Sermon for April 30, 2017
Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24: 13-35

May these words proclaim your truth, Risen Lord.  Amen.

Just Keep Walking

In this ongoing Easter Season, if you do not have doubts about the Easter story by now, then you haven’t been paying attention.  Doubt is the very first response to resurrection.  While the four gospels have many unique variations in their accounts of that third morning, they are absolutely consistent on one thing:  no one believes the good news of Jesus’ resurrection when they first hear it.  No one.  That includes Jesus’ own disciples, the ones who were closest to him and spent the most time with him. In fact, the level of disbelief starts with the disciples.

Last week we heard about the doubts of Thomas, which followed upon the doubts of the other disciples.  In the verses before this morning’s passage begins, Luke tells us that the disciples dismiss the testimony of the women who had been to the empty tomb as an “idle tale.”  Actually, the Greek word Luke employs – leros – is the root of our word delirious. So in response to the testimony of the women, what the disciples really think is that these women are out of their minds.  Even after the disciples had actually seen Jesus and heard the report from their two friends on the Emmaus Road, Luke writes that “in their joy they were still disbelieving and wondering” (24:41) while Matthew tells us that at the Great Commissioning, some the disciples “worshiped (Jesus); but some doubted” (28:16).

Can we really blame any of them?  The earth generally likes to keep its dead, and resurrection upsets the natural order of things.  It is no surprise then, that this morning’s Resurrection story also contains elements of doubt.  The two people on the road discussing the events of the morning have not been convinced of the women’s message, either.  As in the story of Doubting Thomas, we again find Jesus assuaging doubt by offering his very presence without guilt or shame, providing the opportunity for these two disciples to come to believe.  But while the lens through which we are invited to view this story contains doubt, it also includes another element of disbelief:  loss of hope.

Four words appear right in the middle of this story, four words that are among the most heartbreakingly honest in Scripture: “But we had hoped …”  When Jesus asks what the two travelers are talking about, they explain with the comment, “But we had hoped that he (Jesus) was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21).  But we had hoped.  We can almost hear the defeated sigh, the low groan.

So much is said in those four words, as they speak of a future that is not to be, a dream that created energy and enthusiasm but did not materialize, a promise that offered a solution that proved to be false. Those four words underscore a future that is closed off, irrelevant, dead.  But we had hoped. Few things are more tragic than a dead future.  It is not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but now will not.

“But we had hoped …” How often do we find ourselves in the shadow of those four words?  “But we had hoped that our child would make better choices.”  “But we had hoped that the marriage counseling would work out.”  “But we had hoped that the doctor’s diagnosis was wrong.”  “But we had hoped that others would understand our side.” “But we had hoped the cancer would not return.” “But we had hoped the rehab would do the trick.”  “But we had hoped to have a child.” “But we had hoped a resolution could be found.”

Disappointment is often hard for us to understand, especially when we consider ourselves faithful Christians, just as those two travelers on the road back to Emmaus were faithful followers of Jesus.  We wear our crosses around our necks and we say our prayers expecting these actions to become magic charms that will protect us from sorrow, and when that doesn’t happen, we are like Cleopas, disturbed and confused.  Loss makes us uncomfortable, and neither society nor the church teaches us very well about how to deal with it.  Better to gloss over it, bury it, or simply deny it.  But in so doing, we might miss Jesus.

As Cleopas and his companion acknowledge and struggle with that loss, they just keep walking.  We can assume that despite their disappointment, confusion, and hopelessness, they are headed back to their village to pick up where they left off—to get back to supporting their families, tending their flocks, and doing whatever it is that they need to get done.  They don’t hide out in a locked room with the other disciples, and they don’t run away for fear of the Jews.  They just keep walking.  And in so doing, Jesus appears.

Like Mary Magdalene in her grief, these disciples do not at first recognize Jesus.  But perhaps practicing what they learned from him, they invite this stranger into their conversation.  They listen to him as he interprets the scripture in a different way than they have ever heard.  When they reach their home, and this stranger proposes to walk farther, they offer hospitality in the midst of their fatigue and sorrow, and look what happens:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he disappeared from their sight.  They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (30-32) 

Over a meal, as the crumbs fall to the table, in an ordinary moment on their journey, these two followers are surprised by joy as they realize that the guest at their table is Jesus.  He is not dead, but alive.  He has not abandoned them or betrayed them, but has kept walking with them, even when they did not know it.  By the end of the story, these two grief-stricken disciples explode with excitement and joy, turning right back around and making the seven mile journey back to Jerusalem, changed people headed in a new direction.

Several years ago I came across a more modern story that makes the same point.  A certain man had an only child, a son, and during the Vietnam War, that son’s draft number was called and he was sent off to battle.  Every morning and every night, the father prayed for the safety of his child.  Every Sunday, the father went to church and knelt there and prayed for God to protect his son.  He had no doubt that surrounding his son with so much prayer would assure his well-being and bring him safely home.

Then that afternoon came when two soldiers appeared at his door with a black-rimmed envelope.   His son had been killed in battle.  The father could not believe it for he had hoped that all those prayers and all his faithfulness would surely be rewarded.  His only prayers to God now were angry, harsh, accusatory cries about betrayal and disappointment.  He quit going to church.  He vowed to quit believing.

After a few weeks had passed, his pastor came to speak with him and took blow after blow from hurt and anger.  “Where was God,” the father cried, “Where was God when my only son died?” A long silence ensued as the question hung starkly in the air.  Then the pastor looked at him and said, “I believe he was right here, crying with you the same way he cried when his only son was killed.”

Broken hearts are real, as are broken hopes.  Just like the disciples and the multitudes of people who have lived and died since then, we live in a broken world.  The new world, the next world, has not come.  Yet.  But in the meanwhile, Jesus does show up, around the communion table, in the words of scripture, in the community of brother and sister, and in the secret places of our hearts, to cry with us, to mourn with us, and to keep walking with us.  As author Anne Lamott writes, “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until the light returns.”  As the evangelist John wrote, “The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

In each Resurrection story, whether it is Jesus calling Mary by name in the garden, or eating a meal of fish on the beach with his closest friends, or inviting Thomas to touch him, it is plain to see that Jesus wants to walk with us.  We may not know what joyful surprises Jesus has in store for us if we do not get on the road and keep walking.  Take a look.  Open your eyes, and you will discover that you were never abandoned or forsaken.  Jesus is on the road with you. Just keep walking.

More Posts