Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
23 April 2023
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
I do not know if this was the hardest funeral I ever did, because hard not the right category. Most deaths are hard for people who love the deceased, and you hope you never have to preside at the funeral of a person who was not loved. But Werner was loved. He was loved by his wife Maria, and by his four children. That Werner was loved made his loss hard for his family, such is the nature of love; but that did not make my life harder.
What was hard was Maria’s inability to let go. Every time I saw her, at church, or at her house, she would talk about Werner’s death. For years. And the only way she could speak about Werner’s death was in terms of malpractice by the treating physicians of the hospital where Werner had died. She launched a complaint with the hospital but nothing came of it. Yet that nothing came of it only exacerbated her grief and anger, it now become a conspiracy and a cover-up. I have no medical training and I never saw Werner’s medical records, but to me it seemed that malpractice was assumed because not assuming malpractice would have meant that Maria needed to accept Werner’s death. And in her inability to accept her loss, she became unable to grieve, for whenever I saw her, she did not talk about Werner and about how beautiful their life together had been, or about how much she missed him, but about those who she believed had carelessly caused his death. If she wanted to give thanks for her husband, she was unable to.
That three of her four children, in their thirties, still lived at home did not make the life of this woman of modest means any easier.
We say that when someone we love dies, a part of us dies with them. For Maria it seemed more than a part of her. She could no longer imagine a future, and her present was beset by a painful past.
We do not know much about the two who are walking away from Jerusalem. What is clear is that their body tells the story. Jerusalem is the centre of it all. The entirety of Luke’s Gospel moves toward Jerusalem. It is where it happened. Earlier Jesus had wept over Jerusalem. Later the writer of Revelation will speak of the New Jerusalem. It is after this episode that Jesus appears to the eleven in Jerusalem and sends them out, saying, “‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
But these two are walking away, they are disillusioned. They have abandoned their hope, and who could blame them? And while they anticipate a future of some kind, they no longer expect their future to be in Jesus or their future to be Jesus, even while they had false expectations of a future that was tribal, not universal, it was only about the restoration of Israel. While historians are uncertain of where exactly Emmaus was, one commentator suggests that their walking away from Jerusalem is the abandoning of Christ and the turn toward the power of Rome, as some have suggested that Emmaus was the site of a Roman garrison.
If Maria was unable to escape her grief and her grief became everything, these two, unable to accept the past, search for a different future. Unable to bear the pain, they have abandoned their grief in favour of whatever the world has to offer.
There is a psychological truth here that both Maria and these two disciples do not understand. It is only when we acknowledge death that we can begin to live. I may be the example of a particularly slow learner of this truth. When I was 23 I was diagnosed with periodontal disease. Before I was 26 eight of my teeth were extracted as the gum pockets were too deep and they that could not be saved. Until my diagnosis I considered myself invincible, after all that is what young men in their twenties do. Besides, I had considered periodontal disease a disease of old people. I knew that my grandparents had lost teeth, and I was not old. As strange as it may sound to you, I had great difficulty accepting my diagnosis, not because I did not believe it, but because it told me of my mortality. If you think that my self-pity was self-centred you are probably correct, for such is human nature.
Of course, I was mortal from the day I was born. Just think of how high infant mortality used to be and still is in many places. But mortality was not part of my experience and therefore not anything that shaped my self understanding. And so my diagnosis told me something about myself that had thus far escaped me. I could not understand life without understanding my own limitations. This is the psychological truth.
There is also a deeper truth. That truth is expressed by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Before Paul, this was expressed by Jesus when he speaks about what it means to follow him, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”1 Or similarly in John, “24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”2 Or in Luke nine when Jesus says that the life with God comes before all other obligations and loyalties.3 And a verse from Paul we know from the funeral liturgy tells us that in our baptism we died and rose with Christ. Of course, you cannot rise without first dying.4
All this is summed up in a prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
This is the kind of life that Jesus calls us into. It is hard but it is truthful and it is full of promise.
It is a life of love Jesus invites us into; love not for my sake but for the sake of the other.
I wonder if we are familiar with the word telos. Telos is Greek and means aim or goal. Our word teleology comes from that. To have a goal is to give direction to our lives and to live with the hope that one’s aspirations can be realized.
The telos of a Christian is shaped by the values of Jesus. So our goals are not just about ourselves but they relate to what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. While we know that it is God who will bring about this Kingdom, we know ourselves to be citizens of this Kingdom and work toward its goals alongside and with God. The goal of this Kingdom is the healing of the nations, the restoration of creation, the reconciliation of people with God and with one another, for the poor to be lifted up, and so forth. Because the goal of the Kingdom is not primarily about me it is both counter-cultural and worthy of my pursuit. In pursuing this Kingdom I will decrease but God will increase and it turns out that that is a good thing. That is what Jesus means when he speaks of losing our life for his sake and finding it.
There is another word we use in the church. That word is eschatology. Eschatology is the teaching of the destiny of all of creation. And because of Jesus we know that the final destiny of all of creation is good. Eschatology is not what we do. Eschatology is what God does. And when the things we work towards do not go so well, as I would argue is the case right now, we do not give up but we continue our work for the Kingdom because we know it is coming by God’s grace; as Luther says that we pray “your kingdom come,” not because the God’s kingdom might not come if we did not pray for it but that it may come to us also.
The telling of the story of these two disciples and their encounter with Jesus is beautiful. We know all along that the stranger who engages the two is the risen Lord, yet these two disillusioned and disappointed disciples do not. The whole story moves toward the point of revelation when their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus. They cannot get there without understanding the necessity of his death, but it is in the breaking of the bread that their eyes are opened. It is in the breaking of the bread that we are united as the body of Christ. It is in the breaking of the bread that we hold on to the vision of the Kingdom of God. It is in the breaking of the bread that Jesus gives himself to us.
Even as Jesus vanishes from their eyes, their lives are transformed and they are no longer as people without hope.5 Their life is renewed. They hurry back to Jerusalem to be united with the church, the body of Christ, to be the body of Christ in the world.
We may not be on the road to Emmaus but we suffer our own disillusionments and disappointments. They may be personal, or they may be sadness at the direction into which the world seems to be going. What we learn from these two is that we are not alone, that amidst all disappointment and grief Jesus is present, and that the future is God’s.
Thanks be to God.
1 Matthew 16
2 John 12
3 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
4 Romans 6
5 1 Thessalonians 4:13