Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 04/15/2018

Last week I chose to preach on the less heavily traveled portion of the Doubting Thomas text, focusing instead on the verses that describe Jesus’ appearance to the disciples who were in the locked room while Thomas was absent. This week is a little bit different in that the gospel reading for today is the less heavily travelled part of another text, the one about the road to Emmaus.

The part of that story that gets the most attention is the first part that has the two disciples on the road, leaving Jerusalem on Sunday assuming that Friday was the end of the story; they had heard rumors of an empty tomb, but they weren’t buying it as being anything significant. But as they were walking and talking about the events of the past days, Jesus appeared with them and began to interpret what had happened although the two walkers didn’t know it was him. They didn’t recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them that evening and then, when they recognized him, he vanished from their sight. They then rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the others about what they had experienced and to their surprise, the Risen Christ shows up there as well. That’s where today’s reading picks up.

The way Luke tells it, this is Jesus’ third resurrection appearance. On Easter morning the women found the tomb empty and saw two angels who told them that Jesus had been raised but the women didn’t see him. So in Luke, the two Emmaus walkers were the first ones to encounter the Risen Christ. When they got back to Jerusalem to report what they had experienced they found that the others were talking about the fact that Jesus had appeared to Peter, so they weren’t the only ones, there had been a second appearance. Then, as all of them were talking, Jesus again appeared in their midst so that is appearance number three.

As is the case with resurrection appearances in all of the gospels, resurrection joy was not the first response. What we get in this account is that the disciples were startled and terrified, thinking that they were seeing a ghost but we really shouldn’t be surprised by their reaction. We might imagine that the mindset of people in that world would have been different than ours, perhaps more receptive to the idea of people returning from the dead, but their mindset wasn’t different enough to make them anticipate this kind of encounter. Despite Jesus’ talk of being raised in three days, if they expected anything it might have been some kind of spiritual resurrection but not a bodily resurrection because… such things just didn’t happen.

People of that time were familiar with ghost stories though, not like Halloween ghost stories but stories of leaders who had died but who were then seen in visions or whose spirits spoke through prophets. At the time Luke wrote, the people would also have been familiar with the spirit of emperors being raised into heaven following their death resulting in them being viewed as divine, as gods to be worshiped.

Luke’s mention of the disciples thinking Jesus was a ghost indicates that questions were out there, that as he wrote some fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, not all early Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There must have been some proclaiming a spiritual resurrection in part because a spiritual resurrection would be easier to accept. Luke however is careful to rule out any kind of ghost story as he emphasizes the fact that Jesus showed those gathered his hands and feet and invited them to touch him and then he asked them for something to eat. A ghost wouldn’t do that.

Another issue for Luke was that there were also those who didn’t want to accept the fact that Jesus had really been crucified. Crucifixion was punishment reserved for the worst of the worst, a most dishonorable way to die and they didn’t want Jesus thought of that way. To justify their viewpoint they said that Jesus had never really been human at all, but only appeared to be human and so he only appeared to die on the cross while his divine spirit lived on.

Again though, in the way he presents things, Luke is careful to affirm that Jesus’ had indeed been human and had really died thus ruling out the crucifixion as only pretend. When Jesus, while interpreting things for the Emmaus walkers, said, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things?” it’s an indication that strange as it might have seemed, this was the way it had to happen. At that point there was no formal, accepted theology concerning Jesus, but this point about Jesus being fully divine and fully human would become important when that theology was formalized in the early church.

The theology around that gets pretty complicated; if you want to know more you could take a lay school class or for that matter you could go to seminary. Probably more important though for most people is not such abstract and hard to understand theology, but what a given text has to say to us on a more basic, practical level.

Being written some fifty years after these things happened, one thing Luke seems very aware of is the fact that most people were not going to directly experience the Risen Christ in the same way that the early disciples did. Not to say that it couldn’t happen or that it can’t happen; even today such mystical experiences are reported and personally, I’m much less skeptical than I once was about such things; I think such experiences are possible but certainly not common, not likely for most of us.

Then again, according to Luke, we might have such a direct experience and not know it because, like the two walkers on the road, we’re not looking for it or expecting it; we’re not really paying attention. That part of the story wasn’t part of today’s reading, but as I said earlier, the two disciples didn’t recognize it was Jesus walking with them until he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. It’s an echo of, “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks. He broke it and gave it to his disciples.” It’s pretty much the same words isn’t it? This part of the story is then generally interpreted as being Luke’s way of identifying Holy Communion as an important way of encountering the Risen Christ, one that’s not limited to a select few, but one that is open to all of us.

Today’s part of the story also emphasizes the importance of the community in encountering the Risen Christ. What we get throughout this chapter is the disciples together, sharing their experiences with each other and talking things over. In the New Testament, Christianity is always about the community, it’s never presented as a “me and Jesus” thing. Today’s verses highlight faith as a process within the community. It was important for the disciples to reflect together on what had happened and on what they had experienced and on what it all meant. That kind of communal reflection is still helpful as any of us tries to sort out our faith. Faith doesn’t happen in a “me and Jesus” vacuum. The community is part of it.

The importance of wise interpreters is also highlighted. The two walkers on the road to Emmaus and the group gathered in Jerusalem had Jesus himself to help them interpret things. We don’t have him physically present, but we do have apostles and evangelists like Luke, we do have the early church fathers, we do have reformers like Martin Luther as well as the scholars and theologians who continue to teach and interpret so that pastors and others can draw from and pass on the wisdom of the tradition. None of us operates in a “me and Jesus” vacuum. We are dependent on others.

What Luke gives us here is the church, the church gathered together around word and sacrament, both of which are means for us to encounter the Risen Christ. What he doesn’t give us in this text is baptism as the means of entry into this community of word and sacrament. He gets into that more in his second volume that we know as the book of Acts.

Today though we do celebrate that entry as Lucy will be baptized in a few minutes. It is an important moment as the Holy Spirit becomes part of her life but in conjunction with today’s gospel, we remember that baptism isn’t just a moment, that faith isn’t just about a moment. It’s about a process of formation that begins with a moment, but continues for a lifetime under the guidance of the Spirit, following the teachings of Jesus, walking with the communion of saints. It’s a journey, but like those who have gone before her, baptized into the life of the church, Lucy will never walk alone.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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