Easter 3 (NL4)
April 15, 2018
For the past four months, we have been reading John – today we jump over to the Gospel of Luke. The writer known as Luke also wrote the book of Acts, so sometimes they are together considered a two-volume book, with Luke focusing on the life of Jesus and Acts focusing on the Early Church and the work of the Apostle Paul to spread the Good News of Jesus to the world. Just as John’s Gospel has some distinct themes, so does Luke’s. I won’t get into all of them now, but two that we will see today are the power and importance of sharing a meal, and the action of the Holy Spirit, which empowers people for ministries they never thought possible.
We’re going to hear two stories today, one from Luke and one from Acts, and we’ll hear them in reverse chronological order, but I want to introduce them to you in the order they happened. So first, Luke: we go back to the evening of Easter. The women have announced what they learned at the tomb, but the disciples didn’t believe them. So now these guys are on their way to a town called Emmaus, still not really sure what just happened, and they are grieving and heartbroken. They are so heartbroken, in fact, that they don’t even notice Jesus walking right along with them! But notice what moment it is that they DO recognize him, and what implications that has for our own worship and life of faith.
The other story, the one we’ll hear first, happens a year or two later. Christianity is spreading, and comes to be known as “The Way.” The early Christians were a people who were filled with the Holy Spirit, cared for one another, were peaceful and law-abiding people, and spoke boldly about their faith – but they were harshly persecuted for their beliefs. A man named Saul, later known as Paul, was among the most famous persecutors of Christians. Yet it is this harsh critic of Christianity that Jesus calls to spread his name and gospel to all the nations. A good portion of the New Testament was written by this man, Paul, who once was the most unlikely to serve in Jesus’ name. Let’s hear the stories.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I saw a cute video a while back called “This is an Awareness Test.” [Watch it here before you read on!]
It starts off with two groups of four basketball players, one team in white, the other in black. The narrator says, “How many passes does the team in white make?” The eight players jump and swerve in and out amongst each other, passing the ball, and I carefully counted, thinking, “I’ve totally got this.” It stopped, and the narrator said, “The correct answer is 13.” Yes! Got it! I patted myself on the back. But he goes on, “But did you see the moonwalking bear?” Huh? The video rewinds and replays, and sure enough, now that I was watching for the bear, I saw him, moonwalking right through the middle of this game! How had I missed it?? It was so obvious now!
The answer is: I missed it because I wasn’t looking for him. I was too focused on counting passes. And why would I look for a moonwalking bear anyway? Who would expect that?
Both stories that we heard a moment ago are stories about blindness, about not seeing things that you simply aren’t expecting to see. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, and Saul of Tarsus, and even Ananias – none of them can see right away how God is working right before their very eyes, because their vision is blocked by their expectations, rather than being open to God’s surprising work.
First, let’s look at Saul (later, Paul). It is easy to see him as a pretty bad guy at the beginning of this text. Earlier in Acts, he was a part of the killing of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But even if you didn’t know that, the first line, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against disciples of the Lord,” makes him sound so sinister, and gives you the sense that this is not a guy you want to cross.
Yet I want to be clear that Saul was actually a very devout Jew, from a fine family, with an excellent liberal arts education. He really felt he was doing the right thing, putting a stop to this Christian movement. He saw these Christians as going against the faith he knew and loved. Was killing Christians the best way to respond to this? Well, no, I don’t think so! But that’s what he thought was right.
And yet God uses this broken vessel as one of the most important instruments to spread the good news. Saul had seen his role as one thing, and God saw his role as something else entirely – in fact, as the exact opposite of what he was doing! When Ananias comes and prays over Saul, Luke tells us that “something like scales fell from his eyes.” He says his sight is restored – but really, it is more than restored, isn’t it? His sight is something new, for it is at this point that he is baptized and commissioned for this new task that Christ has set before him. His expectations give way for God’s expectations.
Isn’t that a wonderful image – “something like scales fell from his eyes”? Like, all the hatred and murderous threats that had blocked his vision and kept him from seeing the God of love manifest in Jesus Christ – it all just fell away. Suddenly he could see the moonwalking bear who was in front of him all along.
I’ve been thinking about that scales image this week – about the various times in my life when whatever was blocking my vision fell away, and I was able to see. Perhaps my assumptions fell away, or my self-doubt, or my preconceived notions or previously held beliefs… and when those scales fell away, I was able to see God’s love shining through, and showing me the path God had set before me.
Not to say it was always a path I wanted to walk down. In that way, I resonate with Ananias! Poor Ananias – what a job to be given! “Hey, Ananias, I need you to go talk to this guy who is a known murderer, this guy who is persecuting people like you. Oh, you’ve heard of him? Great, yes, that’s the guy. I need you to go to him. Tell him I sent you, and pray with him. Thanks!” Ananias is understandably hesitant! “Uh, you sure, God? That guy?”
I’ve been there! “You sure this is what you want me to do, God? Are you sure this is the right place? The right time? The right people? Really?” Oh yes, I’m sometimes full of suspicion about God’s plans for me, and I’ve got a host of excuses lined up! Especially when I’m pretty sure I know more about the situation and the people involved than God does.
A friend told me a story this week about a mission trip her church went on to build a house in Appalachia. There were some guys helping at the site who were volunteering in order to get out of their prison sentence. One guy in particular was extremely disrespectful to my friend. She had a horrible experience. The next year, she voted that they should not return there – those guys were awful, she said. But everyone else wanted to return, and so she went with them. When they arrived, that same, disrespectful man came out to greet her… with tears in his eyes. He went right up to her and said, “I didn’t think you’d ever come back.” People can surprise us, you see! You never know when a moonwalking bear might make its way into your assumptions! Even when we think we’ve got people all figured out, never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to change someone and use them for God’s work – or to change you! Never doubt that God might show up, even where you didn’t expect it.
That’s what happened with those guys on the road to Emmaus, too, right? They are heartbroken, grieving, confused – they’re so wrapped up in their own stuff that they don’t even see that it is Jesus walking right there along with them. It’s a recurring theme in these texts – our expectations or preoccupations block us from seeing how God comes to us, even when we least expect it. As the disciples walk with this “stranger” to Emmaus, he interprets the scriptures to them, and yet they still don’t know that it is their teacher and friend.
But one thing does finally opened their eyes and help them see the moonwalking bear – what is it? What makes them recognize Jesus? … It was in the breaking of bread. It was sharing the fellowship of a meal together. It was seeing Jesus once again give himself for them.
Yesterday I had the joy of spending the afternoon with some of our young people, learning about communion. Today they will receive communion for the first time, partake of this special meal that recalls Christ’s sacrifice for us, be a part of this place where Christ is made profoundly known to us. As a part of our class yesterday we looked at this story, the story of two disciples who were joined by Jesus as they walked to Emmaus, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. We talked about how even though when we come up here to communion, we don’t actually see the man Jesus, we still know that he is here, that he is with us. He is in, with and under this bread and cup. We know because he told us so! We know because we see his face in the people of this congregation. We know because we have heard his promises in scripture. Even when we are blinded by our expectations, our assumptions, and our preconceived notions, we know that Jesus comes to us, walks with us, lives with us, and moves in us, and that, when we open our hearts to receive him, we will come to see him more clearly in the world.
At the end of our class yesterday, I asked the parents to share with the kids if they pray during communion, and what they pray for. Today, I will tell you my prayer, and I hope you will join me in it: I will pray that, by this bread and cup, God would make the scales fall from my eyes, and that Christ would be made known to me, both here at the table, and as I leave this place and go out into the world. I will pray that my eyes would be opened to see Christ even when I didn’t expect to. In fact, let’s pray that prayer right now…
Ever-present God, open our eyes. Let the scales of our assumptions and expectations fall from our eyes, so that we might see your marvelous work before us. Help us to notice you at work, not only at your gracious meal, but also where we least expect to find you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.