Sunday, April 30

Click here to read Luke 23:13-35.

I started reading a library book this week about churches. In my line of work, there’s a lot of reading about God, but there’s also a lot of reading about the Body of Christ, God’s beloved church. This book is about so-called “turn-around” churches. The author studies congregations that have on the brink of shutting their doors. Many were, at one time, large churches with extensive programming. But like many Protestant churches, the last thirty years or so were tough on these churches. People left. Children and grandchildren decided church wasn’t for them, or maybe joined another congregation down the street. The churches found themselves stuck in a rut of grief and bewilderment. They had no momentum for change, and very little comprehension of God’s movement within their bare bones congregations.

A woman named Muriel was a member of one of these congregations. I wonder if she still is, or if she finally gave up on her floundering community of faith. This is what Muriel said to the author of the book. “Sometimes I wake up on Sunday mornings and just lay there thinking I must be crazy to keep attending that church… why am I sticking with it? I don’t even know what hit us, or what happened to all the people. It just seemed like one day we were happy, singing, praying together, and the next day it was like a funeral parlor.”

I’ve been turning these words around in my head, looking for even a little bit of hope beneath all that despair. And I have to tell you, I can’t find even a little bit of gospel in her words. If the Body of Christ is in a funeral parlor, no sign of resurrection in any direction, well, those folks might as well turn the keys over and go home.

That’s where the two men who were on the road to Emmaus are. Dejected. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. They had cultivated so much trust, so much joy, so much anticipation for God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ. But now it was all past tense. Their hope had been crucified on a cross, and now all they could do was walk and talk, sadly pondering the tragic turn of events. Yes, there were those strange rumors that the body of their supposed Lord was gone. Their sheer disappointment didn’t even begin to consider the possibility of the resurrection. I imagine that Cleopas and his friend are something like poor Muriel, wondering why they’d been crazy enough to stick it out with Jesus. They are walking away from the funeral of the one who was supposed to redeem them.

And then Jesus shows up. I love stories like this. We know all along that the stranger on the road is Jesus. We watch through Luke’s careful eye as the men make little fools of themselves, going on and on about the death of the Nazarene prophet, and the strange rumors of empty tombs and angels, when it is the living and breathing Christ Jesus who is listening and nodding at all the appropriate places to their heartfelt and heartbroken eulogy. Jesus manages to teach a whole Bible study as they walk, illuminating the heart of the scriptures to the men, and still they don’t recognize their fellow sojourner.

Once in Emmaus, the men convince the stranger to stay with them. Perhaps they take a liking to his unusually perceptive biblical interpretation. Perhaps they just don’t want to be alone. But Luke tells us that the men beg the man to let them host him in the village Emmaus.

But the men will not play host for the meal in Emmaus, for Jesus is always the host at every table. He takes their evening bread, and blesses it, and breaks it…and doesn’t this sound familiar?

And that’s when the men finally realize that they have been in the presence of Christ all along. They did not expect him. They expected a funeral, and instead they were blessed with an encounter with the One who redeems not only Israel, but the whole of God’s Creation.

Christ was made known to them through the breaking of the bread. Their blindness gave way to the beautiful sight of the Messiah, who had been beside them all along. Unlike Muriel’s eulogy for her dying congregation, there is a whole lot of gospel in the story that unfolded on the journey to Emmaus. Christ Jesus, the son of the Living God and the Lord and Savior of all, was made known to them through the breaking of the bread. They raced back to Jerusalem to proclaim the good news of their amazing encounter with God’s beloved son, who is risen indeed.

The book I’m reading about churches is pretty depressing. And I think it’s because I haven’t gotten to the part where the churches start turning around. All I’ve encountered in this book so far are the funeral stories, tales of congregations that are unconvinced of God’s glory, suspicious of the Holy Spirit, stuck with a Christ who hasn’t quite left the grave. These congregations are still trudging away from the City of God, joylessly recounting how their vitality had collapsed.

I wonder if Muriel’s church regained its recognition that Christ is risen, and among them in the breaking of the bread, or if their sight is still obscured by sorrow and grief. I’m willing to bet my library card that the only way for congregations to turn around is to turn to Christ, to allow their eyes to be opened to his steadfast presence.

Our purpose, as a congregation, is to worship God. Everything else— mission, evangelism, spiritual growth— emerges from that one radical purpose. We gather in this place because God has called us here, to revel in his presence, to delight in his glory, to offer praise and thanksgiving for his unconditional love. We gather around a table to share the communion meal because Jesus himself is made known to us through the breaking up the bread. And we sure do need to know him. Our joy, our hope, our lives depend upon the ability to recognize and celebrate Christ’s presence in our congregation and in our world.

Lately, people have made some comments that have led me to believe that some hearts are burning as we worship God in this place. The Spirit of the Living God is at work here, coaxing us into deeper prayer and more joyous song. We are being shaped as individuals and as a congregation into more faithful followers of the one who walks beside us.

We are not heading to Emmaus, but we are on an exciting journey. As we discern the direction of God’s call for this congregation, we must keep on turning toward the table of Communion, where Christ is made known to us week after week in the breaking of the bread. And like Cleopas and his friend, who ran back to Jerusalem by night, we must keep sharing the great news with our friends and neighbors, that here, in this place, we gather under the gentle shadow of the Holy Spirit.

We walk through the doors of this sanctuary expecting to encounter and to worship God, and despite our racing minds and tired bodies, we do. The Lord is risen, indeed.


1 comment:

Steve said...

Dear Katherine,

What a wonderful, uplifting sermon. Of course, one of the things that "worked" for me is that the Road to Emmaus is one of my favorite scripture passages.