Last week our Gospel lesson came from John, and described Jesus encountering his disciples for the first time after his resurrection. Today we have the second half of Luke’s version of Jesus showing himself to the disciples after rising from the tomb. The first half of the story is commonly called the Road to Emmaus story. In it, two disciples are walking in sorrow toward a small town when they are joined by a stranger who begins explaining to them how the story of Jesus was foretold in the Jewish scriptures. When the three of them arrive, they eat dinner together, and the disciples, in a flash, suddenly recognize Jesus as he breaks the bread. They run the 20 miles or so back to Jerusalem as fast as they can to tell the other disciples. That’s where today’s Gospel lesson begins: “while they were talking about these things”—right in the middle of their sharing—suddenly, without warning, Jesus shows up.
The rest of the story is much like John’s account from last week. The disciples are startled and terrified, and Jesus goes out of his way to make sure they understand he comes not to haunt them, but to bring them peace. There are different details: in John’s story, Jesus breathes on them. In Luke’s story, Jesus does what he seems to do a lot of in Luke’s Gospel—he eats with them. In both cases, Jesus is trying to assure them he’s not a ghost.
Once Jesus has established that he’s really present with them in a whole new way, he opens the Scriptures to them, re-telling stories they might have forgotten and re-teaching lessons he’d tried to give earlier, when the disciples weren’t yet ready and didn’t understand. In today’s text from Luke, Jesus does what he did earlier with the two on the road to Emmaus: he unpacks Scripture. He shows the whole group “all the things that had been written in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms.”
Luke doesn’t tell us how long this went on, or what he said to them. I’m deeply curious about those things. Out of the whole Bible, what texts would Jesus have chosen to highlight? Did he talk about Job, a man who lost everything and still trusted in God? Or Queen Esther who stood up for what was right, even though she knew she might be killed for it? Did he retell the powerful story of Ezekiel commanding the dry bones to live? Noah and the flood? Daniel in the lion’s den? Did quote the poetic prophet Isaiah, whose writings became famous in Handel’s Messiah? And then, what psalms did he pick? Did he sing them? (After all, the psalms were the original hymnal). Luke doesn’t say.
So I want to ask you, if you were in a room of 11 terrified people, what stories or passages of Scripture would you share with them? What Biblical texts have held you together when everything was falling apart?
Whatever Jesus says to them, he makes it clear that all the Scripture they had learned as children was not to be tossed out in light of his resurrection. Their “old-time religion” is to be incorporated into the new understanding of God’s work in the world that begins with Jesus. And what’s more, Jesus includes HIS DISCIPLES in the story as living characters. Jesus shows them how now they will continue the story of salvation, telling other people about what they have seen and heard, encouraging others to repent and return to God. It is now their calling to assure other people that, all appearances to the contrary, it’s not all over when it looks like it’s over.
Luke doesn’t mention whether or not, at the end of this Bible study, if any or all of the disciples believed. Did some remain “disbelieving and wondering” as they had been earlier? Was there some combination? Apparently some of them took what Jesus taught to heart, because we have today’s first reading from Acts.
In this story, Peter has just healed a man who was lame, and is now preaching a powerful sermon about the power of Jesus. Peter. Yeah, that one. The one who just a few weeks ago let Jesus down by denying he even knew the man just when Jesus most needed a friend. That same Peter is now healing people and instructing the crowd about what God “had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer and die and would be glorified.” Whatever the other disciples got out of Jesus post-resurrection visit, Peter apparently absorbed the lesson about how Jesus was a continuation of God’s ongoing love story with earth. Whatever stories or psalms Jesus shared were profound enough to convince Peter that he was indeed forgiven and beloved. He and the other disciples had found a way to reconnect as a community of flawed but hopeful people. Whether or not he–or anyone else–believed he ought to, Peter has taken Jesus seriously and witnesses to what he knew about God’s work.
Which raises the question: what about us? Routinely, Jesus comes into our midst, eats with us, and opens the Scriptures to us as well. We cannot avoid the fact that we, too, are sent to be witnesses to all that we have seen and heard. It’s not optional. It’s part of our Christian life. Which I know might seem daunting to some.
But don’t let the word “witnesses” turn you off. I know that I have been the subject of someone’s sincere “witnessing”—which mostly involved their grilling me about whether I would go to heaven or hell if I died today. It was all kinds of unpleasant. But I don’t think that is what being a witness needs to be. We witness every day, as we strive to live a life that mirrors Jesus life—a life of caring for the poor and marginalized, of advocating for those who are powerless, of challenging those who govern and finance world affairs, as we call religious communities to always be reforming. All of that is witnessing. But we have to acknowledge that Jesus doesn’t just say to his disciples, “Go and live faithful lives; people will figure it out.” He says they are to proclaim his name to all nations. Go and tell. So how do we do that without becoming creepy religious zealots?
My guess is that you already know how to be witnesses because you already witness on a regular basis. When you see a great movie or eat at a fantastic restaurant, don’t you tell people about it? If your sports team wins or your kid gets a scholarship, aren’t you likely to post that on your Facebook page, or call your friends? That is witnessing. You are sharing what you have experienced, seen, and heard. See? No need to learn a new trick. You already know how to witness. What’s so different about telling other people how you understand God to be at work in your life, in the world?
If it still sounds threatening, don’t be afraid. Bear in mind that Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out on their own, with no help at all. At the end of today’s reading, Jesus tells them that he is sending them “power from on high.” And you, too, have been clothed with that power. It is the power of the Holy Spirit within and among and around us. We cannot buy it, organize it, strategize for it, or control it, but we can receive it. The power of the Holy Spirit is a gift, and it is frighteningly life-changing.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah, don’t get ahead of yourself, Preacher. We don’t celebrate Pentecost for another month!” As if we had to wait until Pentecost to encounter the Holy Spirit! Or better still, as if the Holy Spirit would wait until we got around to Pentecost to start wreaking havoc with us! The Holy Spirit blows where She will. From the very beginning, the Spirit moved over the waters at creation, and has never ceased to do so. It is not we, alone, who carry the story of God’s love to a hungry world. We do God’s mission with God’s help. But what story will we tell?
So earlier, I wondered aloud what Bible passage or story you would share if you were in a room full of petrified people. If you had to come up with just one bit of Scripture that has been powerfully meaningful in your life, what would it be? I would like to invite you now, for the next minute or two, to share your answer to that question with those seated near you.
What you have just done is to witness to one another. You can do it. You have done it. Now, do it some more. Go to all the ends of the earth, proclaiming all that you have seen and heard and experienced of how God is at work in the world, knowing that the Holy Spirit will empower you every step—every word—of the way.
~Pastor Susan Schneider