Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sermon, "Rising Strong: Tabitha," Acts 9:36-43

Sermon 5/19/19
Acts 9:36-43

Rising Strong: Tabitha


For the last several weeks, as we’ve journeyed through this season of Easter, these days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday (which we’ll celebrate in June,) we’ve been talking together about the unfolding story of the Resurrection. Sometimes we think of the Resurrection Jesus as a one time thing - a fixed event that just happens and we’re done with it. We sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and we mean that day, Easter day, and then we move on to the next thing. But I hope we as we’ve spent these weeks with the Resurrected Jesus, seeing how the message of Resurrection sinks into the disciples and transforms them bit by bit, you’ve come to better understand why we call ourselves “Easter People,” and why Easter is a whole season, not just a day. Resurrection isn’t something that we can check of our to-do list - “done.” It is ever unfolding in our lives.
Today is the last Sunday in our “Rising Strong” sermon series, and we shift gears a bit. Our text from today takes place after Pentecost, after the Ascension where Jesus returns to the heavens, in the midst of stories about how the disciples carry out the good news and the message of Jesus as they build what we come to know as the Church. We’ve seen Jesus take his time with the disciples, helping them understand the message of resurrection and new life, and now we get to see how they live it out.
Our text today opens in a city in Israel called Joppa. We’re told that there’s a disciple there named Tabitha - in Greek, her name is Dorcas. And she is devoted to good works and acts of charity. Already, we’ve been told something significant. Tabitha is called a disciple. The word used here is the feminine form of the word used for the Twelve disciples of Jesus. And this word in this form - it’s extremely rare. It’s only used a couple of places in all of the Ancient Greek texts together, and this is the only place this word appears in the Bible. Tabitha is the only woman who is specifically given the label disciple, even though we can look back and recognize the discipleship of other women who followed Jesus. Tabitha’s discipleship is such that even Luke can’t deny it. She’s a special woman, and her discipleship is demonstrated in good works and acts of charity.
Unfortunately, the reason we hear about her is because she dies. Tabitha dies, and those who loved her prepare her body and lay her out in the upper room of the house. Tabitha is apparently a part of a community of widows, and it is these widows, her friends, who hear that Simon Peter is staying nearby, and they decide to send and ask him to come and see Tabitha.
Peter agrees to come. And when he arrives and is taken to Tabitha’s body, Luke, author of Acts, tells us, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that [she] had made while she was with them.” I just love that verse. It’s just so real. There’s something so precious about it. I can exactly picture it. The tears of grief, the pride, the love. “See what she made?! She was so talented. She took care of so many people. She was such a sweet disciple of Jesus.” And I can imagine Peter taking it all in, how much this woman meant to this little community of faith.
At our Supper & Study this week, we speculated about why the widows wanted Peter to come and see Tabitha, even though she had died. I don’t think they were expecting or hoping for the miracle that was about to take place. So why did they want Peter to come? We talked about how maybe the friends of Tabitha knew that Peter, the most notable of all the disciples of Jesus, was nearby, and their friend, a faithful servant of Jesus, had died, and they just wanted to show their “best person,” so to speak, to this renowned disciple Peter. It would be like if Billy Graham had been making a visit to Gouverneur, Don Schuessler suggested, and we wanted to show off to him our most devoted follower of Jesus, because of how proud we were of them, how inspired we were by them. We’d want the holy, faithful servant we know to meet this special church leader.
I think about the fact that even though I’ve been here just three years, there are stories now that I can tell about parishioners I’ve never met. I can tell you some stories about Tim Stowell, or Stanley Brown, or Lauren Finley (Dorothy Hurlbut) and many others, even though I never knew them. I could talk about them as if I knew them, because their discipleship has shaped you as a congregation, and it was important to you that I knew about them, about how they impacted your faith and how they shaped the life of this congregation. Who they were is important to who you are today. Their lives shaped yours. And I think that’s what’s going on here in Acts. Tabitha was a disciple. Her life was full of good works and charity. And her friends, people whom Tabitha looked after with love and care - their lives were shaped by Tabitha and they couldn’t help but want to share her influence on them.
But Peter doesn’t just pray with them, and admire the tunics Tabitha had made. Instead, he orders everyone out of the room. And after he prays, he turns to the body of Tabitha and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And she does. She opens her eyes, she sees Peter, and she sits up. He takes her hand and helps her stand. And then, finally, Peter calls everyone back in and shows that Tabitha is alive. Word spreads, and people come to believe in Jesus because of the amazing thing that Peter has done. And with that, our scene is done. This is the only time we hear of Tabitha in the scriptures. But I imagine that she returns to her life of discipleship, of good works and charity, with even more gusto than before.
As I mentioned, Luke is the author of Acts as well as, of course, the gospel of Luke. And if you check out Luke 8, you’ll probably notice a Bible story that sounds pretty similar to what we just read. In Luke 8, Jesus raises a young girl, the daughter of a man named Jairus, from the dead. But the similarities don’t stop there. In both stories, there are messengers that go between the place of the deceased and the one called in to help, in both we see weeping bystanders, in each story, Jesus, and then Peter tell others to wait outside - they don’t get to witness the raising. In both, the raising happens with a simple command. “Young girl, get up.” “Tabitha, get up.” The words for young girl even sound like the name Tabitha. And in both, Jesus, and then Peter, take the hand of the woman they’ve raised. There are too many parallels to be accidental.
Luke is trying to tell us something here. Luke makes sure to show us how the work that Peter is doing now, after the Resurrection of Jesus, after the receiving of the Holy Spirit, even after Jesus is no longer physically present to direct Peter - what Peter is doing now is an embodiment of the work of Jesus. The power that Jesus had is now in Peter and the other apostles. The work of Jesus didn’t die, but is alive, just as Jesus didn’t die, but was resurrected. The work of God is alive and on the move. That’s what Luke most wants us to know, and why Tabitha is raised, even though she eventually will die again, even though Peter does not raise every faithful follower of Jesus he encounters who dies. Luke is showing us that Peter is doing the work of Jesus.
Friends, I believe that we are called to step into that role too. If we, too, are disciples, then we, too, embody Jesus, and we, too, are given the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things in the world and to be people who announce and labor for and cultivate and live out new life and resurrection in the world. How can we do that? How are we agents of resurrection and life in the world on behalf of Jesus whom we follow? It’s a tough question, because I know that God has never given me the sense that I would be able to, in God’s name, raise someone from the dead. I don’t think God means for me to do that, and I’m suspecting that God doesn’t mean for most of you to do that either, outside those of us who have callings to medical professions!
So, what can we do? Eric Barreto writes, “‘Many believed in the Lord.’ However, [that] belief does not emerge from a dazzling display of power. Belief is rooted in hope and in trust. So, when the residents of Joppa see Tabitha restored to life, they do not join this community of believers so much because they are stunned by this miraculous act of healing but because of what it might mean for them and for the world. If death is no longer a barrier between us, can we dare hope that the ills that plague us, our families, and our communities might also be healed by a God who cares so deeply for us?” (1)
Part our hope as people of faith, disciples of Jesus,  is knowing that even without a miraculous resurrection, death cannot, does not, conquer life. We are actively shaped today by the discipleship of people whose time on earth has long come and gone. Isn’t that incredible? But we aren’t just shaped by disciples like Peter. We’re shaped by Tabitha too. Peter was a preacher, and traveled, and was a leader in the young church, and he even raised people from the dead. And Tabitha was a widow who supported other widows and sewed clothing, who did good works and who lived a charitable life. In some ways, they were so very different from each other. And yet they both bore the title “disciple.” They both made sure they put the gifts and talents they had in use to the service of God. We remember them both. Today, in fact, there are still groups of woman who call themselves “Dorcas Societies” or “Dorcas Circles” who focus on good works through preparing clothing for people in need. One of the circles of United Methodist Women at my childhood church was known as the Dorcas circle. She left a legacy of discipleship - different than Peter’s, certainly. But so meaningful, and in fact maybe more accessible to some than Peter’s more grandiose works. We can live the lives of faith that impact the people around us, now and into the future.
We are Easter people, people of resurrection and new life. And we don’t quit being Easter people after Easter day or even the Easter season is over. No - everyday, we seek to cultivate hope in a world where so many feel hopeless. I wonder - when someday your time in this life is through - what will folks show of you? What’s the legacy of hope and life that you’re creating? We are Easter people. Let’s spend our lives cultivating resurrection. Amen.  


(1) Barreto, Eric, The Working Preacher,






Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon, "Rising Strong: Breakfast," John 21:1-19

Sermon 5/12/19
John 21:1-19

Rising Strong: Breakfast


I’ve been thinking about learning how to swim this week. I was not a strong swimmer as a child. We never had more than a wading pool at home, and although we’d go to Delta Lake State Park often enough, I never really moved beyond a determined doggy paddle. The first time I cared about my swimming ability was the first summer I went to Camp Aldersgate. The swim area there is still set up more or less the way it was when I was a child. There were three sections, roped off with buoy lines and docks. The front section was for beginners. It was large, wide, but the water didn’t get up much past my waist when I was a first time camper at 9 years old. The intermediate section was next, a small section, with water that went a bit over my head at the back side of it, and then there was the advanced section, where the water was all over my head, and there was a floating dock in the corner off of which you could dive and jump to your heart’s content. When you got to camp, you had to take a swim test, and then you’d get assigned a colored tag to hang on the board that showed which level you were allowed to swim in. Advanced swimmers could go in any section, but of course they always hung out on the dock, in the deep water.
After my first swim test, I was given a beginner tag. And I was crushed. Sure, I wasn’t a great swimmer, but I was embarrassed to be stuck in such shallow water. Even though I wasn’t the only one who got tagged as a beginner, some of my friends made it to intermediate, and if we wanted to swim together, they’d have to hang out in the shallows with me. I knew what a great sacrifice I was asking of them! And then I heard a rumor that you could retake your test, and try to do better. I worked hard, and was determined, and by the end of the week, I made it into the intermediate section.
The next year, I finally made it into the advanced section, which included passing the part of the swim test where you had to tread water for a whole minute - a task that seemed impossible, but which I managed to survive, sputtering though I might have been by the time I was done. But although I became a passable swimmer, I was still not a strong swimmer by any stretch. I never had lessons. I never really learned how to do any of the different strokes the correct way. I watched how others did it and tried to imitate what I saw.
By the time I was a teenager, we had moved to a home that had a swimming pool, and my skills rapidly improved. I would swim basically every day it was remotely warm enough to get in the water. I learned how to dive, and got really comfortable in the water. And then I applied to be on staff at Camp Aldersgate, and they wanted to hire me. But there was a catch. They wanted to hire me as a lifeguard. I was not a lifeguard. But they would pay for me and a few other potential staffers to go to a one week crash-course lifeguarding class. If I could pass the class, I could be on staff as a lifeguard. But I had to be ready: on the first day of training you had to swim 20 lengths of the large pool without stopping, and tread water for two minutes while holding a ten-pound brick out of the water. As much as I had improved, I knew, of course, that I’d never be able to do meet those goals, unless I got to work right away. I had about a month before the lifeguarding class, and I got permission to start going to a swimming class during gym instead of to my regular class. The swim class was for beginners, but the swim coach let me just stay in my corner and swim laps all period long. She’d occasionally wander over and give me pointers. And finally, by the time I got to the lifeguarding class, I was ready.
I’ve been thinking about my determination to get from the shallow waters of the beginner’s section to deeper waters, to grow from someone who could barely really swim to someone who would be responsible for the safety of others as they swam. I’m not always so determined, I’ll admit, to work hard, to improve my abilities. I don’t always have the discipline I need to develop a skill. For example, I’ve been imagining in my head for years that I would learn to play the guitar - what a handy skill that would be! But I don’t know any more now than I did when I learned two or three chords in music class in eighth grade. I’ve talked about learning guitar, and thought about it, and admire the skill in others, but despite what I say, I apparently don’t actually want to learn enough to do any of the work required to make it happen. Do you have some things like that in your life - something where you were determined to learn and grow and improve, like I did with swimming? And things that you keep saying you’re going to learn about, but never do, like I’ve done with playing the guitar?
What if we ask these same questions when it comes to our life with God, our journey of faith? I started thinking about learning to swim when I was reading our gospel text for today from John, and thinking about Jesus and the deep waters of faith. I think most of us would say that we want to grow in faith, that we want to be closer to God, that we want to align our lives with God’s hopes and dreams for us - that all sounds great, doesn’t it? Sure, let’s follow Jesus! But sometimes I wonder if, when it comes down to it, we don’t find that we’re actually content to just splash around in the shallows of faith life, rather than going through all the work that it will take us to get out into the deep water. After all, that deep water can be dangerous. You can get in way over your head, and the ground is not always firm beneath your feet. What will be for us, when it comes to our faith? Are we growing? Or are we content to be eternal beginners?
Our gospel lesson from today comes from the last chapter of John’s gospel. Our scene takes place after the passage Rev. Pierce talked about two weeks ago, when Jesus appeared to Thomas and the other disciples. Sometime after that, before Jesus ascends to be in God’s home again, this scene unfolds. A handful of the disciples have decided to go fishing: Simon Peter, Thomas, James and John, sons of Zebedee, and two others unnamed. They go fishing all night and catch nothing. At daybreak, Jesus stands on the beach, but they don’t recognize him. You’ve probably noticed that this is a pattern with the resurrected Jesus - this Jesus embodying new life is hard to see clearly, so full of glory and eternity as he is. Jesus points out that they’ve caught no fish, and he tells them to try casting out to the other side. Even though they don’t recognize him yet, they do as he says, and then their nets are so full of fish they are not able to haul them all in. Peter exclaims, like Mary did on Easter morning, “It is the Lord!” He swims to shore, the other disciples following behind with the boat.
Up until this point in the narrative, if things sound familiar to you, they should. Because this scenario is very near to the scene where Jesus first calls to the disciples. There, too, they are fishing. There, too, they catch nothing. There, too, Jesus redirect them to try another way of fishing. There, too, the result is a miraculous catch of fish. There, too, Peter responds, moved by Jesus’ demonstration of authority.
So much has happened since Jesus first called them! They’ve been with him for years, learning from him, sent out in his name to heal and preach, and they’ve seen him be arrested and crucified and they’ve experienced the resurrection. And yet, despite three years with Jesus and a literally death-defying resurrection, the disciples have all gone back to fishing. I’m sure it was even tempting to just go back to their old “normal,” their safe place. They knew how to be fishermen. It certainly seems to take a while for the new reality of the risen Christ to hit them. How easy, how tempting would it be for the disciples to just return to that life, occasionally reminiscing about the good old days, when Jesus was around?
This time, though, something different happens next. Jesus and the disciples share some breakfast on the beach. And when they are done, Jesus says to Simon, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The “these” in that sentence is open to interpretation, but I take it to mean “more than all else.” Peter answers that he does. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” And then this exchange repeats twice more: Jesus asking if Peter loves him, and Peter affirming. The second time Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” The third time, Peter is hurt, thinking Jesus is unconvinced by his responses. “Lord,” he says, “you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus tells him again, “Feed my sheep.” He continues on to tell Peter that his discipleship will bring Peter suffering. But, Jesus concludes nonetheless, “Follow me.” A few verses later, and John’s gospel is at a close.
The two scenes – when Jesus first calls the disciples, and now after his resurrection – are so similar in their set up. But something has changed: before Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied knowing Jesus, being associated with him, three times. And now, thanks to Jesus, he has the opportunity three times to recommit himself as a disciple. Each time he tells Jesus he loves him and agrees to serve him, he’s making the choice, choosing the path he was too afraid to take before. Karoline Lewis writes that Peter’s response this time around is not so much an act of forgiveness by Jesus for Peter – Peter is already forgiven by Jesus. Rather, it is a second chance for Peter to respond to the Jesus’ invitation. When he denied knowing Christ, he didn’t deny who Jesus was, but rather who he, Peter, was – a called disciple with a mission to carry out. This time, Peter accepts the invitation again to participate in the mission of Jesus, and he doesn’t turn back. (1) For a while, he was taking comfort in the shallow waters, having tried and failed to make it into the deep end, and figuring maybe he didn’t have what it takes. But Jesus gives him that opportunity to recommit, to take the test again, to see if he can improve, to practice, practice at discipleship until he gets it right, to go where the waters are way over his head, and the only solid ground he has to stand on is his faith in Jesus. This time, Peter says, “yes.”  
I don’t know about you, friends, but I am tired of saying I want God to make all things new in my life, but then refusing to live in a new way each day. All the while, Jesus is asking me, is asking you: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my lambs! Tend my sheep! Feed my sheep!” I want to stop living like I can’t quite make out what Jesus is saying! I know that we all feel like beginners, sometimes, when it comes to faith. Sometimes when we’re trying to follow Jesus, we can tell that the path ahead will be so challenging, and it seems like maybe hanging out in the shallows is good enough. We can splash around, basking in God’s grace. That’s ok, I guess. But I think, in your hearts, we’re like I was that first year at camp. Standing in the shallow water, and anxious about the deep water, worried that you can’t even tread water for a minute, but knowing that if you can learn, if you can push yourself, if you can take Jesus’ outstretched hand, the deep waters are where the real adventures begin.
Let’s not stop at just talking about getting closer to God. Let’s start building some skills of discipleship that might actually get us there. Let’s practice, practice, practice our faith. Let’s find some teachers who will show us what we can do differently. Let’s set aside the time we need. Let’s channel the resources we have to making it happen. Jesus says, “Follow me.” He calls to us across the deep waters. Let’s go for a swim. Amen.



(1) Karoline Lewis http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4583


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Sermon, "Rising Strong: Emmaus," Luke 24:13-35

Sermon 5/5/19
Luke 24:13-35


Rising Strong: Emmaus


"That same evening, a couple of hours before dark, Cleophas, Jesus’s uncle, and his wife, Mary, who’d been at the cross, were making their way unhappily toward Emmaus, a town seven miles northwest of the city at the end of Ayalon Valley. Two hours’ walk. An overnight stop over on their long journey back to Galilee. Get a leg of the journey out of the way. More importantly, get away from the cauldron of Jerusalem and its destruction of their profoundest hopes. The open road was more dangerous after dark, but it was a place to breathe and unburden themselves of the shattered Illusions they dared not broach in the city, even in whispers. (1)
Arguing, as spouses sometimes do. Mary was cautiously exuberant, hoping the news was true - and more importantly, rerooting their hopes. The tomb was definitely empty. Even stubborn Simon admitted that. And, say what you want about the Magdala woman, she was there when they killed him. Mary had been there herself. And Magdalene had also seen him. Well then? “And don't give me that ‘she's only a woman!’ She was there before any man!”
Cleophus was sourly convinced it was all over. So they had almost tired of snapping at one another, rehashing “And what will we do now?”
Suddenly she put her hand on her husband's arm to silence him. “Someone's back there,” she whispered. They stopped, and Cleophas moved in front of his wife and lifted his stout staff at an angle in front of them, ready.
The stranger was a big man, and the couple tensed. But he was alone. The sky was darkening. The village inn was only a bit up the road. But neither of them could outrun him.
The man raised his hand. “Hello!” he hollered. “I'm alone. Don't be afraid. I mean you no harm. May I join you?”
He approached slowly, hands empty in the air. The couple was stiffly wary, angling their eyes around him in case there were others.
“My name is Cleophas,” the man volunteered, cautiously. “This is my wife, Mary.”
“Are you on your way north?”
“Eventually.”
“Thank you for letting me walk with you,” the stranger said. “It gets lonely.”
“Yes,” the woman murmured, still watchful, uncomfortable.
“Forgive me. In the silence I couldn't help hearing. You seemed to be mourning. I hope I'm not interfering.”
Cleophas replied, “This weekend. The teacher. We had such hopes.” He fought the tears.
“Teacher?” the stranger echoed.
“Jesus. The Nazarene. It was heartbreaking.”
“Heartbreaking?”
“Weren't you coming from Jerusalem?”
“And thereabouts.”
“And you didn't hear about the clamor last weekend? When he arrived. And the uproar at his trial when all the fools wanted him crucified?”
“Tell me.”
“We thought...,” Mary said.
“We thought he was the One,” Cleophas interrupted, “you know? The Messiah. He did wondrous things. Curing people. And teaching kindness. Forgiveness. No matter what. But … but then he … pushed things too far. They say he did. They say he claimed he was … he was equal to God. Or something like that.”
“That’s why they killed him,” Mary said. “Then they told the Romans he wanted to be made king. The priest made that up. Because of the Messiah being … well, like David. But he wasn’t like that at all. But the Romans didn’t want trouble. So they crucified him. That gentle, kind man. They nailed his hands and feet, and …,” she began to choke on her tears.
“She was there,” Cleophas said, and put his arm around her shoulders. “Such hopes. But the Messiah’s not supposed to be … degraded like that ... not treated like a dog. The Holy One would never allow that.”
“Why not?” the stranger asked.
“The man and wife stopped and stood, unsure again. “Are you a Jew?” Cleophas asked.
“Of course,” the big stranger smiled.
“Then you’ve been taught. The holy books say Elijah would come. That was John the Baptist. Then the Messiah would come, like Moses, and lead us out of bondage again. And like David, he’d make us a people again. Make all things right again.”
“Like the Nazarene,” the stranger said, “just healing, forgiving, bringing only peace.”
“Yes.” Mary’s tears were running freely now, and her husband’s were brimming.
“The holy books,” the big stranger said. “You remember Job?”
“Of course,” Cleophas replied, a bit insulted.”
“But you don't remember, early on? Before Job's friends confused him? When he said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ You were willing to take the good parts - the healing, the forgiveness. But not the pain, not the cost of loving.”
“But …”
“You've let the priests push aside the prophets. They goad you with fear onto the right road and then they brighten it with the promise to take away all pain, all sorrow. Instead of helping you make sense of it.” He smiled at Mary. “Do you have children?”
“Four,” she said.
“Where any of their births joyous?”
She hesitated. “When it was over.”
“Exactly! Suffering, then Joy. Neither one would have any meaning without the other.”
They began to walk again, more slowly now. And the stranger led them through the Scriptures, quoting passage after passage that showed them how shallow and one-sided their ideas of the Messiah had been.
He reminded them of Isaiah's Messiah, “‘There was nothing appealing about him, nothing to call for a second look. Despised, useless, a man who knew pain like his shadow. Shunned, reviled, dirt. But it was our pains he carried, our burdens, our disfigurements, whatever is wrong with us.’”
The husband and wife listened, fumbling to take it in as he went on and on. “‘He was beaten, tortured, but he didn't say a word. A lamb to the slaughter. Silent. They trampled justice to take him away. Who could have guessed what was really happening? Slain for the sins of my people, buried with the wicked, even though he'd never harmed a soul or said one untrue word.’”
He quoted Zechariah as knowingly as if he had written it himself: “Oh, then I'll rain down a torrent of grace and peace and the house of David and all in Jerusalem. They'll look at Me whom they pierced. They will mourn for Him as for an only child.’ As you were mourning.”
Without realizing, they had walked into the village, where the oil lamps were beginning to puncture the darkness. The inn was just ahead.
“Well, then,” the stranger smiled broadly again. “Here we are. I'll be going on.”
“It's late,” Mary said, a hint of concern in her voice. “It's too dangerous on the road in the dark. By yourself.”
“Have you eaten?” Cleophas asked.
“Not in some time,” the stranger answered.
“Then come in for a bite,” Mary urged. “And stay the night. Not expensive. We checked. And if you haven't enough …”
So they went in and found places in the noisy tavern. When their food came, the stranger reached bread from the basket and said” Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh … Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of Ages, who brings forth bread from earth.” He looked at his two friends, and tore the bread in half, handing them the pieces, taking none himself.
They had followed him a very long time. At the wedding he had transformed water into wine. Out in the stony wilderness, he had - somehow - fed thousands with no more than a couple of loaves. They had heard the Twelve whispering about his mystical farewell meal with them the night before that horrible day.
And in that instant, they knew him. In the breaking of the bread.
Then, suddenly, he was no longer there. And yet ..."(1)


***


I came across that beautiful telling of our scripture text today in the devotional book I’ve been using throughout the seasons of Lent and Easter,and it just touched my heart. It made me feel like I was there on the road too. The scriptures don’t tell us much about Cleopas or his companion, but church tradition over the centuries has suggested that Cleopas might have been a brother to Joseph, earthly father of Jesus. Whoever these two were, walking on the road to Emmaus, their hearts were full of sadness, and they were overwhelmed and confused, trying to figure out how to make sense of all that had happened. Earlier in the day, some women had reported that the tomb was empty and that they’d had a vision of angels who told them that Jesus was alive. But no one had actually seen Jesus. How could they believe the words of the women? But where was the body? And how could Jesus be the one to redeem God’s people if he’d been executed? How could any of this be what God had intended? How could Jesus be the Messiah? Cleopas and his companion are full of questions, and hearts overflowing, they share everything they’re wondering about with this stranger who has joined them in their journey.
Luke tells us that in response, the man we know is Jesus himself calls them foolish, and then, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpret[s] to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” What a sentence! Imagine being in that conversation with Jesus. Luke doesn’t feel the need to record what Jesus said, however, frustrating me and others for millennia afterwards! Still, Cleopas and his companion don’t recognize Jesus. They do, however, invite him to stay the night and join them for a meal. Jesus agrees. And when he’s at the table with them, he takes bread, and blesses its, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly, the recognize him. And as soon as they do, Jesus is gone.
After he’s gone, they say to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking?” Quickly, they return to Jerusalem and find the disciples and other followers of Jesus gathered together. By the time they arrive, Jesus has appeared to Simon too, and they tell everyone about recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. After the close of our text for today, Jesus appears here, too. Luke says of those gathered that they were “in their joy … disbelieving and still wondering.” Even with the risen Jesus standing in front of them they can hardly believe it, that’s how hard it can be sometimes to believe the good news, the best news of new life. But they share food together again, and Jesus again opens their minds to understand the scriptures, and he commissions them to be witnesses of all that they’ve heard and seen.
Last week, I know you heard the gospel from John, about Thomas and his doubts, his need for confirmation that Jesus was truly alive. And I’m struck that here, too, there’s so much questioning - even when Jesus is standing right in front of them! They can’t even believe their own eyes. “In joy … disbelieving and still wondering.”
Reflecting on this text, preacher and theologian David Lose writes, “Isn’t that marvelous? That even after all this they still don’t believe. And even more marvelous, that they can be both joyful and disbelieving at the same time.
“Can we just say it ...? Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith, by definition, is trust in spite of a lack of evidence. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.
“Which means that when we talk about the “gathering of the faithful,” we’re not talking about the gathering of those whose faith/knowledge is absolute or certain or bedrock. We’re talking about those people who have all kinds of questions and doubts but still find joy and wonder in this message of good news about new life. Or maybe who want to find joy and wonder, haven’t yet, but keeping coming because of their hope.” (2) In joy, disbelieving, still wondering. But sticking with the joy.
The disciples stick with the joy. Because Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. In the sharing of a meal. We’ll see that again next week, too, in one more Resurrection story. Again and again when the Risen Christ gathers with folks and reveals that he is alive, he shares at table with them. And after just spending all of Lent talking about who Jesus eats with and why meals were so important, that shouldn’t surprise us. You get to really know people when you sit down and share a meal with them. And so the disciples and followers of Jesus get to really know the truth of resurrection when they break bread with Jesus once again. They remember all that he’s said. They better hear all that he’s saying now. And hope and joy balance out the fear and wonder.
Today, friends, we too are invited to come to the table with Jesus. We come as Easter people, yet as people who question and wonder and doubt and can’t even take it in when new life is standing right in front of us. But we come in hope. And our hope does not disappoint us - because when we bless the bread, and break and share the bread, Jesus is made known to us once again, and we become Christ for the world. Amen.
(1) This section is excerpted from OMalley, William J. SJ, “Very Early Sunday Morning,” in All Shall Be Well: Readings for Lent and Easter, Leach, Michael, James Keane, and Doris Goodnough, editors, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015, 307-313. 
(2) Lose, David, In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-3-b-resurrection-doubts/