Easter 3 2023
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
One of the interesting things about moving back to this region after all these years away, I’ve now spent more of my life outside of East Tennessee than I did here, even though I grew up here. And one of the particularly interesting things about moving to this side of town is I have occasion two or three times a week to go down State Highway 162, which I grew up knowing as Pellissippi Parkway. In fact, I’m old enough to remember as a little child when there was no Pellissippi Parkway and you took a windy circuitous route to get to Knoxville. But as I drive up and down that road, I’ve been here long enough know that I’m kind of over all the changes. It doesn’t look like it did when I grew up. There’s so much more buildings.
I’m over that. What I’m struck by is the number of times I’ve ridden up and down that road and how that road has been for me. I remember driving down that road after my senior prom full of that youthful exuberance and joy and hope for the future, that it was definitely going to be the case that Stephanie McGinnis and I would get married and spend the rest of our life together. That didn’t happen. But the joy was real. I also remember riding down that road with the news that my grandmother had died. Remember riding down that road some years later from seminary as my grandfather laid in intensive care. I remember riding down that road to hike with friends in the Smokies. So many memories for one little patch of asphalt.
And what’s interesting of course is as you hear sometimes Pellissippi Parkway was the road to disappointment and sorrow. Sometimes it was the road to joy and possibility. And what’s fascinating is it was always the same road because the road didn’t change. Even with all the new buildings the road fundamentally hasn’t changed. What changed was the context, and that’s kind of our story today. These disciples, well, they had hoped that Jesus would be king. They probably wore Jesus for president buttons and it had not gone well. And when you lose the campaign there’s nothing to do but dust yourself off, pick yourself up and go home. And so they are treading the short road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It’s not long. And for them it is a road of disappointment. Life, hopes, dreams, they’ve all let them down in some way, gotten the better of them, and there’s nothing to do, but put one foot in front of the other toward an uncertain future, trying to make the best of the way things are and how they are not what we had hoped.
Now, it’s no surprise to you that by the end of the story they are running back from Emmaus to Jerusalem full of excitement and happiness and possibility. You don’t travel at night in the developing world. We know that even today. So the excitement was so great that after dinner they threw their safety to the wind and went back to Jerusalem, a nighttime journey. So much had their experience changed. But again, the key is it was their experience, or so they thought. And here’s the thing about experience, it’s notoriously fickle, isn’t it? It’s not a good ground to base our lives on. I adore my wife. I’m acutely aware of that after the potential tragedies of this week. But it’s funny, she’s the same woman and at times I can’t imagine how I ever lived without her and other times, I can’t imagine why I married her.
And she knew I was going to say that. The reason is it’s not about Kate any more than it’s about the road. It’s about content, which really is about me and how I feel about a certain situation and it’s a terribly dangerous thing to build our lives on. But Jesus gives us something more in this story. Although it was their experience, he gives them what the church has described as the rule of life. It becomes what is the basis for how to live your life as a Christian that continued into the early church, continued into later centuries and is probably the best antidote for being slaves to experience today. Our first reading refers to it as the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. So let’s look what happened on that road because perhaps what you need in the road of your life is some liberation from experience and something to ground your life on that’s a little more enduring.
So Cleopas and his companions are mopey and they’re wandering along and Jesus says, “Hey, what happened?” I can’t imagine whether he was grinning or whether he was trying to play the part, but they proceed to tell him how terrible it was that they had wanted Jesus to be king and instead he was crucified. And okay, some of the women said some weird stuff, but we don’t know because the people who went to follow it up, all they found was an empty tomb. It’s strange, but it’s not proof of anything and we’re going home. And Jesus says something fascinating. He says, “You’re foolish. You’re foolish in your disappointment because you haven’t understood.” And there as they walk he begins a Bible study with them, but not just any kind of Bible study. You see, we don’t really know how to read the Bible. The Bible is studied in this world as literature and poetry. The Bible is studied as a code book for conspiracies or a fortune-telling manual. It is studied as a recipe book for a prosperous life.
We get 10 rules for a successful marriage and 15 ways to change your oil in a Christian fashion. We hear that Bible stands for basic instructions before leaving Earth, and all of it makes me a little queasy. What is the Bible? The Bible is the testimony to the word of God. Now, some of you have come from other traditions. You’ll notice I just pulled a slide of hand on you. I said it’s the testimony to the word of God. We can also call it God’s word written, but what we can’t call it is the word of God. That would be Jesus, and that’s what he’s getting at today. He says something interesting to them, doesn’t he? In his Bible study, oh, I wish we had the notes. And then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted the scriptures. Remember, they only had the Old Testament at this point. He interpreted the scriptures that concerned himself. He’s like, give up on the steps to a happy marriage guys. Give up on the ritual purity, give up on this and that, the Bible is about me.
Let me be clear when I do this I’m being demonstrative. I’m not saying the Bible is about less. It is Jesus saying the Bible is about me. This isn’t the first time he has said this. In John 5 he is fussing at the Pharisees. He says to them in verse 39, “You search the scriptures because you think they give you eternal life but the scriptures point to me.” The Jews were weighed down in rule keeping, code interpretation. Do this, don’t do that. What’s the proper way? And he is like, guys, you’ve made a mistake. You’ve turned the scriptures into what you think is the source of life. The scriptures point to me. The Pharisees didn’t like this. Few verses later he says to them, “You believe in Moses,” but in verse 46 he says, “If you really believed in Moses, you would believe me because Moses wrote about me.”
What we see on the road to Emmaus, what we see in Jesus earlier teaching is a radical departure from everything that’s gone before. If you do not understand Jesus as the son of God, he is a crazy heretic because he is saying that from Genesis all the way through Malachi, the primary subject of the scriptures is himself. And he teaches later in this chapter, he will also teach to the gathered disciples before his ascension the same thing, how scripture is about him. How in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God and that there was nothing made except through him, how he appeared with Abram at the oaks of Mamre and promised a child, how we wrestled at the fort of the Jabbok with Jacob, me, me, me.
Again, it makes beautiful and life-changing sense if we believe Jesus is the son of God. But to the Jews it was a little troubling. All scripture points to me. Jesus is telling us that the Bible is fundamentally the testimony and teaching that points to the father’s son Jesus. Now, why is this helpful for us to remember as we are trapped in our own experience? Tim Keller puts it this way. He says, “There are two ways to read the Bible. The one way to read the Bible is that it’s basically about you, what you have to do in order to be right with God, in which case you’ll never have assurance certain hope because you’ll always know that you’re not quite living up, you’ll never be sure about that future.
Or you can read the Bible as all about Jesus. And then every single thing is not about what you must do in order to make yourself right with God, but what he has done to make you absolutely right with God.” And Jesus Christ is saying, unless you can read the Bible right, unless you can understand salvation by grace, you’ll never have a sure and certain hope. But once you understand it’s all about me, Jesus Christ, then you can know that you have peace. You can know that you have your future guaranteed and you can face anything. That is what Jesus is giving to Cleopas and his companions as they walk along. It’s what he offers us today. It is something that can provide us an anchor in the midst of our changing moods and experiences because the truth is as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:10, “All of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding yes and through Christ our amen ascends to God in his glory.” We need to discover how to read the Bible with christological eyes.
That 5 cent word is just meant to say that what Jesus says is true. The scriptures point to him. Well, they’re getting somewhere but they’re not there yet obviously because they keep walking along and when Jesus decides to move on, they say, well, this guy’s interesting. Don’t go any further, come in and eat with us. And he does. And it is in the breaking of the bread that he is recognized, the breaking of the bread. If the way we are to go forward free from our experience is free with strength in the midst of difficulty has to do with how we read the Bible. It also has to do with how we break the bread. From the earliest days from holy Thursday on as we see today in the Acts 2 reading, it is the sacrament of the Lord’s supper that reveals Jesus to us. The early Christian apologist St. Justin writes this way in 155 AD. “We do not receive these things as common bread or common drink, but as Jesus Christ our savior, being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation.”
So also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes to him, comes from him, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. Well now it gets really confusing. I mean, Jesus has kind of messed up the way we read the Bible. Now he’s messing up our common sense. Bread and wine that are the body and blood of Jesus. I was teaching first communion class to some young people in one of my parishes, and part of how I did that is I took unconsecrated elements (the things that had not been blessed) and let them literally play with them so that they could have a little bit of familiarity with what was going to happen for them.
And it was tied with the teaching about what we believe about the sacrament. And one little kid’s looking at that classic wafer said, “It’s easier for me to believe that this is Jesus than to believe it’s really bread.” But that’s contrary to us, isn’t it? One of the great mysteries of the faith it’s been fought about for 2000 years. Is this nature? Is this really Jesus? And what this is me in this case? Is it symbolic? Is it literal? Is it physical? Is it spiritual? Well, those are wonderful arguments to have. I used to teach them in my seminary, but they’re utterly irrelevant for the proclamation of the words, so we’re going to set those all aside. What’s relevant here is simple enough, simply enough said in our Anglican catechism to be a Christian. It says simply without elaboration, terribly unsatisfying in that regard. It just says, “The body and blood of Christ, which are truly taken and received in the Lord’s Supper by faith.”
The body and blood of Christ truly received. Now, again, I’m welcome… I was an academic. I’ll be happy to sit down with you for hours over coffee and we can debate what truly received means or what is means. That’s fine. But what we get is this. It’s not just a memorial. It’s not just something we do out of obedience, with all due respect to our Christian brothers and sisters who understand the sacrament that way. Now what we understand is that we do not only recognize Jesus in the broken body and in the poured out blood, but that in some mystical way we receive him, we become in Christ and he becomes in us, and again it is a liberation from our experience and our moods. Firm anchor. The firm anchor of the word read about Jesus, the firm anchor of bread and wine poured out faithfully, received faithfully as the body and blood of Jesus. Well, this and perhaps the fact that he disappears, that’s pretty impressive.
This is what finally wakes them up and causes them to turn their road of disappointment into a road of joy and they rush back home with news, news, news of how to read the Bible, news of what the breaking of the bread can do for us only to find that when they arrive the news isn’t news. Because they already know. See, he’s been doing the same thing there too, but that drives home the third point of the early rule of life and that is that Christianity cannot be successfully lived as an individual endeavor. You see, when their eyes were open, when they had the best news, oh, they also had somewhere to go. One of the great tragedies of modern life, one of the great tragedies post COVID is that so many Christians have either by their own choice or by the circumstances of the world right now, nowhere to go with the good news, nowhere to go for the good news. We understand it at a human level. When I asked Kate to marry me and she said yes, what was the first thing I wanted to do? Tell somebody.
When Isaiah was born on Thursday, what was the first thing I wanted to do? Show somebody. News, good news is only powerful if it’s grounded in the community. Otherwise, it’s just some abstract fact, some bit of tribute and one of the hardest things in our modern life as Christians is this and I’m not talking about people who aren’t Christians. I’m talking about you and me who are practicing Christians. One of the hardest things is it’s all too easy to say, well, I’ll just watch a video. I can get a book online and let me be clear, those things aren’t bad. I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is they’re not a substitute for community, and yet it’s precisely what we do, isn’t it? I know I’m guilty of it. The news, the good news, the gospel finds its fruition here. Look what we have. We have the word, we have the sacrament, and we have the place in which to celebrate the news and to support each other. One of my friends from high school on finding out that I became a pastor said, “Oh, you must really like church.”
Now I’ve been a priest for 28 years, so I answered honestly. I said, no, I don’t like church much at all, but I need it. May I humbly say to you, humbly, because I’m not meaning any judgment, this world’s hard now. COVID got us out of the habit. You need to be here, not because God will love you less if you don’t. If you hear that, just forget what I said because that’s not true. You need to be here because you need to be here. It was not a question for the men on the road to Emmaus. Wow, this great things happened, what should we do? We’ll make a podcast? No. Well, maybe we’ll sleep here. Maybe we’ll go on to a Emmaus. No good news brings you together with your sisters and brothers born not of blood, but of baptism because this is the third anchor that protects us from context and the whims of our emotions.
I had a kind of rough week and when it was unclear to me on the late hours of Sunday night and the early hours of Monday morning what Kate’s future would be, what the nature of my new family would be. What helped me was not a book from a top-selling Christian author or a 10 session video course on how to be a more effective Christian dad. What helped me was that there were people, real flesh and blood people, some in here, some in other churches I’ve landed in, some in Africa, but people with whom I have gathered around the good news of the Bible, gathered around the good news of the table, gathered who could carry me when I couldn’t carry myself? Our Christian discipleship is falling apart, isn’t it, in this world? It’s true. We don’t need to hide it. We’re at least trying, but something’s not working, right. The apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers, we can disagree on a lot of points of doctrine.
We can have different opinions about how much water goes on a baby versus an adult, but the fact of the matter is we need some things. We need to read the Bible, rightly. Rightly, not as a code book that we use to batter ourselves or other people with, but as the book that points to him who is the answer. And we need to feed on that him because as he desires to be our food and above all we need to be together. I joke, but you get the joke. The reason it’s funny is it’s true. After 28 years in the church, it’s hard, man. I carry a lot of hurt that has been done to me by the church and there are enough of us here that I know I’m not the only one. The church full of hypocrisy. The church full of misconduct, the church full of things that aren’t hypocrisy or misconduct, but just hurt feelings and people who want to be a little too bossy or people who don’t agree with me or people like this, please don’t fight the church.
Let me tell you something else, it’s also only that’s full of Jesus. We have to be together and so that’s the great message today. It’s no great message. It’s reminding you of what you already knew, that the context that will keep the roads to our life, whether the road to Emmaus, the road to Pellissippi Parkway, any road, the context that will keep us on an even keel is not what they’re saying on the television news. It’s not what they’re saying in the newspapers. It’s not what I ate for breakfast or whether my wife and I had a good morning or a fight. It’s not how I feel about the weather or about the state of the war in Ukraine. It’s not any of that, it’s the good news, it doesn’t change. And in my intentional practice of orienting my life back to that, every time I get off, back to the Bible who reveals Jesus, back to Jesus himself, feeding me.
Back to you guys. That’s the rule of life. It’s not rocket science, it’s just that we don’t really do it. It was enough to transform the people who were in on the road to Emmaus and they ran back at night. If you go further in the story, Jesus appears in the room and he does the same thing. He teaches them about scripture, but then he says what? Peace be with you. I don’t know about you, but whether it was a good day going down Pellissippi Parkway or a bad one, I always need peace of Jesus and I still do. To go even a little further, you’ll see that this is the last thing he does before he goes out to Bethany in ascendance. He’s saying, “Live this way.” Scripture, sacrament, community, you’ll be okay. Well, the Bible likes to say, “And lo, I am with you always.”. I prefer to say you’ll be okay because to Jesus, paradoxically no matter how we feel about it, we are, we are okay.