Here is the message that I presented for the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 10 April 2005, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 14a, 36 – 41; 1 Peter 1: 17 – 23; and Luke 24: 13 – 35. It was also Native American Awareness Sunday.
When I began thinking about this sermon for this weekend the notion of the two individuals walking on the road to Emmaus, I thought of a picture that once appeared in The Science Teacher, a publication of the National Science Teacher’s Association. In this photo, two bicyclists are sitting by the side of the road during a break in a field trip. The reason that I always remembered this photo was that it was taken just north of Kirksville, Missouri and was part of a summer program through Truman State University.
But as the week progressed, the road that I was thinking about changed from a lonely road in rural northeast Missouri to a crowded road leading to Rome. No matter how you may feel about Pope John Paul II or the Catholic church which he lead for some twenty-six years, you have to admit that he touched many lives and that many lives were changed because of chance encounters with him.
And as these pilgrims walked along the road, they conversed with each other about this man and what he meant to them. It will be encounters much like the one that is described in the Gospel reading today, friends speaking to friends and strangers about someone who had an impact on their life. I also think that, as the days pass, we are going to hear of accounts of the kindness of individuals to others as they waited in line either to pay their last respects or attend the funeral. I am certain that we will hear about anonymous individuals who helped others in the crowd and then disappeared as quickly and as silently as they appeared to help.
It seems to me as I read the Gospel passage for today is the conversation that took place between the two disciples and the stranger they met was a natural one. Two individuals greatly affected by the death of someone they had loved and followed for three years told the story of their friend’s life and mission to a stranger. It is what evangelism is about. Yet, today, we often are turned off to evangelists because of the nature in which they present the Gospel message and the implications that are attached should we ignore the message. Yet, these two disciples simply chose to tell Jesus the story of the resurrection. It was not until Jesus offered them communion that they realized who it was that they had been talking to.
How often do we say to someone what it is that we believe? How often do we engage in a conversation that will lead to an invitation for the other individual to come visit Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church? How often do we stop to help someone without worrying about what others might say or do? How often do we stop to think that perhaps the person we are talking to or not talking to or avoiding might just be Jesus Christ walking by our side?
We tend to think and visualize Jesus as being a man in a glowing white and flowing robe. But that is an image of Jesus that, while valid some two thousand years ago, doesn’t fit into today’s society or times. Perhaps if we had an encounter such as the one Laurie Beth Jones had, we might have a different view. In the prologue to her book "Jesus in Blue Jeans" she wrote,
Many years ago I dreamed I was in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When He saw the expression on my face He said, "Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans."(Laurie Beth Jones, "Jesus in Blue Jeans")
It may be that we have had such an encounter, yet we did not know it. It is how we react to others that determines how we see Jesus. As we read the Gospel for today, the word "stranger" was used. In the Greek, this word is "paroikos ", which can be translated as stranger, exile, or alien. We have to wonder why this was the word used. Could it have been because the disciples thought that Jesus was an outsider that he was so ignorant of what had recently happened?
We know now that one of the reasons for this misrecognition is because of its role in the resurrection narrative. It is neither an accident nor the result of some sort of grief-induced blindness. Christians will not find their Lord until and where he wishes to be found. But is the form in which he is found irrelevant? Is it completely happenstance that Jesus is mistaken for a stranger or an alien? Martin Luther would say to us that Jesus reveals himself by hiding himself under contrary appearance. What can shatter our sensibilities more than seeing the risen Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, coming to see us as a stranger or an alien? ("Consorting with aliens", from Living by the Word by Edgardo Antonio Colon-Emeric, Christian Century, April 5, 2005.)
The problem that we have with this concept is that we are still tied to earthly thoughts and a belief that we can make earth into heaven. But the opposite is true. The early Christian communities saw themselves as paroikia, a community of believers gathered together to commemorate the life and death of Christ. This view, as Paul writes in Philemon 3: 20, makes us citizens of heaven rather than of earth. I think that we sometimes forget this and try to make Jesus a citizen of earth.
Peter challenged the people to give up their earthly citizenship and become members of this new community of believers. But to do this, we must first give up looking for Jesus in robes or wearing a crown. The challenge for us is recognize that we are not going to recognize Jesus unless we look for him. As John Wesley found out, Christ’s presence in life in found in the lives of those who have opened their hearts to Him.
It was during the crossing of the Atlantic that John Wesley saw how his companions from Moravia endured the rough crossing with prayer. Through their prayers, they were able to endure while he struggled. It was the episode that began to open Wesley’s heart so that he could accept the Holy Spirit.. He wrote,
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations; but cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and he "sent me help from his holy place." And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, I not often, conquered; now, I was always the conqueror.(John Wesley, given in "A Guide to Prayer" for the 3rd Sunday of Easter.)
It was not until Wesley made himself, as Peter writes in the second lesson today, a citizen of heaven that Methodism would become successful. So too is our success in life, whatever we choose to do, decided by how we react to the presence of Christ in our lives.
The Gospel message began with two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. On the way, they met someone not from the area, a stranger, an exile, an alien and apparently not aware of what had transpired over the past few days. Like the two individuals in the story, we are on also on a journey. It is a journey in which we will be itinerants, a sojourner in life. It will mean that there will be no place for us to lay our head, it will take us from a life of conventional wisdom to alternative life in the Spirit.
And on that journey, there will be times when we meet strangers. Some will be like us, others will be strangely different. We may speak to some of those we meet; we may ignore others. But there will come a time when we will be asked to give a stranger a slice of bread or some juice to drink. It is then that we need to be reminded that discipleship means eating at Christ’s table and experiencing his banquet. This banquet is inclusive, including not just me and not just us but those we tend to exclude. It means being nourished by him and fed by him.
Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness and sometime we need to think of the communion that we will partake in that view. It is the symbol of that journey with Christ and being fed by him as He speaks to us, "Take and eat lest this journey be too great for you."
Ours is a journey with others; ours is journey with ourselves. There will be times when the journey is difficult but when those times come, there is a stranger whom we have never met standing by the side of the road asking to be a part of that journey. And in our kindness for letting him come along for a short part of the path, he offers us the bread of life and the blood of the new covenant.