Writes the Apostle John in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”  Adding, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [I John 3:1a, 2]

The message is clear.

“Stop talking, stop everything…pay attention as you reach out to receive what is blessed.  A glimpse of the Lord may propel you to a new confidence, a new hope, even a new way of remembering.”

“Cleopas and his companion are us.”

“They know a lot.  They care a lot.”

“They think about things and are saddened by their diminished hopes.  More important, they don’t even know that their eyes have been closed until suddenly they are opened.” [Endnote 6]

Here it is to finally understand that “I am enough,” as one Christian author puts it, as the Lord’s grace-bearers.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” says John [I John 3:1].  God loves us.  Not for our stuff or our accomplishments, or even for how fervent we are in prayer – rather, God loves us because that is the nature of God.  So then, as John puts it, Christ abides in us, and we are meant to embody and to pass on God’s love.  That very “love is what will repair a broken world.”  This is what opens eyes to the Risen Lord.

Isn’t that the message Luke seeks to convey in his retelling of contrasts?

How if it takes the two disciples the better part of a day to plod their melancholy path away from Jerusalem to an inn near their home, their return to Jerusalem is clearly much faster!

How they move from being tellers of a sad story and conversation partners about the happenings and hopes they once had, to being tellers of a story of seeing the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

How they move from spiritual refugees fleeing Jerusalem, to spiritual witnesses bearing new hope.

How in the breaking of the bread, they know the Lord, and I would suggest – finally themselves, through his eyes, for it was then that “he gave them the insight to understand the Scriptures” [Endnote 7].

SO WHAT?

As we journey through these Sundays in Easter, on the way to Pentecost, I would suggest that as children of God we are called forth in devotion to making the world into the world that God wants…

The “…world (in which) all God’s children recognize and treat each other as God’s own flesh.”

The world in the face of which“…forces that diminish and dismantle and terrorize anyone, we (can now) say, ‘We are enough.’” [Endnote 8]

The world, as the late theologian Walter Rauschenbusch put it more than a century ago, where Christ died “…to SUBSTITUTE LOVE for selfishness as the basis of human society,” as the Kingdom of God is about the business of “transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven” [Endnote 9].

This is why the Gospel of John “does not stop at merely saying that we are enough.  He says that we are becoming more” [Endnote 10], for as John writes: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him” [1 John 3:2b].

In Christ, we are enough.

In Christ, we are called to rise with Him and share the Good News with others – they are enough too!

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes: In reference to the Marine officer of which I spoke, about a week after the interaction cited, by which time we were back “in garrison,” Hank called me in to talk about how I could reach more of the men by changing up how I conducted services in the field.  I went to 7-8 minute “gun crew” devotional service – in which I literally went from gun crew to gun crew (there are six howitzers in a battery), “XO Pit” and “Comm Shack” for all the firing batteries, vice a 30-minute battery-level service.  It wasn’t just that it resulted in 85% of the battalion attending a service (with me doing up to 23 separate services on Sunday, from sun-up to midnight!), it was that it changed my relationship with gun crew chiefs – as they began to increase my counseling load (especially relationship counseling) while in the field, reducing much of the “at home” issues.  But here’s the thing… it changed me as much as it changed anyone else! – Vinson
ENDNOTES (USED IN SERMON PREPS): 
(1) The Community of Affirmation, “Meditation for Christians: A Christian Website about Prayer and Meditation,” quoting Genstall Missal.  http://www.meditationforchristians.com/sec3yra15.htm.  Accessed 14 April 2018.
(2) The Community of Affirmation.
(3) Raymond E. Brown, “A Risen Christ in Eastertime,” Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.
(4) Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Luke 24:13-35, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933.  Accessed 13 April 2018
(5) Clarence Jordan, “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts,” NY: Association Press, 1969, pp. 87-88.
(6) Jon Bloom, “The Eyes Jesus Opened First,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-eyes-jesus-opened-first.  Accessed 13 April 2018.
(7) Jordan.
(8) Jake Owensby, “We will rise,” https://jakeowensby.com/2018/04/13/we-will-rise/.  Accessed 14 April 2018.
(9) Walter Rauschenbusch, “Dare We Be Christians,” Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1914.
(10) Owensby.

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