A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter in 2017, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
According to the gospel account that we read last week, while Cleopas and his companion were walking to Emmaus, the rest of the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, for fear of what might happen to the known companions and followers of Jesus now that his enemies had tasted blood.
Peter himself, arguably one of Jesus’ closest confidantes, had denied all knowledge of him when challenged outside the chief priest’s house; and now, confused by stories of angels and empty tombs, he huddled behind a locked door somewhere in Jerusalem, waiting. Waiting for the hue and cry to die down, the noise in the streets drummed up by false charges, holiday crucifixions, a rush to complete the latest round of executions before time ran out. Waiting for the coast to clear so that they could beat a retreat back to Galilee, where by some accounts, they might expect to see Jesus.
Cleopas and his friend, whom I shall call Fred, had some reason to set out anyway and journey to Emmaus. On the way, they picked up with a stranger, who butted into their private conversation, wanting to know what it was that had them so worked up.
They could have lied. They could have said they were discussing the weather, or the quality of the lamb that they had eaten for their Passover meal. They could have said anything; they were risking everything by telling the truth to a stranger.
He could have been a spy, for the chief priests or the secret police. He could have been an agent of Rome, a temple mole. They did not have to show their hand to this stranger on the road. But for some reason, they told him the truth. They told him about Jesus, about their hopes and their desires for him to be the Messiah, the one to save them. They even told him about the rumours of resurrection, even though it was demonstrably dangerous to do so, to tell a stranger that the tomb, at which Pilate and the priests had posted soldiers and guards to keep the dead man in his place; that this tomb had been emptied of its death, opened to the light on the first day of the new week.
Cleopas and Fred met Jesus on the road. They did not know him, but it turns out that it was to Jesus himself that they first preached the resurrection of Christ.
Many of you know that last weekend I spent three days in Chicago, at a conference organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence, studying, lamenting, repenting of the unholy intersection of racism, poverty, and gun violence in our country. It was a remarkable event, and I hope that I will have more of a chance over the coming weeks to share with you some of the insights of the people presenting and preaching and teaching together at that conference.
One of the things that happens when we come together as Christians in the name of the Prince of Peace, the one appointed to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, the day of God’s salvation is that we are emboldened to proclaim it ourselves. In good company, in safe spaces, it is easy to utter the iconic (really, how are these controversial?) words, Black Lives Matter. It is safe to pray for the victims of judicial executions along with the victims of extra-judicial violence. It is safe to say that gun violence will not be diminished by adding more guns to the equation. It is acknowledged and expected that a theology of the cross – of the non-violent, self-sacrificing love of God is something to follow at all costs. We are emboldened, and inspired, and our spirits are raised from the dead into something resembling new life by such meetings of minds and hearts and bodies.
But what happens when we go our separate ways, at the end of three days, and walk the road alone, or in the company of strangers? Do we remain bold? Do we continue to speak the truth? Or do we fall silent, and lock our opinions behind closed doors for fear of the chief priests, the secret police, our fellow countrymen and women? In the moment of crisis, or in the casual encounter on the road, do we deny Jesus?
At our bible study on Tuesday, we considered the conversion of the three thousand whom Peter addressed after the locked doors were blown open and the Spirit unleashed upon them on the day of Pentecost. They were literally blown away by the gospel that they heard, and they were baptized, and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.
But, asked one wise woman, once the commotion had subsided and the crowds dispersed, what did they tell their own rabbi when they got home? How did they explain what they had heard, and how it moved them? Did they continue to tell the truth, and to proclaim the gospel, or did they fall silent, for fear of what their family and friends might think of them?
I do not know whether Cleopas and Fred were foolish or brave. I don’t know whether they had been living in such a bubble with their fellow disciples that they forgot there could be other opinions of the death of Jesus (that seems unlikely, given the press before Pilate’s palace). Maybe they felt something sympathetic in this stranger who joined them on the road. Or perhaps they simply felt that they had nothing left to lose, if Jesus were really dead, and everything to gain if he were truly arisen.
Brave or foolish, they told the truth of the gospel nevertheless. They told of their hopes and desires for Jesus as their Messiah. They told of the mystery of the empty tomb, rumours of resurrection. They laid it all out for a stranger on the road, and he repaid them with the Bread of Life: the word of God’s promise through the prophets, and the sacrament of his own precious life poured out before them at their own table.
In fact, they risked it twice, Cleopas and Fred, preaching resurrection once to Jesus as a stranger on the road, and again to their fellow friends, who earlier had considered the women’s proclamation an idle tale; still Cleopas and Fred risked telling their truth, sharing their Jesus moment with the doubters, who now said yes, we know, we have seen him, too.
Twice they told their story, and each time Jesus was present with them, and going ahead of them.
Encountering Cleopas and Fred on the road back from Chicago this week, I feel as though their message to me is not to be afraid to continue to risk the truth.
They tell me, Jesus is the truth; accept no alternatives. He is the way: follow him, even if through the valley of the shadow of death. For he is life. He is good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, health to the lame and the lonely, sight to the blind. And, they tell me, he is risen. Amen. Alleluia.
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