A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
When I think of post resurrection appearances of Jesus in the gospels, the story I seem to remember the most is the one that is told in Luke about the two men walking on the road to Emmaus, a town about 7 miles outside of Jerusalem. I imagine them walking out their anxiety and talking through the strange events of the last couple of days in order to make sense of what had happened. I often walk to do the same thing.
I usually don’t let a stranger interrupt my thoughts, though. Cleopas and his companion did, and when the stranger fell in line with them and asked them what they were talking about, they turned to him and said in effect: “Are you kidding? Where have you been? Haven’t you heard what has happened to Jesus of Nazareth?”
And then they reported to this stranger who Jesus was, how he died and how he had apparently been raised from the dead. They spoke as if they were newspaper reporters – just stating the facts. But that’s really all they could do since they hadn’t been able to connect the dots to anything that made sense to them, yet.
It turned out that the stranger knew more than he had originally let on. He turned the tables on the two men and in effect said to them: “Where have you been? Don’t you get that what happened to Jesus fulfilled the words of the prophets? What more is there to understand?”
Instead of being put off by the stranger’s authority in speaking such words, Cleopas and his walking companion seemed intrigued by what he said and knew. Without being able to put their finger on it, something about what the stranger was telling them seemed fascinating and familiar. They wanted to continue to have the stranger in their presence and invited him to join them for supper.
And when they were all seated at the table, the two men offered the stranger some bread; and when he broke it and blessed it, Luke wrote that the eyes of the two men were opened – which says to me that their hearts were opened, too, and that they were able to recognize the stranger for who he was. They were in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. And in perfect clarity of hindsight they asked each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” (Luke 24: 32).
Well, very soon after that sighting of Jesus came another one – the one we heard about in this morning’s gospel and one that sounds similar to what we heard about last Sunday – the one from John’s gospel that involved Thomas’ doubting. Unlike the two walking companions who showed no fear of the stranger among them, Jesus’ disciples were, as Luke wrote: “startled and terrified” (Luke 24:37).
They didn’t know what to think of this person who was somehow able to walk through the closed and locked door and stand among them in the the Upper Room where they were hiding from Roman authorities.
When Jesus said “Peace be with you” to his disciples, they felt anything but peace. Jesus had certainly sensed the disciples’ fear at other times during his ministry with them, but maybe no more poignantly than in that Upper Room. So he opened their minds and reminded them that the Messiah was to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 45-47).
Something burned within their hearts as Jesus spoke those words about himself. He then led them to Bethany and promised that they would be clothed with the Holy Spirit. And with that, he ascended into heaven. Luke then wrote that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy in their hearts.
So, from fear to joy; from misunderstanding to understanding; from closed minds to open minds. In every post-resurrection story, Jesus literally had to open the minds of those he encountered before they could begin to comprehend what was right in front of them.
Jesus comes to us and opens our minds in order that we might begin to comprehend him, too. The problem is that we are not always ready to have our minds opened and want to be in control of the process of when and how that happens. We seem to want to be in control of the process of coming to Jesus instead of having Jesus come to us.
“Come to Jesus” is a popular expression these days, but what does it actually mean? I seem to hear it in the context of having a humbling experience or coming to the truth of something. You’ve heard about “come to Jesus” meetings, haven’t you? They’re usually reserved for people needing a major attitude adjustment about something.
But as a serious expression of faith, I think it means accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior after realizing the powerlessness we all have over so many aspects of our lives.
But what if we think of Jesus coming to us instead of us to Jesus? That takes control away from us and puts it squarely into the hands of the Holy Spirit where it belongs. Jesus came to his disciples more than once after he had been raised from the dead. Jesus had also come to Mary as she sat crying by the empty tomb. Jesus had come to Saul on the road to Damascus before he became Paul.
In all instances, Jesus opened the minds of the ones he came to, so that they could see him for who he was and is, stripped away of their preconceived notions, stubbornness, and misunderstanding. That’s a lot for the Holy Spirit to get through to reach any of our hearts and open them.
Have you ever had your heart opened in such a way because of a surprising insight that you had about something that you thought you understood so well? Maybe these days we call it an “aha moment”. In my experience, these moments catch me completely unaware which makes me think that “unaware” is the best way to be, to have our minds opened when it’s so easy to keep them closed, instead.
One of my biggest “aha” moments happened a little more than a year ago when I was called to visit the bedside of an alcoholic who had relapsed after 10 years of being sober. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do and was anything but a “non-anxious” presence when his distraught wife opened the door to their house and greeted me.
The truth was that I was scared to be there because my experience with active alcoholics usually left me feeling helpless and defenseless. And when I get scared, I usually try to control every minute of my time with someone so that I won’t have to feel or acknowledge my fear.
After a twenty-minute visit, I was back in my car. And as I drove away, I realized that instead of feeling drained, I felt strangely uplifted. I’m not sure what I said or did, and I know my visit didn’t follow the script that was in my head when I first entered his room; but something happened that filled me up and gave me the courage to be what I needed to be in a way that I had rarely experienced before.
I kept reliving that visit, trying to make sense of it in my head and realized that for once in my life, it wasn’t about being “in my head”. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it was about what I felt in my heart during my visit with that man. And that’s when I began to believe that perhaps I was being called in another direction with my ministry – in the direction of pastoral care and counseling.
The post-resurrection experiences of Jesus were probably the biggest “aha” moments that anyone encountering him could have ever had. The last thing the disciples were expecting was a visit from the very person who had hung on a cross, had died and was buried. That’s why they were so understandably scared.
But their minds were opened and their doubts were burned away as they finally got who Jesus was and as they felt in their hearts the full impact of what he had said to them. That’s why they returned to Jerusalem with such joy in their hearts. That was the blessing of the Easter story for them. And that promise of joy is the blessing of the Easter story for us, as well.