Sunday 30th April 2017
The Third Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 2: 14a, 36 – 41
Second Reading: 1 Peter 1: 17 – 23
Gospel Reading: Luke 24: 13 – 35
By Leslie Spatt
The Post-Easter Jesus
Was Good Friday was the end of the story? The disciples are thinking, “He’s dead – we know he was hastily put into a tomb. How could anything more happen?”
There’s some very strange stories of what some people found – or rather, didn’t find, when they went to where Jesus was been buried, after that shattering experience of his crucifixion. Some of Jesus’ followers had already left Jerusalem knowing that he’d died. They didn’t – or couldn’t – bear to stay around to hear any more. And like so many times during Jesus’ life, they didn’t understand what he’d been saying to them about the meaning of his ministry or the promises that he would be with them for ever.
Luke is a bit easier on the disciples than Mark, who portrays especially the inner circle of disciples as being particularly dim as to Jesus’ real meanings. They never really grasp what Jesus says to them; and the original ending of Mark’s gospel has the women fleeing in terror from the empty tomb, telling nobody about what they’d found. The ladies in Luke, the first missionaries, left as they were asked to and told the men – who thought it was all emotional fantasy but at least they went and had a look even if they still didn’t understand. What does it all mean? Did everything come to an end and all that’s left is an empty tomb?
Let’s imagine ourselves in Luke’s account in first century Judea, the day after the Sabbath when we would have been allowed to travel and work again. Immediately after having our leader and teacher suddenly murdered by the Romans, and hearing this weird story about him not being found where some of his more influential followers had buried him. Even more strangely, that he was alive!
The body disappearing, well – things happen. The Romans were capable of just about anything, weren’t they. But alive, who could believe that??? Let’s remember that information technology was mostly limited to personal contact, very rarely being written down; news spread by travellers on foot or on donkeys, or perhaps the relatively fast Roman courier system if you had important friends. Once out of immediate contact, information could be days old, embroidered by someone’s imagination or faulty hearing. One wonders what the embroidery might have been if Twitter had spread the news….Not only is Jesus dead, but he’s been buried; and then someone’s told us that the body’s disappeared. What’s the point, we might ask ourselves, of hanging about to hear more, especially when all known disciples are in danger of being arrested? And why carry on, when Jesus is dead and gone forever – no more wisdom, no more parables, no more promises of God’s Kingdom, no more hopes of his liberating us from the hated pagan occupation. No signs and wonders, no more healings, no more lightening of our lives by his mere presence. Both our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven with Jesus and our new pathway to God through him seem to be finished just as they were starting. We can’t possibly think that the news about his being alive is for real. Can we? Dare we?
Here we are in this story: we’re trudging along, and we notice that someone has joined us. He’s a pleasant companion; but amazingly, seems to be completely unaware of what’s been going on this past weekend even though he’s also probably travelling back home from Jerusalem after the Passover. But then… something really wonderful happens – he knows Scripture and can tell us all about the meaning of our beloved Teacher. He doesn’t seem to think that our story of his burial and disappearance is strange at all. Even more amazing, he says that our Teacher, who really is the Messiah, has indeed been raised from the dead because it’s predicted in the Scriptures. This is all very interesting and comforting, but – maybe it’s only his interpretation. Still, it’s nice to hear that an outsider doesn’t dismiss it all as nonsense. As it’s getting late and we’re now near home, our good manners insist that we invite him to stay with us. We have plenty of room and food at home to spare.
So far, all of this could be seen on an understandable level of normality. The crucifixion was certainly real, Jesus was buried after he died, the stranger in the midst of the travellers is certainly real to them. The other stuff, well, you can think about it and make up your own mind. And then Luke starts to tip the story from narrative into more complex meaning. Who is this traveller who turns up just at the right moment and knows what the disciples need to hear? When he joins them for a meal, why is it he who blesses the bread and breaks it – when this is the duty of the head of the household? And then, only then in the story, do the disciples realise who it is. Their eyes were opened, says Luke. Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples in a direct copy of the gift of himself at his last meal before he was crucified. But as soon as he’s recognised, he vanishes. The disciples don’t need him to be there in his human body any longer, they have him alive for ever in the breaking and offering of the bread. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. “When you do this, I will be there with you.”
The disciples on the road to Emmaus have been on a journey, starting from the first moment they met Jesus. They have travelled with him, listened to him, walked and shared meals with him. And have shared in his death, mourned his loss and heard the story of his burial, disappearance and the rumour of his being alive. As with Luke’s Gospel, where ultimately everything is aimed towards and accomplished in Jerusalem, it seems that, for the disciples, it has all ended there. Now that they’ve turned away and left Jerusalem to carry on with the rest of their lives, their journey either has to come to an end or has to continue on a different level which doesn’t depend on the human presence of Jesus to be their leader. This is where knowledge ends and faith begins. Faith, the trust in something which can’t be seen or touched or factually proven in a 21st century sense. Jesus has brought the disciples to a new level of faith and given them the courage to continue on the way he showed them. In recognising Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they also come to understand that they don’t need him as a physical presence in order to believe in him, to believe that he’s alive and to carry on as disciples.
So it is with us. Might it be that we, living in the visible real world, need Jesus to “do something” before we can know him, or before we can recognise him? We might come to know Jesus for the first time when our parents or friends talk about him; or realisation that the revelation of God through Jesus is real for us. But at some point we’re touched by Jesus who says, “Follow me,” and we do. Our personal pilgrimage then takes us with him through the bright and dark places, through doubts and questioning, joy and sin and forgiveness, good and bad times. To our own lakeside in Galilee, the Upper Room, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, and Easter morning. But unlike the first disciples who knew him in a physical reality, we can only know him through faith, something which can’t be proved. What does Jesus need to do to get our attention?
Our pilgrimage goes on for our whole lives, with Jesus at our side whether we realise he’s there or not. He’s there all the time, waiting for us to see him, to know him, to recognise him. We join the disciples and walk with Jesus, hearing the story of how he’s part of God’s plan for the world. We find him in the bread and wine of the Eucharist; but then we’re given the responsibility to take our own experiences of the good news outwards into the everyday world of personal contacts, to spread the word. “Mission” is a word which might make us feel uncomfortable. It has the unfortunate Victorian associations with imperial aggression, forced conversions and arrogant superior attitudes. But as disciples of Jesus, that’s what we are called to do – mission – inviting people to know God through Jesus. When we come to know him, are our hearts burning within us? How can we be enabled to pass on the desire to share that feeling with others?
We too meet Jesus on our roads to Emmaus. We share the joy of the words “he is risen indeed” and believe the Good News that death is not the end of life but only part of one continuous process, a change of existence into being reunited with God. And even when we continue with our pilgrimage in the darkness, when there seems to be nothing there and our eyes are kept from recognising him, Jesus walks beside us. Not to bully us into believing, not to punish us for failing to recognise him, but to wait for us and to walk with us. Forever. That surely is something worth sharing.
©Leslie Spatt 2017