The Third Sunday of Easter (A)
April 26, 2020
O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
1 Peter 1:17-23
I usually don’t think of myself as a fan of the resurrection narratives. Perhaps it is stems from my study of Mark’s Gospel and the knowledge that the resurrection stories there are much later than the rest of the text, and that the original form of the Gospel ended with the women fleeing from the angels whom they have found at the empty tomb and who said “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” I have always loved that the original audience for Mark’s gospel did not need resurrection stories because they were there when it happened. To them it was within living memory. They were the community of the resurrection and were themselves the continuation of the Gospel. That’s powerful stuff.
The other gospels came later and were written for people whose parents and grandparents were not around to share stories of the Jesus whom they knew in the flesh. In last week’s gospel, John tells us plainly why he is writing these tales: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John’s people were Jewish Christians living in Roman Syria, perhaps even near Antioch, around the year 100. Luke wrote his gospel, perhaps a little earlier, for a sophisticated audience of Roman gentiles who travelled around the Mediterranean basin. Like us, these are the people of whom Jesus tells Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” The resurrection stories are for them and for us; and to tell the truth, I have really been enjoying them this year.
What I find most appealing about them is their verisimilitude. For tales about a man who was gruesomely killed (tortured, really), and then who came back from the dead, they are full of truly believable details and true-to-life descriptions of human interaction. Last week, we heard the familiar story of Thomas the Apostle. Thomas missed out on something special. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples and so he responds negatively, defensively, perhaps even a little aggressively when he hears about it. His unwillingness to believe the word of the others and his somewhat peevish response are not signs of his faithlessness, but rather of his humanity. He was upset at missing Jesus, upset that he did not have the chance to see him in the flesh, touch him as the others had. He may have felt embarrassed, and so he behaves a certain way and says what he says.
The account we heard on Easter Day of Mary Magdalene remaining at the tomb after the other disciples had gone is another good example. After her miraculous vision of the “two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain” who asked her why she was weeping, she turns around and Jesus is standing before her. Since she never expected to see him, she was blind to his identity. She just wondered what this strange man was doing intruding on her grief and confusion. She dismissed him, thinking he was just a servant, just the gardener. He could not possibly be Jesus. It is unlikely she even considered the possibility. We often don’t see what we aren’t expecting to see. Our expectations often guide our vision and keep us from beholding the extraordinary things that lie behind mundane life. This encounter also shows us how, with just a word, the veil drops, and we see with new clarity. Something clicks and all is explained.
It’s like that in today’s gospel, which is one of the most naturalistic and psychologically accurate portraits of human behaviour in all of scripture. It was that same first Sunday after the Crucifixion and, Luke tells us, Mary Magdalene (in this account accompanied by “Joanna and Mary, the mother of James and the other women”) had gone to the tomb, found it empty, and learnt about the Resurrection. Luke even tells us that the men would have none of the women’s story because it “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” At least in John’s gospel, the menfolk followed Mary Magdalene to the tomb to take a look. Here Luke shows us the unfortunately naturalistic detail of the perennial dismissal of women’s narratives.
The women’s news, however, still must have made the rounds, for all Jerusalem was abuzz. It was all people could talk about and so, naturally, the two followers of Jesus who “were going to a village named Emmaus” were “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Like Mary Magdalene in John’s account, while their minds were full of thoughts about Jesus, his death, and the amazing stories they had heard about him being alive, they met a man who turns out to be the one of whom they were talking and thinking. Despite their chatter, despite their interest, despite their desire that the tales might be true, somehow they could not recognise him. He was the last person they actually expected to meet.
Again as in the story of Mary outside the tomb, Jesus engages them by asking a question, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” This was the biggest story of the moment and they are flabbergasted that he seems to have no idea what is going on; and they respond the way we might expect: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” It would be like someone, right now in New York not seeming to have heard of the coronavirus. They might as have just have looked at him and said, “Really?”
They were not, however, so peevish as to hold out on him. Despite the sadness the text tells us they showed the newcomer, they were excited to engage with him in some gossip concerning the latest news about their teacher,
Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.
There it is in a nutshell and their rendition of the story clearly shows disappointment and confusion at what had taken place. “We had hoped that he was the one,” they say, but now they don’t seem so sure. There is news, but it came from “some women” who had seen a vision that the men could not corroborate.
At this point, I always imagine Jesus smiling to himself, just a little, before responding, “‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” And even after he shows them that of course he knows what is going on, and demonstrating a profound understanding of the topic, they still do not recognise him.
At this point they had been travelling quite while and were drawing near to Emmaus, and Jesus “appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’” Even though they still have no idea of this man’s true identity, even though they are wondering whether everything Jesus had taught was for real, they still invite the man to dinner. In the midst of their own sadness and uncertainty, they offer the man hospitality, they offer the stranger community and nourishment. They do what Jesus had done for them and for so many others they had met with him along the way. They do this naturally and instinctively. They do what we see people doing in our city all the time at this moment: in the midst of things we do not fully understand, in a moment of uncertainty, amidst fear and confusion, Cleophas and his friend offer to help someone in need.
Luke tells us that “When [Jesus] was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.” Just like in the garden with Mary Magdalene, Jesus, in a simple gesture, in simple words, makes himself known to his friends. For Mary he is the Good Shepherd calling her by name. Here, he does what he did all those times he fed the crowds and, finally, at that last meal they shared with them. He took bread and broke it and in doing so became known to them; he became truly present.
At last they were able to see what they never expected to see, and then, after he is gone, they do the most human thing of all: they say they knew it was Jesus all along: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” I love that moment. We know people just like that. We are, sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, people just like that.
These resurrection narratives are so great because they are so honest about people. We see what we want to see. We see what we expect to see. We believe only the people we want to believe, or whom society says are believable. We are surprised when someone doesn’t seem to have the same experience or frame of reference as we have. We don’t want to admit that we were wrong and are sometimes quick to rewrite history. We don’t always get it right. We aren’t perfect, and yet in and through these very human responses, Jesus comes back into the lives of his friends, back into our lives. He holds none of this against us. He cuts through our fog with a word or a gesture, finally shaking us up into seeing what was right in front of us all along. He calls us by name. He breaks bread with us and shares a meal. He becomes known to us in these very personal ways.
In moments like the one in which we find ourselves now, sheltering, on pause, locked down, felling like we are hiding, we are very much like the disciples in those first hours and days after Jesus’ resurrection. We are sad and confused, not sure what exactly has happened or why, and feeling very uncertain about the future. Things look pretty bad and we don’t know what is next. Under these circumstances is easy for us to see only what we want to see or to imagine the worst.
While it might seem really hard, we need to approach this moment with our eyes open, in joyful expectation that we will encounter the presence of the risen Christ. In this way we will see all the things that are happening around us that are the works of God. The Risen Christ is right here, with us, not of course in the way he was for Mary Magdalene and Cleophas and his companion and Thomas. We can not touch him, hold onto him, or share a meal with him in that way; but we can’t do that with each other right now, either. We can’t greet each other with the sign of peace and we can not break bread and share the Eucharist; we can’t shake each other’s hands or give a hug when we meet in the street and we can not go out for a meal. Nevertheless, the Risen Christ remains with us in other ways.
We see the Risen Christ in and through the work of doctors and nurses and other health care workers; of police and fire fighters and sanitation workers; of grocery store clerks and delivery drivers; in and through the perseverance of train and bus drivers. When the volunteers at our Soup Kitchen hand a take away meal to one of our guests, Jesus becomes known in the breaking of bread. He is present with us, visible, in and through the work of everyone doing what is necessary to keep our city going and to care for each other, especially those in need; and for some of us, that means staying home.In and through all those people (and that includes you and me) we see the Body of the Risen Christ alive and at work in the world. The Risen Christ remains with us, here for us to encounter in many ways. We see him in all our work to reduce the spread and impact of this virus, we behold him in the Sacrament you will see in a few minutes, and with which you will make your act of Spiritual Communion, and he is with us in the meals we share with each other at home or even on Zoom. He is here for us in all these ways as sure as he was with those who walked with him to Emmaus.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Easter Feria, 22 April 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume