Third Sunday of Easter
Note: Even though we didn’t worship together due to the inclement weather, here is the sermon I wrote for the day. ~SS
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke is the second half of an Easter story commonly called the Road to Emmaus—a story which culminates in the scene the painting next to our pulpit depicts. Two disciples walk away from Jerusalem on Easter night, filled with sorrow, when they are joined by a stranger who explains how all that happened to Jesus was foretold in the scriptures. When they eat dinner together, the disciples suddenly recognize the stranger as Jesus when he breaks the bread. They run the 20 miles back to Jerusalem 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 that profound experience—when suddenly Jesus shows up in their midst.
The rest of Luke’s 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 isn’t haunting them, but bringing them peace. There are different details: in John’s story, Jesus breathes on the disciples. In Luke’s story, Jesus eats with them. In both cases, Jesus assures them he’s not a ghost.
Once Jesus has established that he’s really present with them but 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 to listen or understand. Jesus recreates 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.”
I’m deeply curious about Bible study with Jesus. Luke doesn’t tell us how long it went on, or what Jesus said to them. Luke doesn’t specify which texts, out of the whole Bible, Jesus chose to highlight, so we are free to guess. Did he talk about 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 or explain what the deal was with turning Lot’s wife into salt? Which prophets did Jesus pick to highlight—Amos? Micah? Did he sing or speak the psalms to them? I hope Psalm 22 was one he shared—after all, in his time of crisis he quoted it: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
All of which leads me to ask you, if you were in a room of 11 terrified people, what stories or passages of Scripture might you share with them? What Biblical texts have held you together when everything was falling apart? The Good Samaritan? Psalm 23? The Beatitudes? Romans 8?
Whatever Jesus says to the disciples he makes it clear that they shouldn’t toss out the texts they grew up with in light of his resurrection. Their “old-time religion” still matters, and is still the foundation of their faith. They just have to incorporate a new understanding of God’s work in the world that begins with Jesus. Luke doesn’t mention whether or not, at the end of this Bible study, if any or all of the disciples remained “disbelieving and wondering” as they had been earlier. Apparently some of them took what Jesus taught them to heart, because we have today’s incredible reading from Acts.
In this story, Peter has just healed a man who was lame, and is now preaching a powerful sermon. Peter. Yeah, that one. The one who recently 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 evidently absorbed the lesson about Jesus as a continuation of God’s ongoing love story with the earth. Whatever passages or psalms Jesus shared were profound enough to convince Peter that he was indeed forgiven and beloved. He and the other disciples found a way to reconnect as a community of flawed but hopeful people. Whether or not Peter–or anyone else–believed he ought to, Peter now witnesses to what he knows about God’s work and nature.
Which raises the question: what about us? Routinely, the resurrected Jesus comes into our midst, eats with us, and opens the Scriptures to us; 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 seems daunting for lots of people.
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 that isn’t 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 the powerless, of challenging those who govern and finance world affairs, as we determine which banks and businesses deserve our patronage. All of that is witnessing. But Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, “Go and live faithful lives; people will figure out how that’s related to the Gospel.” He says they are to proclaim his name to all nations. Go and live faithful lives AND tell people how what you do with your time and money and power is related to God’s dream for the world. How do we do that without becoming creepy religious zealots?
Let point out that you already know how to be witnesses because you witness on a regular basis. When you see a great movie or eat at a fantastic restaurant, don’t you tell people about it? When your sports team wins or your kid gets a scholarship or your cat is being cute, aren’t you likely to post that on your Facebook page, or call your friends? I’ve gotten Christmas letters detailing the pivotal moments of your year. All of that is witnessing. You are sharing what matters to you, what you have experienced, seen, and heard. No new tricks here. You already know how to witness. What’s so different about telling other people how God is at work in your life and in the world?
If it still sounds threatening, don’t be afraid. Jesus never sent the disciples out to do a job on their own, with no help. At the end of today’s reading, Jesus tells them that he is sending them “power from on high.” We, 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.
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—a verse or a story—that has been powerfully meaningful in your life, what would it be? I invite you now, for the next minute or two, to share your answer with someone seated near you.
What you have just done is to witness to one another. You can do it. You have done it. Now, go do it some more. Proclaim all that you have seen and heard and experienced of how God is in the world, knowing that the Holy Spirit will empower you every step—every word—of the way. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider