Burning hearts, open eyes, practicing Resurrection: A Sermon for 3 Easter, 2014

There’s a wonderful poem by the great Kentucky poet Wendell Berry that ends with the line: “Practice Resurrection.” Throughout the poem, Berry gives advice to the reader to act and live against the grain, to challenge the consumerism culture, capitalism, and militarism of our age. The poem is entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front” and it’s something of a description of the way Berry has spent his life. That last line intrigues me. I’ve seen it quoted lots of times in the last couple of weeks, in this season of Eastertide, and every time I see it used, I wonder what the person who has quoted it or posted it thinks it means, what they mean by it.
Practice Resurrection. What might that mean?

It’s something of a cliché in churchie circles to talk about the people of God as “resurrection people.” There’s some truth in it, I suppose, even if many of us are uncertain of what the resurrection is all about. For we would not exist if it were not for the disciples’ and other early Christians’ experience of the Risen Christ, if not for their deep faith that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. But two thousand years later, it’s difficult to maintain a sense that the resurrection continues to matter—that we experience resurrection in our own lives, in the people of God gathered together, and in our own experiences and encounters with the Risen Christ. Easter Day, which was only two weeks ago, is a distant memory and our lives are preoccupied with end of school year busy-ness and making plans for the summer.

Still, every Sunday throughout the year is a celebration of Easter and Easter season in the liturgical calendar extends for fifty days. That’s one reason why we have heard another story of the appearance of the Risen Christ as our gospel today.

It’s a wonderful story and puzzling, too. On this third Sunday of Easter as we continue to reflect on the meaning and miracle of resurrection, our gospel reading takes us away from Matthew and John, and back to Luke for the tale of the encounter of the Risen Christ with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In some ways, this story is like other stories of the appearance of the risen Christ. The disciples don’t recognize him until the very last moment. In this case, it’s not clear why they don’t know who the stranger is that comes upon them during their journey—the gospel writer says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It’s an odd turn of phrase, suggesting that their lack of recognition was caused by outside forces.

There’s another puzzle at the very outset of the story. These two disciples are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus—we’re told it’s a seven mile journey, so a pretty long walk at the end of the day. Why are they going? Is it their hometown? That’s unlikely because Jesus and his disciples come from the distant region of Galilee. Are they fleeing the city? That’s perhaps a better guess. Although Luke isn’t quite so hard on the disciples as the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the disciples had every reason to be fearful—their leader had been arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. Their movement was in a shambles and they had every right to suspect that the Romans would be coming after them, too. So they may have been trying to get away from Jerusalem and return to obscurity. They may have been fleeing for their lives.

While we can only hypothesize about their fear and assume they were grieving as well, the text does tell us that they were in despair. They tell their unkown companion, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” After telling their story and expressing their dashed hopes, they listen as Jesus explains to them again how everything that happened conforms to Hebrew scripture. They are so taken with him that they urge him to join them for dinner. And it’s at dinner that their eyes are opened.

The gospel reads, “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” It’s a description that echoes Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, and earlier, in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. At that moment, their eyes were opened, they recognized their Lord and Savior, and he vanished from their sight. Now everything made sense to them. The explanation of scripture Jesus had given them helped them make the connection—their encounter with the Risen Christ changed their fear into joy and their despair into happiness. Now they remembered, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”

Whatever plans they had made earlier, whatever reasons they had for leaving Jerusalem to go to Emmaus, didn’t matter any more. They immediately raced back to Jerusalem to see the other disciples and tell them what happened, that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

What’s so wonderful about this story is its relationship to our lives as Christians. Like those two disciples, we all have histories, backgrounds with Jesus. Some of us have grown up in the church, heard bible stories since we were children, have never not been connected to the faith. Others of us have had different journeys, have little or no background in the church, have found ourselves drawn to Jesus, drawn to God. Still others have had a little of both, wandering in and out over the years, active in the church, then for whatever reason feeling profoundly alienated from it, or only disinterested. We read, discuss, explore on our own.

Too often, most of the time, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Even for many of us who are committed members of Grace, too often it seems like we’re just going through the motions, coming to church because that’s what we do, are active volunteers because, well, somebody has asked us, and we just can’t say no, or say it often enough. But our involvement doesn’t touch us at our deepest selves. Sometimes, all the things that are going on in the rest of our lives, struggles at work or in our closest relationships, worries about health or financial security, bog us down, dash our hopes, blind us to the presence of Christ, and our spiritual lives, our lives of faith, seem to be like discarded trash on the side of the road, as we wander.

Then something happens. A chance encounter, a gracious word, a meaningful conversation, a sacred meal. Suddenly our eyes are opened, our hearts burn within us, and Jesus Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. We are transformed, and we rush to tell others.

Practicing resurrection. This is a very rich, thought-provoking story. It operates on many levels, inviting us to reflect on our own experience as people of faith, and people seeking faith. It invites us to think about our Eucharistic feast as an encounter with the Risen Christ, and our worship with the liturgy of the word and table, as a self-contained, embodied experience of resurrection. It invites us to imagine our worship and our lives as transformational experiences.

But there’s more. What would have happened if those two disciples had not urged Jesus to stay with them? What would have happened if they had not invited him to dinner? Yes, it was a simple gesture of hospitality, an act of kindness. But it opened their eyes. It changed their lives.

Practicing resurrection. Our worship, our common life, our own individual spiritual journeys are all opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. But they are opportunities not for us alone. When we invite others to join us, when we invite others into our lives, our stories, and into our worship, we invite them to encounter Jesus Christ. We are inviting them to experience resurrection. We are practicing resurrection. May all of our hearts burn within us, may we know Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread, and in the fellowship of the table. Amen.

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