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30th April 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
27 April 2017

Readings

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

As with last week’s reading we begin with the first part of verse 14 which explains that Peter is with the 11 surviving disciples and that he raises his voice and addresses the crowd.  Having worked through his proof texts Peter then concludes his sermon beginning at verse 36 and the reading moves on to the crowd’s reaction.  The chance of a new beginning seems to be a popular message because many are added to the group.

Peter called for repentance, which was what John the Baptist called for, so in this sermon of Peter we see a continuation of the mission begun by John, defined through action by Jesus and now passed on by the apostles. 

Luke 24:13-35

This is the Emmaus Road resurrection account and as Dominic Crossan explains in Living the Questions it is a very structured passage that gives a progressive process for meeting with the risen Christ.

If we open ourselves to writing that features symbolism and metaphor rather than simply documenting facts this episode also speaks of how the resurrection may have become a reality for those first disciples and can also be a reality for us. 

Expounding the scripture as their religious tradition encourages them to do makes them aware that, although Jesus has been killed, the spirit of what he stood for is the spirit of their faith and is still alive within them.  In sharing a meal with a stranger they become aware of Christ’s presence with them.  The message from this episode to the church is that when you share the scripture along the way your heart burns within you but it is when you share a meal with a stranger you meet the Risen Christ.  Resurrection is an action reflection process, based in the study of scripture and made real in feeding the stranger.

Sermon

In the second part of his sermon Peter called for repentance and we noted in the introduction to the reading that was the central theme of John the Baptist’s ministry.  Jesus continued John’s ministry, beginning as we as we are told in Mark’s Gospel.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:14) 

So, in what could well be seen as his mission statement, we see that Jesus began when John’s ministry finished and, like John, Jesus called for repentance.  However Jesus moved on from proclamations to ‘practice what he preached’.  Jesus lived out his proclamation in hospitality, healing and exorcisms.  That aligns with comments from William Barclay that repentance is not just a matter of changing our minds but demands a change of action. [1]

To enlarge that thought we need to understand that repentance is not just being sorry.  Repentance is about putting the past behind us and focussing on positive actions that not only wipe away the past but creates new beginnings.  That is not only the real understanding of repentance but it IS (or also) the essence of resurrection.

We can easily understand repentance and rehabilitation after some wrongdoing but it also applies to personal mistakes and past inadequacies.  Far too often people get buried in their mistakes and let past failure limit future possibility.  The truth of the resurrection is that the past is finished and gone and in Christ all things are made new. 

Recently in the television series I Am Innocent a man told his story of initial idyllic childhood with his grandparents then long sustained abuse when he was returned to his mother and her partner. 

Inevitably he worked his way through the youth justice system, gangs and prison.  He then described an Ah-ah moment when smoking dope with his cell mate he looked at the sky though the bars and realised that, unless he changed, that was the rest of his life. 

On release he signed up at a polytechnic for a paramedic’s course and got a job as a bouncer on the weekend to pay for it.  In the course of his lawful employment he faced his ‘crisis at the nadir’ when, in a confrontation with an aggressive drunk, the drunk fell backwards on the footpath and was killed.  Because of his background the man was charged with manslaughter but in the two years the case took to come to trial he not only researched the legal aspects of self defence and other details of his case but also finished his paramedic’s course.  When he was acquitted he had significant difficulty getting a job but the programme finished with him working on an ambulance and contemplating further study to become a doctor.  That is indeed a story of real practical repentance and the sort of new beginnings resurrection promises.

Peter’s ‘crisis at the nadir’ was probably his denial of Jesus after Jesus’ arrest and like the story of contemporary new beginnings it took a while, and most likely some serious work, before Peter became the charismatic preacher in our Acts readings. 

As we move to today’s gospel resurrection account it is worth placing Peter with the male disciples when the women return with their extraordinary story from the empty tomb and are not believed.

‘But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’. (Luke 24:11)

In the land of Luke’s Gospel that is how the disciples view the story the women bring from the empty tomb and our reading picks up the experience of two of Jesus’ disciples who are presumably on their way home. 

An idle tale could well be the response of most people to the resurrection experiences described in the bible and indeed there have been numerous scholarly books that argue the pros and cons of Jesus’ resurrection.  However I believe Marcus Borg gives us the key to understanding the writings of our faith when he quotes the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe’s story of creation. ‘Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true’.[2]

It is the truth the story tells that is important, rather than the events described in the story. 

All the resurrection stories are told against the background of Jesus’ disciples journeying with him, failing to understand his message or what it means to Jesus to be the messiah or Christ. 

When Jesus is arrested Peter, who appears to be the spokesperson for the disciples denies any association with Jesus and there is an assumption that at least the male disciples go back to their original occupations. However in the land of Luke’s Gospel the men were around in the background to receive the news.  Nevertheless it is clear that it is the women who discover the empty tomb and receive the news of the resurrection in various visionary experiences.  However in Luke’s Gospel the women are not believed and today’s passage follows two of the disciples leaving Jerusalem on the Emmaus Road. One of the disciples was named as Cleopas and there has been speculation that they were a couple with the unnamed one being a woman.  But we don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is the truth the story tells and in fact there are two truths that the gospel writer wants to convey. 

Following Jesus’ death the disciples not only gained a new appreciation of Jesus’ significance and the power of his teaching they also felt empowered by his Spirit to go and be Jesus to others.  In this mythical world of Luke’s Gospel that empowerment happened at the feast of Pentecost.

The gospel writer also challenges his readers to also be affected by the resurrection.  Therefore this story not only tells us how the resurrection grew in reality for two disciples on a journey it gives a formula for the spiritual journey of future disciples.

We can make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and various sites are well marked and tourists are encouraged to visit them.  But the key point of all the Easter Day readings is that Jesus is not in the tomb.  On Easter day we read from Matthew’s Gospel and the women were told by the angel ‘He is not here; for he has been raised’ (Matthew 28:6)  

In giving us the story of the Emmaus Road Luke tells us that as we share the scripture together our heart burns within us.

They said to each other, ‘where not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scripture to us?’ (Luke 24:32)  

It is not hard to get the impression from the gospels that exegeses, the close reading and interpretation of the scripture for the present time, was an important part of Jesus’ teaching.  Indeed that is an important part of rabbinical teaching.  So in presenting the exposition of the scripture as the introduction to a meeting with the risen Christ for those two biblical disciples Luke is instructing his readers to read and discuss the scripture.

That may not necessarily bring us to an immediate meeting with the Risen Christ but our hearts will burn within us.  This is a similar discovering of the mystical reality of Christ we read from Matthew’s gospel earlier in the year where a discussion with Jesus on the road to Caesarea Philippi identified him as the messiah (Matthew 16:13-20)  That episode was a prelude to the spiritual confirmation of that learning in the Transfiguration episode (Matthew 17:1-9)  

We should also note that the two disciples were despondent on their journey and it was a stranger that brought a fresh perspective to well known scripture for them.  They were not reading scripture in isolation, they were listening to someone expound it for them. This was traditional reformed preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, the preaching that in the reformed tradition must be part of every communion service.

It is an archetypal communion service that happens next.  It is when they share food with a stranger that they find the risen Christ in their midst and that is the ritualised way that Luke is suggesting future disciples will also find Christ. 

‘When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them.’(Luke 24:30) 

That is the key elements of reformed communion liturgy, the service where we remember Jesus and are reminded of our baptism vows where we agreed to make Christ part of ourselves. 

A communion service is a re-enacted Emmaus road journey where even if we don’t meet the Risen Christ at each communion we recognise that such a meeting is possible and are reminded that through our baptism our journey is Christ’s journey.

Luke reinforces this in verse 31: ‘Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him. (Luke 24: 31a)  However the second part of that verse is also important and reassuring for us as Luke’s readers. And he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 31b)  We get up from a communion service and whatever magical moment we may have felt or not experienced is gone in the everyday moments of our day to day lives.

The important thing Luke stresses is that they returned to the others and shared their experience.  In doing so they find the others had similar experiences and they become part of community, a community of Christ.  To be a follower of Christ involves being part of a community, a community that meets together and shares hospitality with strangers, a community that recognises Christ in the breaking of the bread.   



[1] William Barclay The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press:1976 ),p., 28.

 

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