Easter 3 • 30 Apr 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Rev. Chris Udy

Every year
between Easter and Pentecost
our first lectionary reading each week
comes, not from the Old Testament -
but from the book of Acts.
The idea is that we read
a different kind of salvation history -
not so much the law and the prophets
as grace and the saints.

This year we concentrate
on the sermon Peter preached in Jerusalem -
on the day the Holy Spirit came like wind and fire
and everyone who heard the disciples speak
could understand what they were saying.

The book of Acts is really a kind of sequel -
it’s ‘Luke II - The Return of the Jesus’ -
and if you only read the end of Peter’s sermon -
as we did today -
you might even think the subtitle could be ...
“He’s back - so be careful –
he’s not pleased”.

At the end of his sermon,
preaching in Jerusalem,
Peter says:
“Therefore - let the entire house of Israel
know with certainty
that God has made this Jesus -
whom you crucified -
both Lord and Messiah”.
I don’t know about you -
but that sounds to me like a threat -
“This Jesus - whom you killed -
is not only alive - he’s in control.”
So when we keep reading,
we’re not too surprised to discover
that the people who heard Peter’s message
were cut to the heart,
and asked the disciples what they should do.
Peter then told them to repent and be baptised.
“Save yourselves” he said
from this corrupt generation”
and some 3,000 people
were baptised that same day.

There are some who read about
the spectacular power
and growth of the early Church
believe that the Church’s future
depends on us re-capturing
the Spirit and the passion of the disciples –
a bit like ‘Make Christianity great again’.
They look at Peter’s sermon
and the result of his altar call
and they think
“That’s the way it’s meant to be -
that’s the way the Church should go -
that’s the kind of preaching we should hear -
and if we did,
we’d see the same results.
Pretty soon the whole world would be Christian,
and all our problems would disappear,
because everyone would be like us.”
So they look for leaders and preachers
who sound like Peter:
“This Jesus - whom
you crucified -
is not only alive, he’s in control.
So you’d better change your heart,
and come and join us,
because the day of judgement is approaching fast.”
That sort of preaching can work, for a while.
All over the world
people are exposed to it,
and they’re being forced to choose loyalties
for fear of the consequences.
People are bending their ethics,
silencing their consciences
and questioning their compassion,
because, they’re being told,
there’s always someone waiting
to infiltrate their neighbourhood,
and take their job and pocket their pay.

Fear’s a powerful motivator.
It makes us do very strange things -
and leaders who find ways
to focus and manipulate our fears
can quickly win support.
They can also maintain loyalty,
as long as the fear continues
and the threats have power.
But the empires they build
are marked by destruction
and full of casualties -
and when people discover
that the threats were a lie
and that their fear has enslaved them,
all that remains is anger and suspicion -
and a determination
never to be sucked in again.

Political and religious movements built on fear
are enormously dangerous -
but in the end they self-destruct.
They use up their plunder,
they run out of victims,
and they leave a wasteland
for the survivors to redeem and repair.

But that’s not what happened
with the early Church.
Peter’s first sermon
might have sounded threatening,
and those 3,000 baptised that day
might have responded in fear -
but that can’t explain the next 2000 years -
and the many millions of people
who have claimed the promise
of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit
for themselves and their children -
not because they were afraid,
but because they had hope.

Faith can’t be built on fear -
it needs something nourishing,
something that can support and sustain us
even when we make choices and decisions
that leave us isolated and at risk.
People might sometimes decide to be Christian
because it seems the safest option -
but it doesn’t take long
to find that the way of the cross
is neither safe nor easy,
and if they don’t find
a source of courage and peace in faith
they quickly fall away.

So every year, just after Easter,
in addition to reading passages from Acts -
parts of Luke’s sequel -
we also read something
from the end of his first book.
I don’t know about you,
but I never find sequels
quite as good as the original -
book or movie or whatever -
there’s always something special
in an author’s first vision -
and the sequel never quite achieves
the same depth and power.

So, as with Thomas’ story last week,
every year just after Easter
we also read about the Emmaus road.
It’s one of a series of stories
about resurrection appearances:
part of the Easter tradition.
The empty tomb on Easter day
isn’t our only sign of resurrection;
after he was known to be dead,
Jesus appeared to people -
had meals with people,
spoke to them and explained who he was
and encouraged them to continue as he had begun -
and that’s one layer of the Emmaus story –
but there’s more!

The science author Isaac Asimov once said
"The most exciting phrase to hear in science,
the one that heralds new discoveries,
is not 'Eureka!' but … 'That's funny.' "
People who study Jesus’ parables
and the miracle stories of the Gospels
say the key to understanding them
is in the surprise.
Surprising events and unexpected discoveries
are the door to revelation;
God shines a light on truth
by making things we thought we knew
seem strange.

The Emmaus story has another layer.
It’s a story about surprises -
about not quite understanding what’s going on
and having a truth revealed
through something strange -
and there are many strange elements
to the Emmaus story.

The first is that we know the name
of one of the travellers on the road -
he’s Cleopas,
and Luke describes him as a disciple of Jesus -
but the other disciple is never named.
Here it’s worth noting
that if Cleopas recognised Jesus
when Jesus broke the bread,
he must have understood
what breaking the bread might mean -
which means that Luke is implying
that Cleopas was there
when Jesus broke the bread at the last supper -
even though he isn’t one of the 12.
It’s also worth noting
that his unnamed companion
is never identified by gender:
it could easily be his wife -
or another disciple, but not among the 12,
someone like Mary and Martha.
All those suggestions are interesting,
and well worth considering -
but in the end we simply don’t know -
it could have been anybody -
it could have been ... anybody.

So that’s the first surprise.
Then comes another.
Cleopas and his companion
were on their way to a village called Emmaus,
which Luke says
was about 7 miles from Jerusalem.
Now we know that Luke was writing
from Antioch in modern Turkey,
and Luke has a hazy idea
of Palestinian geography anyway:
he makes quite a few mistakes
about distances and boundaries and so on -
but Luke says this village
was close enough to Jerusalem
for Cleopas and his companion
to walk there in one day
and run back that night.
Except … there is no Emmaus that close to Jerusalem -
and there never has been.
The closest place it could possibly be
is a town called Emmaus Nicopolis
twenty miles north-west of Jerusalem -
and even for marathon runners,
40 miles in a day is a pretty good jog –
so Luke’s 7 miles starts to sound symbolic,
as many other mentions of 7 in the Bible are.
And so again,
suggestions about where Emmaus might be,
and what it could be, are interesting -
but in the end we simply don’t know;
it could be anywhere -
it could be ... anywhere.

And that’s the point.
Luke tells the story of the Emmaus road,
not only because it’s an Easter appearance story,
but because it’s also something more -
it’s a kind of parable -
a parable about Christian life.

Christian life is a journey -
not so much to Jerusalem -
not so much
toward the centres
of power and established religion,
as away.
It’s a journey where we have companions,
friends, partners, fellow pilgrims
with whom we share our joys and disappointments.
Cleopas could be walking with anyone -
certainly with any one or more of us -
and together we’re on this pilgrimage of life,
trying to find meaning and hope
in pretty depressing times.

We’ll find meaning and hope, Luke suggests,
not so much as we go
the bright lights and tempting sounds
of the centres of influence and power -
but as we move away,
towards the boundaries
where the neglected people and places are.
As we travel other companions join us -
later they also leave,
but we’ll come to that in a minute -
and together we talk about life,
the universe and everything.
We also read the Bible,
and we look in there for hints
and wisdom and guidance -
not so much about
what’s going to happen tomorrow -
that will always be a mystery -
but about the meaning of our yesterdays
and our hope for today.
And regularly, as we need to,
we stop beside the road
and find a place of shelter and hospitality -
and there we share bread and wine -
or whatever there is on offer -
and in that meal, and there with our companions,
we discover that Jesus is risen
and is present, now, among us.
He isn’t you, and he isn’t me,
and the moment that we know he’s there
he also fades from clear sight -
but every time we travel on the road,
and every time we share
the stories of our life and faith,
and every time we break the bread
he’s with us once again.

Today we take another step
in our journey as companions
for this part of the road,
and for this time.
And the heart and core of our life together
is to continue to do the things
that Luke sets out in his parable
of the Emmaus road:
we continue on our pilgrimage together;
we welcome new companions as they come
and farewell them as they go;
we talk about what’s happening
in our lives and in the world;
we read the Bible together
to find meaning and guidance and hope;
and every time we stop
to break the bread and share the cup
Jesus is here among us
in resurrection life. Amen.