Sunday, April 15, 2018
The Wonder of Sunday (Sermon)
“The Wonder of Sunday”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
19He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Emmaus. Where is Emmaus? Seven miles from Jerusalem, says Luke. Some archaeologists say it could be more like sixty miles. And whether north or west is anyone’s guess. The uncertainty makes Emmaus more than some spot on a map. Like Tarshish, Emmaus is “the place we go to escape.”1 When the story has imploded, when gravity no longer holds our feet to the ground, when grass is orange, and pigs fly – that’s when we go to Emmaus.
We might find Emmaus on YouTube or Facebook. In Andy Griffith re-runs. At Wal Mart. In anger, argument, or war. At the bottom of a bottle. Maybe even in church where so much gets ritualized and so little realized. And when all feels lost, when nothing matters less than what happens now, why not go to Emmaus?
Luke introduces us to a pair of second-tier disciples, Cleopas and a man whose name we’ll never know. The events of Friday and Saturday have sent these two Jesus-followers wandering. Sure, they’ve heard the Sunday morning rumors – that the women saw Jesus, and that he told them, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will meet me.” But this only complicates things. So, on Sunday evening, the two men find themselves on the road not to Galilee, but to Emmaus.
Cleopas and his companion seem mystified, cast into a kind of purgatory. In the confusing chaos of fear, dismay, disappointment, and uneasy hope, their walk feels all the more like an escape.
Have you ever felt that way? Exiled from a story to which you were once intimately connected? Surrounded by an unimagined reality? As human beings, when we depart from our story, from all that has been real to us, from all that has given our lives structure and purpose, we’re like fish out of water. Disorienting experiences, whether chosen or forced upon us, can throw us into a kind of living death.
Cleopas and his friend are wandering in that living death. Like fish on a riverbank, they flop helplessly down the road toward Emmaus.
That’s when the sudden stranger appears.
What are you two talking about? he says. He’s baiting these fish.
The question stops the disciples in their tracks. A person would have to be dead not to know what’s happened over the last few days. So, they bring this clueless man up to speed. And in telling their story, they tell on themselves.
We’d thought Jesus was the one God had promised. We thought he’d be the one to bring Israel back from the brink.
You mean like Moses did? says the stranger. You do remember Moses, don’t you?
And then the stranger brings these two clueless men up to speed, not by recounting the last couple of days, but by remembering the last couple hundred generations. In hearing their story again, Cleopas and his companion gulp living water across the gills of their hearts. They begin realize things that their Fridayed and Saturdayed minds had not been able to piece together.
As the men approach Emmaus, the sun is setting. When they turn toward town, the stranger continues on the road.
“Stay with us,” says Cleopas, “because it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.”
The stranger accepts the invitation, and that evening, around the table, he blesses the bread and breaks it. “Then,” says Luke, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” As quickly as the disciples recognize Jesus, he disappears, but they can’t un-see what they’ve seen. The wonder of Sunday has broken over them.
If there’s a dead giveaway for the living Christ, it’s in the willingness of his followers to lay aside all hopelessness and fear, all prejudice and selfishness for the sake of the stranger, whom, we discover, is no stranger at all.
To welcome the stranger, says Jesus, is to welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me.
In welcoming others, especially ones whom we don’t know, we do risk making ourselves vulnerable to circumstances we can’t control and to outcomes we can’t foresee. At the same time, we open ourselves to the dynamic presence of the risen Christ. The road to Emmaus is populated with strangers and uncertainty. But the resurrected Jesus transforms even that road into the very threshold of the kingdom of God. And the kingdom transforms us.
Mark Achtemeier is a Presbyterian pastor who has been a missionary, served congregations, taught at Dubuque Seminary, and now makes his living writing and speaking. Twenty years ago, in the Presbyterian debate on ordination standards, Mark lent his intelligent and thoughtful voice to the argument against opening ordination and marriage to those who were openly gay. Then, the denomination asked him to join other scholars, pastors, and lay people from both sides of the debate for a two-year commitment to study and prepare a theological statement on human sexuality. Mark agreed, and he soon found himself at an Emmaus table.
For two years, Mark met with, studied with, prayed with, and broke bread with people he had been taught to consider unfaithful. He listened to the stories of Christians who had and were continuing to struggle with their sexual orientation, which was as real and irreversible as their love for God, their love for the church, and their desire to serve.
Mark could not deny the love and the long-suffering, Christian faithfulness of the men and women he met. By the conclusion of the study, for Mark Achtemeier, the kingdom of God was a larger place. And he faced angry retribution from those who had trusted him to be a particular voice. But after his experience, he understood God, scripture, and Christian service differently. The wonder of Sunday had opened his eyes and his heart in a new way.
Preacher, did you really need to go there? Just when we’d gotten used to not talking about all of that?
Well, no, I didn’t have to. But if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that, in our society, we have hardly overcome our prejudices and fears. If anything, they’ve intensified and need to be acknowledged and addressed.
I’ve asked some folks if they’d like to go to UKirk-ETSU for a worship service this evening. The service, which will be led by Olivia Marenco and the students, will close out that ministry’s participation in Pride Fest. We’ll attend the service. We’ll take refreshments for them. We’ll eat with them and visit with them.
Now, I know that JPC is a very purple church. Our red folk are pretty red and our blue folk are pretty blue. We’re not all in the same place on the road. So, if any of you would like to come along, please do. And if you don’t, that’s fine. You won’t be judged by anyone else. If you do, send them to me. I’ll say this, too: Preachers aren’t moderators of debates. When in the pulpit, we’re not here to be unbiased. We’re here to proclaim the truth of the gospel as authentically as we can to edify, nurture, and challenge our hearers. If we remove ourselves and our points-of-view from our preaching none of us will have much to say. On the other hand, we are charged with speaking as humbly, pastorally, and compassionately as we are called to speak honestly and prophetically. So, if you ever do feel judged by me, let me know, because either we show the loving compassion of the risen Jesus to everyone. Or we don’t.
Besides, for all of us, no matter where we are, “…it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.”
May the wonder of Sunday be with you.
1The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner. Harper Collins, 1966. p. 85.