The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 3rd Sunday of Easter
30 April 2017
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Throughout salvation history, as we heard in the ancient stories and prophecies recalled at the Easter Vigil, there is an overarching story of God’s presence and love throughout the generations of scripture and beyond that are reflected in this morning’s gospel as accompaniment. In the beginning, God walked with us, calling us by name, teaching us in intimate fellowship, until, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago on Easter morning, we stopped hearing God’s voice. God changed Godself to meet our needs, but God’s accompaniment has never ceased.
In Christ, God has once again walked with us, this time as one of us!
For Luke, this morning’s gospel is the first of Jesus’ resurrection appearances after the empty tomb. The angels tell the women that Christ is risen, and they believe. They run to tell the other disciples, who think it is an idle tale, yet Peter runs to the tomb and is astonished to find it as they women have described.
In the next breath, Luke takes us to the road. As in so many other divine encounters throughout scripture, the journey becomes the thin place of Christ’s first visitation—one of accompaniment on the journey home from Jerusalem for two of his disciples whose spiritual journey has taken a devastating blow.
It is interesting that only Cleopas’ name is mentioned in Luke’s story, and it leads many of us to believe that the other disciple may have been Cleopas’ wife, Mary, whom John’s gospel tells us was amongst the women standing witness near the cross on the day Christ was crucified.
Regardless, to Luke this was the most important first revelation of Christ’s resurrection. Those who doubted the women’s faith in the Angels’ words left, defeated—this pair for their home in Emmaus. Discussing all that had happened as they walked home, suddenly the unlooked for, unexpected, Christ is walking with them in accompaniment. He listens, he walks with them, he questions them, he challenges their slowness of heart in embracing a new expectation of who messiah was to be, he opens up the scriptures to them, and then he makes to walk on when they reach Emmaus. With their hearts burning within them (as they describe the experience later), they invite this captivating stranger to their home, offering the safety and hospitality of food, shelter, and fellowship. As if seeing him for the first time since he joined them, their eyes are opened when Christ takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Dropping everything, and heedless of the approaching night, they hasten back to Jerusalem— about a seven mile walk—to tell everyone what has happened, only to find that Peter has also seen the risen Lord. In shock, amazement, and renewed faith, they all share their stories, again only to have Christ join them, in the continuation of the account beyond today’s reading, and bid them peace. As he did on the Emmaus road, he opens the scriptures to all of them, shows them his hands and his feet, eats with them to prove that he is not a ghost, and commissions them to carry on in his name.
The Journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus was one of doubt, of uncertainty, of confusion and despair. Accompanied on this journey to the heart of their home, Christ only became known to the two disciples in the story in the act of table fellowship that re-opened their minds and hearts to God’s presence with them in a new and surprising way. The journey back from Emmaus to Jerusalem is one of hope, exultation, clarity, and renewed purpose, and it is in the balance between these two journeys that expectation is changed from a limited and insular understanding of God’s love and purpose in Christ to a renewed understanding of accompaniment in belief and empowered mission.
Here too is the difference between the Peter who denied Christ in fear, ran to the tomb in disbelief, and who encountered, in the living Christ, a new understanding of God’s presence and purpose that began his transformation from the impulsive disciple who constantly leapt from experience to assumptions based on his own perceptions, to the Spirit-filled leader we encounter in Jerusalem in our reading from Acts. Encountering Christ in fellowship, in sharing a meal, in walking in accompaniment and new understanding, the journey of faith is transformed from one of one-sided expectation to one of relationship.
Our reading from Acts comes during the Pentecost conversation—the one in which the disciples received the holy spirit, went out, encountered the crowds, and began teaching them—each in the cosmopolitan crowd hearing the Good News in their own native tongue. Proclaiming his faith with conviction and with Christ’s promises rather than his own expectations, Peter’s words moved many in the crowd to seek what Peter and the other disciples had experienced. No longer what they expected, but what they might do to also encounter God in the new and surprising relationship the disciples described.
So too, writing to Christians living in persecution in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, the writer of Peter’s epistle recalls the mutual accompaniment that becomes both the mission and the experience of each person following in Christ’s steps, of each person inheriting the promise spoken of in today’s reading from Acts and proclaimed centuries before by the psalmist who said
How shall I repay the Lord *
for all the good things he has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people.
Last week, we talked about Christ’s invitation to Thomas to satisfy his doubts, to meet him where he was so that he could recover his faith. Today we encounter the rest of Christ’s doubting and despairing disciples. While the focus last week was on satisfying doubt, and the offer to meet Thomas where he was, this week, we see that not only does Christ’s offer to meet us where we are apply to those in this part of the story, but that he accompanies them in that time of doubt, trial and despair—journeying with them from brokenness, questioning, and turmoil to collective-understanding and renewed-relationship.
Accompaniment is one of the most basic human needs. As children, it is taken for granted as we reach out for reassurance, constant care, and the reminder of security in the presence of our caretakers. After separating from our parents and intimate caretakers, we find accompaniment in friends, in chosen family, and in the other intimate relationships that sustain us. But as adults, we can no longer take accompaniment for granted. We find, through its absence, that, when we have it, it lifts us from depression, helps us to feel whole, and helps us to heal when we’re hurting, ill, or broken. Put simply, relationships matter. As much as we try to convince ourselves that we are better off on our own, or that we are strong enough to make it on our own, being alone is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining.
As some of you already know, I am an introvert. At the most basic level, all this means is that I periodically need down-time to recharge and process all that’s been going on in my day, because eventually social interaction exhausts me. I love it! But it exhausts me. This may seem to be contradictory to what I’ve just said about needing relationship and accompaniment, but the drain of being alone is one that seems to tug at our very souls as relational beings. Even as an introvert, I need at least some emotional and spiritual accompaniment of others to feel whole, to feel alive, and to feel full enough to seek out those few quiet moments to process the joy and fulfillment of a well-lived day. Over-socializing may lead to a day ended in exhaustion, but under-socializing leads to a day ended in depression.
Our relationships with God are similar in some important ways. Whether we might experience ourselves as spiritual introverts or extroverts, we have a deep need to experience and encounter the divine to feel whole and connected on a deeper level to the world around us–and even to ourselves.
I had some great conversations with a group of young adults last summer who weren’t sure what they believed, or how their beliefs fit into a Christian camp. We talked for the two weeks leading up to camp about who God was to each of them, where they encountered the divine, what having a relationship with God looks like, what it means, and how their individual, eclectic, and questioning relationships with the divine were perfect for engaging kids and teens throughout the summer who were looking for authentic responses to their own questions, rather than canned responses. Faith isn’t something we simply have or don’t have. It is a journey and a relationship that has its ups and downs, its times of uncertainty and its times of confidence. And like the need to not be constantly physically and emotionally alone, the need to not be spiritually alone is also an acute condition of our human experience. Whether we encounter our spiritual fulfillment in the redwoods, in the ocean, in the beauty of the world around us, in music, in the quiet of a deep book, in conversation with intimate companions, in church revival, or in the Book of Common Prayer, the need to engage with that larger-than-us-ness that you and I call God, and who has been known by countless names throughout the ages of the world is one that is as common to our human need as the outstretched hand of another as we walk in accompaniment throughout the many roads of our lives.
We are all on the Emmaus road. As the disciples encountered our accompanying God in Christ’s presence with them on the journey from despair to hope and from doubt to renewed relationship, faith and mission, so too, God’s ongoing desire and promise is to accompany us through our ups and downs of faith, through our times of turmoil and rejoicing, despair and hope, sadness and joy. And so too, we are called to walk these Emmaus roads with each other. As Peter reminds us in today’s epistle: Now that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.
May we find ourselves ever accompanied in our lives’ journeys both of faith and of all the paths we walk. And may we seek to accompany one another in all the relationships that sustain our lives, hearts, and spirits.