Third Sunday of Easter Sermon

April 23, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Years ago, I was in a New Testament class. The professor was teaching on this “Road to Emmaus” story we just heard. And what I’ve always remembered from that lecture (in fact, the only thing I remember from it) is what he had to say about that one line in the story:

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

“Oh,” the professor said, “how I’d love to have been there – to have been able to hear directly from Jesus how he interpreted the entire Old Testament in reference to himself.”

“Yeah,” I thought, “that would have been a really good lecture to hear.” And ever since, whenever I’ve read this story, I recall that same longing, to hear from Jesus how he perceived his life and ministry as emerging from within the Old Testament story of God’s relationship with Israel and all humanity and creation itself. “What a shame,” I’ve thought, “that when Luke wrote this story, he didn’t include at least a little a synopsis of what Jesus taught.

And yet, as I continue to mull on these things (twenty-five years or so down the road), I’m beginning to wonder: Maybe that wasn’t an accident on Luke’s part. Maybe it was intentional. Maybe, for him, it was sufficient simply to say that Jesus did interpret his life and ministry as a trajectory of our Old Testament narrative. But for Luke, the details of Jesus’ teaching weren’t actually the priority. For him, the pinnacle of the story is that moment of recognition: when at the table Jesus blesses the bread and shares it with them and their eyes were opened and they suddenly realize this stranger they’ve been walking and talking with for hours, is actually Jesus! And then he vanishes. Just this fleeting moment. But – my God! – what a moment! Surely, for the rest of their lives, that memory of the risen Jesus in their house, must have been the crown jewel of all memories – accompanied with the realization that it was he who’d been with them on the road all along, even when they didn’t know it.

Which make me wonder if that’s not the whole point Luke’s trying to make: Yes, of course, learning about Jesus is important. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” the disciples said, when they’d been receiving his teaching. Thinking and learning and studying are enormously important in our faith formation, because what we believe about God has a direct effect on how we relate to God. And yet, for these Emmaus disciples, the more essential part of their faith formation was their actual experience of discovering Jesus in their midst.

Think about it for yourself. What would you rather have to hold onto? The memory of a really good lecture about Jesus and the Bible, or the memory of Jesus actually showing up in your house, at your table, and the discovery that he’d been with you all along?

Its obvious which you’d rather have!

It’s obvious. But it’s also not a fair question. The two don’t need to be in opposition to each other. After all, the life of faith – the ongoing experience of our spiritual formation – is a continual back-and-forth: What I believe about God informs my relationship with God. My relationship with God informs what I believe about God. Back-and-forth, or around-and-around, you might say, this ongoing spiral of becoming.

But at its core, it’s the relationship that matters – that actual experience of being, of our being with God. It’s not information we want in the end, but God. We want to know God. Or as Paul once wrote, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”[1]

As the years go by (with more years now in the rearview mirror than on the horizon), I find what I hold to most dearly, is not my theology, but where my theology has taught me to look, and who I have found there. And to be clear, I’ve never experienced Jesus in the flesh – nothing akin to the disciples’ experience of Jesus at their table. (Would that it were so!) All I have, really, are glimpses of the spirit – momentary flashes of perceiving in the moment the hope of God with us, of God with me, of Christ, here [cupped hands] and here [fist to chest] and not only here [head].

I remember a Good Friday, several years ago. I was sitting in my living room, writing a sermon, when I heard this loud BANG! – that telltale sound of a bird smashing into the window. I got up to look, to see if it had survived or not. (There’s always that sense of guilt that it was my house with its unnatural, invisible glass, that had caused the death of an innocent.) I looked out the window and saw him sitting there on the dirt – a little Junco, panting frantically. “Oh good,” I thought, “he’s not dead.” And then, all of a sudden, another Junco flew in and started attacking it. I was so confused; I didn’t know how to interpret what was happening. He was relentless – pecking and pecking at him, over and over – until it was dead. He killed him, right there in front of me, and then flew away.

It was traumatizing. This life, this fellow creature, had just been murdered before my eyes. I couldn’t just turn around and leave him there. So I went outside, grabbed a trowel, and buried him in my garden, making the sign of the cross over him and praying instinctively (perhaps heretically) the prayer I’ve prayed so many times,

Depart, o Christian soul, out of this world;

in the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

in the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

And as I returned to my sermon writing, that Good Friday afternoon, shaken by what I’d experienced, only then did I realize how that Junco had become as Christ for me: my window become the dangerous condition of this world in which he’d made his home; then one of his own – a bird like himself – become his crucifier.

I cannot explain why the world is as it is: the violence of the whole created order; the violence we humans endlessly perpetuate upon each other. But I need no theologian or ethicist to convince me of the reality of evil in this world, of the evil that can justify shooting a harmless black teenager who knocked on the wrong front door, of the evil that vandalizes a synagogue on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Neither can I cannot explain how Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection reverses this condition, injecting God’s future Peaceable Kingdom into our present reality. But I believe it does.

What I can say is: On that Good Friday afternoon, in the “person” of a little bird, I witnessed Jesus being killed. I buried him with my own hands, in my own garden, now become the Garden of the Holy Sepulcher. The whole drama of our violent world, and God’s complete solidarity with it, in the person of his Christ, became alive before me.

My eyes were opened, and I recognized him.

Just last week, I was riding on a bus, at night. Opposite me sat a woman who I took to be homeless. She had a cart with her, covered with blankets and bags. She was clutching a little radio, eyes closed, listening calmly with her ear phones. Something about her made me assume she had some kind of mental illness. I could be wrong. But what struck me most was this sudden conviction of how comfortably Jesus was at home in her. And, in her, suddenly so close to me. And it was this sense of Jesus’ comfortability in her that was so compelling and welcome to my spirit. For me, interacting with people who are mentally ill is totally unsettling. The familiar rules of human relating become unreliable. The mental illness itself rises up as this massive barrier between us and I get tense and anxious. But there, on the bus, there was Jesus, so comfortably – so peacefully – within her. And not only in that moment of calmness, listening to her music, but always. Whatever her circumstances – her homelessness, her mental illness – it’s never a barrier for Christ. He’s always at home in her, she his rightful abode, his desired abode. And there I sat, in her midst, in his midst.

My eyes were open, and I recognized him.

And just a few days before that, I was alone on my back porch after work, enjoying a glass of wine, thinking (musing, praying) on the vastness of God’s creation – throughout the cosmos, throughout time – and in that vastness, what a tiny little sliver of creation I am. And yet, though infinitesimally small, how in my experience – my existence – I am an entire creature. I fully exist. I matter. I am. And within this creation, the prayer (the yearning) that was taking shape within me, was that I would be a cup – a cup that would hold as much of God as I am called to hold, for this world. Small though it may be in the realm of the whole, yet complete inasmuch as I am, in it (of it, for it). And if I am that cup, (a chalice perhaps,) filled with God, is that now not Christ – fully, uniquely – present in me, in this world? And is not God the cup that holds it all?

My eyes were open, and I recognized him.

Christ in the bird. Christ in the woman on the bus. Christ in me.

It is moments like these that are forming me – sacraments in their way. Knowledge of God taking shape and substance within the creatures of God of this world we share. These lives we live and share are as a banquet hall – a banquet hall with endless tables, and Christ the host at every table: blessing bread, breaking bread, sharing bread. And we are his guests, his friends and companions, whose call is simply this: to receive the bread he gives us, that our eyes would be opened and that we would recognize him.

[1] Philippians 3:10