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Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, I Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

Some 2000 years ago a humble, but great, teacher walked the rural roads of Galilee and entered the courts of temples in Jerusalem, and the world has never been the same since. He talked about God, God’s presence, and God’s work, in a way that shook some of them into a new way of looking at life. They sensed a holiness about him. In his presence, they found themselves experiencing God in new ways. He upset the systems of the Jewish and Roman world of his day so much that he ended up paying the price with his life. The sensitive souls among his followers felt some responsibility for his death. It was as if he had died because of their action or inaction—their sins, so to speak. They remembered that he had told them, “This is what love does. It sticks by its principles and friends (and maybe even continues to wish the best for its enemies) all the way to death.” Somehow, when that happens, we find that love is more powerful than the forces of evil and death.

When he died, his followers were discouraged. They went back home, back to their old jobs. But they found themselves haunted by his presence. They’d catch a glimpse of someone who looked like him, who reminded them of him. He seemed to stand in their midst alive. They began to talk with one another, sharing and comparing their varied stories. Whatever they were seeing wasn’t like what usually happened when you met an old friend. This presence walked through walls, wasn’t always recognizable—yet there was a reality and substance as palpable as the wounds from death on a cross. They all agreed that they felt a new burst of power as the breath of his Spirit moved among them.

His name was Jesus, and they began to try to find ways to explain this man, who he was and what he did, what he meant to them. They did it not only for themselves, but so they could pass the story on. This man’s living presence was so momentous to them that they wanted others to share in the experience of the love emanating from him.

We have been trying to explain it ever since. The conversation is still going on. Some have tried to freeze their answers into a few short phrases, failing to realize that Jesus and the early Christian used all different kinds of phrases and images, and still failed to capture the full reality of this man was. I heard the other day about a speaker who offended some of my friends by suggesting that their formulas were nothing but “primitive” belief. I wasn’t there so I don’t know the exact nature of the conversation. From my vantage point, it sounds like a failure, on both sides, to recognize that there are many different ways to talk about our experience of the living Christ. When we’ve exhausted all the limits of our explanations, we will still not have fully captured the nature of that experience and what it means to us.

I believe that each of the lectionary readings for this week has its place in that discussion.

The reading from the book of Acts brings us to the end of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, in which he has retold the story of Jesus life, ministry, death, and resurrection, concluding, in Acts 2:36, by calling his hearers to recognize that “God has made him both Lord and Messiah . . .” The epistle of I Peter speaks of being “ransomed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish . . . Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory.” (I Peter 1:18-21)

The Psalmist, while not specifically talking about Jesus, sees “the Lord” as one to whom he can call out, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” (Psalm 116:4) The Lord is one who has “loosed my bonds.” (vs. 16)

The Gospel lesson from Luke, however, moves us beyond formulas and phrases to a mysterious presence. Two of Jesus’ followers are on their way home to Emmaus, discouraged because their hopes have been dashed by Jesus’ crucifixion. A stranger joins them and they begin to discuss what has happened. Their agony is apparent when they say, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) They are words filled with pathos. Who among us does not know what it is to invest our energies in a hopeful person or cause only to experience disappointment? Not every hopeful campaign promise comes to fruition.

The stranger attempts to interpret scripture to the two men in a way that may help them to understand what has happened. They arrive at their home and invite the stranger to join them for a meal. During the meal they recognize that it is Jesus and he suddenly disappears.

What a contrast to doctrinal arguments and carefully crafted statements! This Jesus is more subtle and elusive than that. After he disappears they remember what happened on the road and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road . . .? (Luke 24:32) Maybe we should be talking more about “burning hearts” and less about creedal statements. What is it that burns in our hearts? When do we experience a burning presence at the center of our being? What are the things that “light a fire” in us? Do they, perhaps, signal the presence of Jesus?

Our faith is finally not about getting the words right; it is about living and moving and having our being in the divine presence. In Peter’s sermon, it is about moving from being “far away” to experiencing forgiveness and closeness in the here and now. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’” (Acts 2:38-39) In I Peter that presence is manifest in “genuine mutual love” in which we “love one another deeply from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22) Who is this guy? He’s the one who enables us to “love one another deeply from the heart.” I like that answer better than some doctrinal statement—primitive or hot off someone’s twittering early this morning.

A few other comments:

1. The meal in Emmaus seems to evoke Jesus’ precrucifixion meal with his disciples, as well as the continuing observance of that occasion in churches through the ages. The stranger, it says, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” (Luke 24:30) And that is the moment of recognition. “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him . . .” (vs. 31) Does this suggest that meeting him in the breaking of the bread is as important as any doctrinal statement? Does it point to any gathering around a meal as a possible place to recognize and experience the divine presence?

2. The resurrection, among other things, is about passing on the story so that others continue to recognize the divine presence on the roads and at the tables of our daily lives. Peter’s sermon in Acts results in 3000 new people becoming part of this world-changing movement. (Acts 24:41) Like all the others in the biblical stories of resurrection appearances, the two men ran to “the eleven and their companions.” “They told them what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:33-35) Notice the phrasing again—about being known “in the breaking of the bread.” It’s not just about us knowing who this guy is; it’s about sharing with others the fire that burns in our hearts.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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