THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24:21. So remarked one of two disciples as they traveled the road back home to Emmaus. “We had hoped…” How many devastating tales of disappointment begin with those words! “We had hoped that this treatment would put Mom into remission.” “We had hoped this new youth program would revitalize our church.” “We had hoped that this time the pregnancy would take.” The road to Emmaus is a highway of heartbreak. I have traveled a stretch or two on that road myself and I expect you have too.
It is tempting to race too quickly down that road toward the end of the story where the resurrected Christ is made known to his disciples. There is nothing we Americans like more than a happy ending. We are a “can do” people who believe that “if you can dream it, you can do it.” This is the time of year for beaming graduates to stand robed and tasseled as a parade of commencement speakers assure them that their dreams are within their reach. We love those narratives about children born with disabilities or into a life of poverty who nevertheless overcome their limitations to achieve success and do great things. They reinforce our deeply held belief that, with enough grit and determination, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
That is an inspiring vision. There is just one problem with it, however. It’s a lie. Indeed, it is a lie so powerfully ingrained upon our psyches that it threatens to distort our hearing of the Easter story. Jesus was not an “overcomer.” His resurrection was not the culmination of hard work, determination and careful planning. Jesus’ life, the life to which he calls us, got him nailed to the cross. By all reasonable standards of success, Jesus was a failure. At least that is how we must judge him if success means achieving your vision. Jesus’ vision was God’s reign on earth as in heaven. That hasn’t happened yet and there is no indication that it will be happening anytime soon. We can only conclude that Jesus’ timing must have been off. Perhaps he didn’t plan as carefully as he should have. Or maybe he just didn’t try hard enough. In any case, he failed.
You need to accept the failure of Jesus before you can hear the good news of Easter. That good news is that God judges Jesus differently. God raised up the man who failed to redeem Israel, the man who could not even get his closest disciples to understand his vision, the man who could not make a dent in the grinding poverty, brutal oppression and hardened cynicism of his day. Success, according to God, is not the highest good. Faithfulness and obedience to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims are what matter. They matter even when they don’t seem to be effective. In fact, I will say that faithfulness and obedience to Jesus matter especially when they don’t seem to be effective. Such faithfulness might not get you to the Olympics. Such obedience might actually prevent you from getting that promotion you were hoping for. There is no guarantee that obedience to Jesus will make your marriage, your career, your health or anything else in life work out well for you. Those guarantees simply are not part of the discipleship package. The one guarantee you have, and the only one that really matters, is the guarantee that wherever the road to Emmaus might lead, you will meet the resurrected Christ at every turn.
The truth is, there are plenty of dreams beyond our reach. There is much that we will never overcome. Contrary to a well-known saying, life does in fact throw things at us that are too much for us to bear. But here is the thing. Life never throws anything at us that God cannot bear. A lot of religion equates God’s favor with wealth, success, achievement and happiness. If you lack these goods, it must be because you are out of touch with God. But the good news of Easter is that Jesus meets us on the road to Emmaus as we bear the pain of our disappointed hopes. The good news is that Jesus is present in the midst of broken marriages, ruined careers, messed up lives and failing health. He brings the miracle of resurrection to where it is most needed-where all other hopes have been dashed.
This week’s lesson is a continuation of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we heard last week. For an outline of Peter’s argument, see my post of April 27th. The sermon concludes with the bold declaration: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Vs. 36. The crowd responds in the only way possible where credence is given to such a message: “What shall we do?” vs. 37. What is left to be done when you discover that God has offered you his best and you have rejected it? Repentance might seem like the natural response, but it is hardly that. How can one repent after having thrown God’s greatest gift back in God’s face? You have passed the point of no return and now there is no going back-unless God makes a way of return. That is the gospel: God responds to the crucifixion of Jesus by raising him up and offering him back to us, the same people who murdered him.
Again, care must be taken to avoid giving this text an anti-Semitic slant. Peter does not lay responsibility for the crucifixion solely on his fellow Jews. Though Jews, to be sure, this group is made up of pilgrims from all nations. Acts 2:5-11. They may or may not have been in Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was tried, convicted and executed. More to the point, their diversity foreshadows the church’s worldwide mission soon to include the gentiles. The gentiles are no less in need of the gospel than are the Jews. It is the sin of the world that put Jesus on the cross and the sin of the world that is overcome by the cross. All people are implicated in Jesus’ death on the cross just as all people are so reconciled. The Jews bear no more guilt than the rest of us for what transpired in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. We would be naïve to assume that Jesus would have fared any better had he come to the United States of the 21st Century rather than 1st Century Palestine. (Though, of course, we would put him down by lethal injection rather than by crucifixion and so to that extent, I suppose we can say that we have progressed a little over the ways of Rome.) Repentance, then, is a gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon all flesh. It is freedom to turn away from our death dealing ways to the alternative life Jesus offers to us.
“…be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 38. Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to Peter’s call for his hearers to be baptized “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:
“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.
“For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Vs. 39. This declaration echoes Isaiah 57:19 and Ephesians 2:13-17 emphasizing the breadth of the promise which, referring back to the citation to Joel 2:28-32 at Acts 2:17-21, is the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Something more than terror, sorrow and regret is required for true repentance. In the end, the penitent must cry out, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10. Pentecost is God’s affirmative response to that petition. As Peter points out, his hearers are witnesses to God’s pouring out his Spirit “upon all flesh.” Vs. 17. As Peter will soon learn in Acts 10, “all flesh” is a category far broader than he now imagines.
The prominent Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann would probably call this a psalm of “new orientation” described in this way: “…the psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected. That new orientation is not a return to the old stable orientation, for there is no such going back. The psalmists know that we can never go home again. Once there has been an exchange of real candor, as there is here between Yahweh and Israel, there is no return to the precandor situation.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms-A Theological Commentary, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 123-124.
Our psalm for Sunday fits this description to a tee. Formally, it is a prayer of thanksgiving offered by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult tour of cancer therapy and received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce that brought to an end a relationship that was supposed to last until death, and thereafter found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship.
The psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand, as Brueggemann observes, that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a better future that God promises. That promise lies at the core of our Easter faith.
The “cup of salvation in verse 13 likely refers to the thank offering given in response to God’s answer to his/her cry for salvation. See Numbers 28:7. It could also simply be a metaphor describing the psalmist’s experience of salvation. Either way, it is a graphic expression of thanksgiving.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Vs. 15. The Hebrew is difficult, but the meaning appears to be that God protects his “saints” (righteous ones) from an untimely death. Such persons must die eventually, but God experiences acutely their passing.
The dating of this psalm is difficult and scholars are divided over whether it was composed before or after the Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. As I have often said before, these psalms have undergone a lengthy history of editing and revision to make them relevant to each succeeding generation. Consequently, the pre or post-exilic dating controversy may be one of degree. Perhaps it is a matter of both/and rather than either/or.
The opening verse is a little off setting. The reference to God as one who judges everyone impartially according to deeds rubs my Lutheran sensibilities the wrong way. I believe, however, that it was probably heard altogether differently by slaves, women and the poor living in a strictly hierarchical society where class distinctions, the privileges they confer and the burdens they impose went largely unquestioned. A God whose eye is blind to class distinctions, but sharply focused on justice and righteousness offers hope to the oppressed even as he threatens the position of the oppressor. Furthermore, a community that values slaves and free, men and women, rich and poor as indispensable members of the one Body of Christ cannot help but undermine the hierarchical culture in which it exists. Not surprisingly, then, the powers that be eyed this odd community with suspicion.
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Vss. 18-19. The Greek word rendered “ransomed,” was used for the manumission of slaves in Greco-Roman culture. The slave’s price could be deposited by the person wishing to redeem him/her in the temple of the local god or goddess. The temple, in turn, would pay the slave’s owner and the slave would henceforth be regarded as free from his/her master, but a slave to the god whose temple paid the manumission price. Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, (c. 2007 by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; pub. by Baker Academic) pp. 1018-1019. So also these believers to whom Peter writes have been bought with the blood of Christ from the tyranny of “futile ways inherited from your fathers.” Vs. 18.
Peter’s reference to “futile ways” suggests that the churches to which he writes are primarily gentile in composition. The Greek adjective translated as “futile” is used throughout the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to modify words for pagan idols and temples. Ibid. 1019. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the pre-Christian lifestyle of these believers was pagan rather than Jewish. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the cultural line of demarcation between Jew and gentile was not as sharply drawn throughout the far flung regions of the empire as it was in Palestine. Certainty about the composition of these churches, therefore, is impossible to establish.
Redemption by the blood of a lamb is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. While it is impossible to link this assertion to any particular text, it seems to me that Peter must have the Exodus/Passover narrative in mind. Although the Passover meal does not have anything to do with the remission of sin, that does not seem to be Peter’s emphasis here. The point he makes is that the believers to whom he writes have been rescued from slavery to their “futile” and destructive lifestyles by God’s costly act of deliverance. Like the Exodus of old, this redemption of the church was not in any sense her own doing. It was brought about by the victory won for her through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The story of Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus is found only in Luke’s gospel. There are two towns identified in the literature of antiquity as “Emmaus.” One is twenty miles from Jerusalem and the other is about four miles away. Given that the two disciples made the round trip in a single day, the latter is almost certainly the one to which Luke refers. Travel was hazardous along country roads connecting cities and villages in 1st Century Palestine. Bandits frequently attacked lone travelers as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. It would not be unusual for travelers to seek safety in numbers and quite natural that a single traveler would join a group of two for that reason.
It is evident that these two disciples have discounted the testimony of the women concerning the message of the angels at Jesus’ tomb. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Vs. 21. The cross represents for these two disciples a ruined hope. Jesus begins employing the scriptures to place the cross in a new context for them. He argues from the scriptures that, so far from signaling defeat, the cross represents the fulfilment of God’s redemptive purpose. It was “necessary” that the messiah should suffer. As I indicated last week in connection with Peter’s Pentecost sermon, we need to take care in discussing the “necessity” of Jesus’ crucifixion. Once again, the crucifixion was not necessary to satisfy God’s need to see sin properly punished. The necessity arises from Jesus’ determination to be genuinely human in a violent and inhuman world. The cross was the cost of Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father’s will in the midst of a sinful world. It is a cost shared by all who follow Jesus.
We are not told what the disciples expected in terms of Israel’s redemption. Whatever those expectations were, they were too small. We can hear echoes here of Isaiah where the Lord says of Israel and his prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. That, indeed, will be the theme throughout the Book of Acts as the church breaks out of its ethnic shell to embrace the ends of the earth. One cannot read the Gospel of Luke without encountering at every turn premonitions of its sequel.
This narrative again reinforces the nature and purpose of the Bible as faithful testimony to Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son. Jesus and only Jesus can interpret the scriptures for the church and the scriptures are rightly interpreted for the church only as testimony to Jesus. I cannot overstate the importance of making this point at every available opportunity because the Bible is probably the most misunderstood, misused and blatantly abused piece of literature on the face of the earth. It has been claimed as the source of moral norms for the western world; a full proof guide to financial planning; a handbook on marriage/child rearing; a political/social manifesto for America; an oracle for divining the end of the world and probably much more. The Bible does not claim to be any such thing and whoever asserts that it does obviously has never read it. But don’t get me started on that.
“Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Vs. 30. There is something so pure, so innocent and so beautiful about this simple request. It is hardly surprising that it has found its way into our liturgy for evening prayer. See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 309. That Jesus is finally made known to these disciples in the breaking of the bread is of course pregnant with Eucharistic imagery. Not only the identity of Jesus, but also the meaning of the scriptures becomes clear to the disciples as they recall how their “hearts burned” as Jesus interpreted them. Vs. 32. Although meal fellowship is important in all of the gospels, it is particularly emphasized in Luke. In Luke’s gospel Jesus seems always to be coming from or going to a meal. He dines with outcasts and tax collectors as well as with distinguished religious leaders. Jesus’ practice of meal hospitality extends to crowds of five thousand. It is fitting, then, that the disciples should finally connect the dots at the table where Jesus presides.