Sunday, April 14, 2024

Disclosure

Luke 24, verses 13 thru 34 tell of a man named Cleopas walking to the town of Emmaus, near Jerusalem, accompanied by an unnamed companion. It is the Sunday of Jesus’ resurrection, which they had heard about. A man came along and asked them what they were talking about. Cleopas told the man about Jesus and his death on a cross and some women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb only to learn that Jesus was alive again. 

Then the man delivers a postgraduate-level explanation of the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Cleopas and companion are impressed and invite the man to have dinner with them. He does, and during the meal Cleopas and companion suddenly recognize the man as the risen Christ. But suddenly, he vanished from their sight. Here is the passage:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

What does this story tell us about recognizing Jesus? It is a disclosure, yes, but to what end? And to what effect? Do such appearances happen today? 

I want to read from verse 30 again: 

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.      

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

Supper at Emmaus, by Caravaggio, 1601

The basic outline of the story is pretty simple: two people were walking on the first Easter morning to a village called Emmaus, a few miles from Jerusalem. As they went, the resurrected Jesus came up and started to walk with them, but the two travelers didn’t recognize him. They are surprised that this stranger doesn’t appear to know what’s happened in Jerusalem the last few days. They tell the stranger about the prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. But then the stranger takes over and explains the significance of the events they related.

Sometime during this discourse, the hearts of Cleopas and his companion (probably his wife Mary) began to burn within them, but we don’t learn that until later. Later they stop for the night and invite the stranger to have dinner with them. The man took the bread, blessed the bread, broke the bread, and gave it to them. It was then that Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas recognized him. They suddenly know that they are in the Presence of the risen Christ. This kind of experience is called “epiphany.” It means manifestation. But the moment was fleeting, and Jesus vanished from their sight.

What shall we make of the stories of the risen Christ appearing? What do the stories mean and how literally do they describe what happened? 

Probably almost everyone here recognizes the reference in today’s passage to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. That is the heart of Eucharistic meal. All but one or two of the resurrection-appearance stories in the gospels include some reference either to baptism or communion. For example, the angels the women see at the empty tomb are clothed in white robes. We know from early church records that people being baptized in the early church were clothed in white robes as a sign of their new life in Christ. In John’s Gospel Jesus calls the disciples from the shore while they were out fishing in a boat. They join him on the shore where Jesus prepared bread and fish for them. We don’t use smoked fish in Communion - thank goodness! - but a few early Christian communities did. The practice did not last, though, for which I am grateful. 

The problem with these stories is not that they were written down twenty years or more after the events they relate. There is no problem that the appearance stories reinforce the sacramental practice of the very early church. No, the problem I have with the appearance stories is that nothing like them happened to Paul, and yet the other apostles all accepted Paul’s claim that the risen Lord had appeared to him. 

I am imagining a conversation between Peter, the other apostles, and Paul in Jerusalem. Peter says to Paul, “After Jesus was crucified to death, he appeared to all of us in a closed room and held out his hands so we could see the nail holes and showed us the scar in his side where the Roman soldier had stabbed him. Then one day some of us were fishing and we saw him on the shore, so we had breakfast with him. He cooked us some bread and fish and gave them to us. So tell us how Christ appeared to you.” 

Paul replies, “Well, I was traveling one day to Damascus. On the road I saw a brilliant flash of light that blinded me. Then a voice from mid-air spoke to me. The voice said it was Jesus, and I should follow him.”

Peter looks at Matthew. Matthew looks at James, and they all look at Thomas, who had demanded to touch Jesus’ wounds to be convinced. Thomas says, “Yep, that was Jesus, all right.” “Sure thing,” agree James and Matthew. “Yes indeed,” says Peter. 

Why would the other apostles accept Paul’s story as authentic, when their experiences of the risen Christ were so very different? I can only conclude that the form of the appearances was not very important. What counted was their content and what difference it made in the ones who saw Christ.  

When the New Testament speaks of appearances of the risen Lord, the word translated as “appeared” is better translated as “was disclosed.” It means to become profoundly aware of something. The means of disclosure is through the senses. There really is something “out there,” but the power of the disclosure is internal, what happens within the one who sees or hears. 

“Disclosure” describes a sensory perception through which the disciples discerned the God-given truth that Christ was still alive. Was dead, is now alive – what could that be but resurrection? Consider also that the three-dimensional embodiment of the risen Christ, such as at the empty tomb and the lakeshore, is absent from all the apostles’ letters. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost did not say that he had eaten fish with the risen Christ. Peter instead said that Christ was raised up to sit on his heavenly throne, exalted to the right hand of God. Such descriptions are hardly fleshly. They seem visionary interpretations. 

What exactly was perceived in each appearance the New Testament relates is not clear, nor even indicated in all cases. On the Damascus road, it seemed like a lightning flash. This flash was an objective reality since Paul’s companions saw it, too. But Paul understood more than his senses perceived. It is there that disclosure resides.

For the Cleopases, the resurrection was at first only a rumor. But its possibility fascinated them. They talked about it at length and discussed all the details they had learned. Within these discussions was a restlessness to find rest in God. They didn’t know exactly what to believe, but they deeply hoped for God to be alive and present. Yet they failed to recognize the stranger who walked beside them. 

Pastor Susan Andrews wrote, 

On Sunday mornings in contemporary America, modern disciples come through the church door weighed down by cynicism, stress, pretense, power. They are sophisticated lawyers and skeptical scientists and shell-shocked journalists – skilled practitioners in the seductions of the world, but nervous novices in the realm of the Spirit. They, like the first disciples, yearn for the living presence of God. But they are too preoccupied, suspicious, too busy actually to recognize God. In their objective world of fact and truth and matter and money, the church’s world of mystery and meaning and risk and relationship seems silly. And so they are eager to discuss and debate the idea of God, but unprepared to experience or recognize the presence of God.” 

In the novel The River Why, there is a fisherman named Gus who lives on the Oregon coast. Gus’s full name is Augustine, after St. Augustine, a towering figure of the Church who wrote one of the most influential books in western history, The Confessions of St. Augustine. In it, Saint Augustine told how he sought truth and met a Christian named Ambrose. Ambrose’s witness changed Augustine’s life. Augustine saw life as a journey and wrote, “We are made restless until we rest in Thee.”

Gus is a seeker, too. Gus is seeking God, even though he doesn’t know it. One night he's talking to another fisherman named Nick, whom he respects. Nick becomes for Gus what Ambrose was for Augustine. He leads him to God.

Nick told him that when he was a young man working the deck on a boat in the North Sea, he had left his safety line unattached. A wave swept him into the freezing water. Just as he was going under, a fisherman on the boat threw him a line with a large hook on its end. Nick’s hands were so frozen that he could not manipulate the hook into his clothing. About to drown, he grasped the hook in one hand and jammed it through the other. Then he passed out. He awoke on the deck, safe. 

He told Gus, “I knew that I had been born anew. Nothing will ever be the same again.” He showed Gus the scar on his hand and said, “Behold, son. Behold the sign of the fisherman’s love for a wooden headed fool.” 

Gus couldn’t sleep that night. He kept hearing Nick’s story over and over again. He felt things that he had never felt before, and he knew those things were from the soul.

Gus got up very early and walked up the mountain behind his cabin. As he was walking along the mountaintop the morning sunlight suddenly broke over the mountain ridge across the valley, shining an almost unbearably brilliant light into the darkness. He felt a chill start in his thighs, go up his spine, to the top of his head. He felt the sense of a Presence. “It was,” he said, “as though an unseen, oldest, longest-lost friend had come to walk the road beside me.”

Disclosure.

I cannot tell you how to have your own disclosure. Epiphany moments are gifts of the Spirit, and as the Gospel of John says, the Spirit, like the wind, blows where it will. But epiphanies are not what validate our Christian discipleship, anyway. At the end of a day long ago in Jerusalem, the nature of Paul’s conversion experience seemed not to have been important to the other apostles. They confirmed Paul in the faith because he was a changed man. They accepted Paul as their brother because they could see that the work he was doing was the work of Christ. 

As soon as Cleopas and his companion recognized the risen Lord, he disappeared from their sight. God’s presence is often elusive, fleeting, dancing at the edge of our awareness. God’s boldest presence is still mysterious and transitory. We perceive God’s presence in fleeting moments, and then the mundane closes in again. The reports of Christ’s life and presence may seem an idle tale to some, but to those who have witnessed God’s transcendent presence they are a transforming reality. Cleopas and companion would never see Christ like that again, but it would not matter, for their lives were permanently transformed.

Christ is alive! Christ is present! That is our witness.

What do we disclose? More importantly, whom do we reveal? When the world sees us, do they see Jesus disclosed by and revealed through us?

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...