A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Year A – May 4, 2014
David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate
In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Now on that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24: 13-16)
While it’s nice to have a full congregation on Easter Day, I confess that I have come to believe over the years that those of you who faithfully show up Sunday after Sunday, and especially on these Sundays following Easter Day itself somehow grasp the Easter message in a way that perhaps eludes so many. I once heard it said that the emptied out pews after Easter Day remind us of those who, after that first Easter, had disappeared not really taking in all that had happened and what it would mean for them from day to day. It has ever been thus, so in some way it is a joy for a preacher to try and prepare a sermon for a congregation such as you all are this morning. You are the ones who are here through thick and thin. You understand that Easter is by no means over with the triumphant postlude after the last service on Easter Day. It is, in fact, just beginning.
The Gospel passages during these Sundays during the great fifty-day celebration of Easter give us a vivid glimpse of important times when Jesus appears to those whose lives had been so disrupted by the event of his death. On Easter Day itself, we saw the women at the empty tomb, grieved that his body had been stolen before they could prepare it for a decent burial. In their grief and confusion they could not grasp the notion that he was still in their midst. Then that night, as we heard in last week’s gospel reading from John, we witnessed the disciples minus Thomas who was off somewhere bereaved and bewildered all by himself, huddled in a room fearfully trying to bring order and make sense of what happened. They too could not grasp the notion that he was still in their midst until he appeared to them behind those locked doors. A week later, Thomas was with them but did not believe what they tried to tell him until once again, Jesus appeared to them all in that room behind those locked doors. He reached out to Thomas in a way he knew Thomas might understand. Now today we see two of Jesus’ followers, one of them whose name was Cleopas, walking along the road on the way to Emmaus. Like so many others, their hearts were troubled by the hopelessness and the helplessness they felt after all that had taken place. They too could not see Jesus when he came along beside them on the road even though he began to engage them in conversation for as well, they were reeling in shock from the events around his violent death on the cross.
Today’s account in Luke’s Gospel describing Jesus’ encounter with two who had been followers of Jesus gives us insight into the nature of faith itself. It is an account that helps us to realize that faith does not require visible proof. You see, our natural tendency is to want visible, tangible evidence. You’ve heard the phrase, “Seeing is believing” Luke describes how these two followers of Jesus were walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Still in shock over what had happened just a few days earlier, they were talking when someone drew up and caught stride with them, but in their state of shock their eyes were kept from recognizing him. This man who had joined them asked what it was they were discussing. Surprised, Cleopas, one of the two followers, asked the man if he was the only stranger in Jerusalem who had not heard about what had happened. The man listened. Then, he began to recount all the things he had taught them. He spoke to them about all the passages in the scriptures that foretold about himself, yet despite what he said to them, their eyes were still kept from recognizing him. As the end of the day drew near, the two followers of Jesus prepared to stop to eat and the man who had joined them walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him to stay with them and join them for dinner. As he sat at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And then, what happened? He vanished from their sight. They looked at each other in utter amazement. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They went and told the eleven of their companions and told them what had happened and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
How often have you said, or heard it said, “I believe with all my heart?” The New Testament writers were on to something when they spoke of how we see things with the eyes of our hearts. Believing is a result of having the eyes of our hearts opened so that we can see either for the first time, or that we can see once again. If it is true that we see with the eyes of our heart, as scripture says, then the condition of our heart affects our ability or our inability to see things clearly. Those who followed Jesus and who loved him were so overwhelmed that they probably had no idea how shocked they were because shock is what happens when things shut down when our bodies are met with trauma. We become overwhelmed. When we are overcome with grief, or our eyes are blinded by the emotions we are feeling, we cannot see those things in our midst that we might otherwise be able to see. We become numb to our surroundings. If, for example, there is anger or resentment in our hearts then we see others wrongly. If our hearts are weary, then the world around us becomes distorted. Yet when the eyes of our hearts are opened by such things as love, or grace, or by forgiveness, we come to see things more clearly again. That evening on the road to Emmaus, when they stopped to eat together, something happened when Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and gave it to them. They remembered once again what they had done so many times in the company of this man. It all came back to them. When the eyes of their hearts were opened, they recognized Jesus. They saw him and he became known to them once again in the breaking of the bread. So it would be in the generations to come as the faithful would gather to break bread together in his presence.
The late Jesse M. Trotter, who was dean of Virginia Seminary when I began my first year there, wrote a wonderful book, now unfortunately out of print, titled, Christian Wholeness. (Fortunately, Tenny Wellford was able to find me a copy) In it he speaks about the Eucharist and he writes, “Consider… that in the Eucharist the priest does not by some magic of conjuration or incantation bring down to the altar the presence of Christ. Rather in this sacrament Christ calls us ever and again to his side to refresh and renew our faith-union with him. Times of fragmentation and scatteredness, of confusion in our beliefs and of self-dissatisfaction are never dealt with once and for all, to be over and done with. Valleys and mountain tops are the contours of life. By repeatedly returning to Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the Mass, in the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, regardless of the name we customarily give the sacrament, our need for courage and wholeness is met.”
Jesse Trotter’s words connect to your experience and to mine as we face the valleys and the mountain tops that are the contours of our lives. I have found them to be true in my own journey. During the days following the loss of our son, Jamie, for example, the eyes of my heart were blind to precious many things. I was not able to preach for some time. I kept a low profile. People were very patient and gave me space. Then Thom Blair asked me if I wanted to be the celebrant at the 8:00 service. I figured I could do that as I had done it for all those years and I could get through it. It would simply involve, or so I thought, reciting the familiar words in the Prayer Book. But something happened. It was during the Eucharistic Prayer in Rite One when I came to the words, “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven…” What I remember is that at that moment I could feel the emotion rising up within me. Somehow, by God’s mercy, I didn’t lose it but was able to keep it in the middle of the road and continue on, yet I had become aware of a presence I had not felt for some time. To this day I believe it was God’s Holy Spirit making known to me once again the presence of the risen Lord and it was in the breaking of the bread that the eyes of my heart began to open once again. It was a thread onto which I could hold. My belief began to return. As my belief began to return, so the eyes of my heart could see the risen Jesus somehow beside me. It is an ongoing journey for me as it is for most of us. That’s why we are given the sacrament of Holy Communion so that again and again we can return to God’s table and do so throughout our journey through the valleys and mountain tops that are the contours of our lives.
As each of us comes to God’s table this morning, may the eyes of our hearts be opened to the presence of the risen Lord, that your yearning for the courage and the grace to meet whatever you have to face in this coming week be met.
On this third Sunday of Easter we have every reason believe that Jesus is with us. In the breaking of the bread we find that the eyes of our hearts are opened and we can see the presence of the risen Jesus by our side and in our midst. Believing, we can see once again. It is then that you and I go out into the world around us and in whatever way we can—whatever way that is our own— to show and tell others that this is so.
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him… Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”