Sermons

He Walked Ahead

(A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter — though these texts are borrowed from Easter Evening — 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; Luke 24:13-35   April 26, 2009)

He walked ahead, as if he were going on…

It’s Sunday afternoon, and Cleopas and his unnamed companion, who some scholars suggest may have been his wife, are walking away from Jerusalem, headed home to Emmaus. Like all good and observant Jews, they went to Jerusalem to observe Passover, and they went also to follow Jesus, for they describe themselves as part of his group of followers. “Our women,” they say, making reference to the women at the tomb. They have lived through a traumatic experience, grieved with their friends, kept a low profile as far as the authorities were concerned, and now they are going home with the really quite unbelievable news that Jesus, who they know to have been crucified, is no longer in the tomb.

He is, in fact, risen from the dead.

It’s the thing we hope for, isn’t it: that the people and the places and the things we love will not really be gone but will continue to exist in a form we can recognize?

A risen Christ was not even a dream come true, because who would have thought it possible?

He walked ahead, as if he were going on…

Where did Jesus go? His body is no longer in the tomb; a tragedy becomes a mystery. In Luke’s gospel, on one has seen him yet. The male disciples treat the women dismissively, but Peter runs to the tomb and sees the linen cloths that would have been wrapped around Jesus’ body. He goes home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Luke 24:12b, NRSV)

Where did Jesus go? And how were they supposed to live without him? For three years, a community gathered and grew and traveled from town to town, all drawn together by one person. Without him, they would have to rediscover themselves. On Sunday morning they woke up, the Sabbath past and gone. The women went to the tomb; we don’t know what the men did, don’t know whether they planned to head back to Galilee or to stay longer in Jerusalem, don’t even know how dangerous it might have been for them there.

We can be sure, I think, that they grieved.

And maybe on Sunday, with the obligations of Sabbath over, they began to wonder who they would be without him.

Before there was ever a church building or a church service, there was a group of confused and heartbroken men and women gathered in a hired room, missing their friend. And before they had much chance to decide what they would do next, the rules of life and death were changed.

What are the guiding principles of our lives together as a church? We can find them in these two passages, which are different as can be and yet telling us the same thing: one a short and practical metaphor, the other a well-embroidered telling of our founding mystery. Both use physical bread to help us recognize our spiritual bread, Jesus Christ.

In his First letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes:

Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6b-8, NRSV)

When I came to you I heard complaints that one group of people worshiped the pastor and another group worshiped the building—harsh words, my friend, very harsh words from both sides—and all I could hear were hurt feelings and all I could see were defensive postures. As we came to trust one another I heard the deeper stories of this unique congregation and I recognized themes that are prevalent in many, many churches today. We all face the same questions:

  • How are we supposed to live together so long after Jesus in a way that keeps faith with him and his first followers?
  • How are we supposed to draw wisdom from a book written long before denominations and health insurance and heat tape and commercial development?
  • And when we are afraid of the future, how can we find a way to stick together instead of breaking apart?

The first Christians shared things in common, did not live in a world of lawsuits and liability insurance, or sabbatical leave and paid vacation, or Quick Books and wireless internet hubs. We have built all these things since then, our standards and practices, our habits and expectations, our devices and desires. But the human heart does not change as easily as fashion and technology, and that is why these old stories and these old letters still speak to us. We are still in need of the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Cleopas lived a generation or two even before there was a church, before there were Christians. We are far removed from Cleopas and his companion. We are far removed from their tragedy and loss, and I’m afraid sometimes we are far removed from their miracle, too.

He walked ahead, as if he were going on…

This week, on Facebook, I heard from a college classmate. He wrote, “You sometimes hear people say they are spiritual but not religious. I think I’m religious but not spiritual.” And he’s right, my friend Bob, he’s right in thinking there can be a difference. Without religious people there would be no churches. But without spiritual people there would be no capital C “Church.”

How does that sit with you? Feel uncomfortable?

We’ve built an institution on three years of teaching and a handful of experiences of the numinous. We’ve had almost 2000 years now to build higher and higher, but sometimes we haven’t bothered to go deeper and deeper. Cleopas and his companion plunged deep that day, deep into the unexpected, deep into the mysterious, deep into the experience of Christ.

And if we convince ourselves that experiencing Christ is anything less deep and unexpected and mysterious, if we convince ourselves that we can be Christians simply by showing up and keeping the lights on, we will find ourselves turning them off and shuttering the windows and boarding up the doors, not just of this church but of Church.

When we hear about the way they sat down to dinner, and the man they did not recognize broke the bread and then they knew him, I suddenly understand the idea our Roman and Anglican brothers and sisters have about the bread and the cup being transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. I suddenly understand why they handle the elements the way they do, why they empty the cup and eat all the bread.

I don’t believe we need to change our understanding of Communion, but I do believe we need to change our understanding of experiencing Christ.

Of course, change is hard. Even people who have had a spiritual epiphany have personalities and temperaments that pre-date the great shining moments in their lives. Cleopas may have been a guy who hogged the covers, and I doubt that changed much after Emmaus. Peter liked to talk a lot, and that definitely did NOT change after he saw the risen Christ. But they had an enhanced awareness of the nearness and power of God as expressed in Jesus, who lived and died and rose from the dead, transformed in order to transform us.

When we hold tight to the way we have always done things, when we hang onto old grudges, when we close our minds to new possibilities, we dare Christ to cross over the line and mess with us!

Some of us are more stubborn than others, and I include myself in the most stubborn group of all.

He walked ahead, as if he were going on…

Imagine if Cleopas and his companion had not called out to the risen Lord, had not invited him to sit with them at table? Would any of us know him today?

I suspect he fell in with them knowing who they were, working through two people who would have invited any stranger to their table, as was the custom of the time, two people ready to know him in the breaking of the bread.

I believe God works through us as we are and invites us to experience Christ in ways that come to us surprisingly naturally.

We’ve come to the end of the time when my primary job will be serving as your interim pastor. On Friday, I will begin to be “yours” only half-time and to do ministry in a way that is new to me, in two churches at the same time. I believe God works through us as we are. I just said that, didn’t I? And now I must apply it to myself. As a multi-tasking mother of three who attended seminary with no other adults in the home, as a person plugged in to modern technology and available by cell phone and email and Typepad and Facebook and Twitter, perhaps I am the right person to model something different for both churches involved.

I believe God works through us as we are and invites us to experience Christ in ways that come to us surprisingly naturally.

He walked ahead, as if he were going on…

Cleopas and his companion—his wife?—would never have let him go on without inviting him into their home and into their hearts.

I find you to be the same sort of people. You welcome the stranger. Sometimes you find it a little harder to get along with each other, but despite the minor aggravations that may cause, I see you ready to go on to the next step, together. We’ve worked hard, all of us, to reach this point, and the native honesty that sometimes creates friction has also been your strength in the process. That’s good news, sisters and brothers.

There are many last words I want to say to you as we end this particular part of our ministry together, words I would hope would sear into your brains, but they are my words and my thoughts and what really matters is how you, as the First Parish Church Congregational, United Church of Christ, write the next chapter of your story.  If I’m right, God works through us as we are and invites us to experience Christ in ways that come to us surprisingly naturally.

He walked ahead, as if he were going on…

I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story. Amen.

8 thoughts on “He Walked Ahead”

  1. “And if we convince ourselves that experiencing Christ is anything less deep and unexpected and mysterious, if we convince ourselves that we can be Christians simply by showing up and keeping the lights on, we will find ourselves turning them off and shuttering the windows and boarding up the doors, not just of this church but of Church.”
    Let all God’s children say “amen.”

  2. dang. You. are. so. GOOOD.
    beautiful. truthful.
    thank you for this, and that I get to soak it in as nourishment in the quiet before I leave for worship.
    peace and blessings to you.

  3. Excellent, excellent. I hope the congregation in question hears it in the right spirit and I pray for them and all small churches.

  4. A beautiful, powerful word for us all…may the Holy Spirit empower your preaching of it this day+

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